Salvadoran-Americans are now the fourth-largest Latino group in the United States, according to 2010 census figures released Thursday.

Those whose roots extend to El Salvador, one of the smallest and densest countries in the Western Hemisphere, now number more than 1.6 million in the United States, and about 35 percent reside in California. The latest tally means that Salvadoran-Americans have surpassed Dominican-Americans in number and are swiftly gaining on Cuban-Americans.

Those who hope the higher numbers translate into the political and economic influence reached by Mexican-Americans in California and Caribbean Latinos elsewhere say they still have work to do.

"Numbers give you a certain kind of power, but of course, you have to transfer that quantity of numbers into quality," said Ramon Cardona, a Salvadoran immigrant and director of Richmond's Centro Latino Cuzcatlan. "One big advantage that Cubanos have is a lot of them came from the elite powers in Cuba, they knew how to run systems, how to run private enterprise and government institutions. In the case of Salvadorans, that was not the case. We had to forge and educate ourselves here, underground. That takes a couple generations to get the know-how and move into those kind of ranks."

The nation's 31.8 million Mexican-Americans continue to outnumber all other Latino groups, at 63 percent of the total Latino population. Following them are roughly 4.6 million Puerto Ricans, 1.8 million Cubans, 1.6 million Salvadorans, 1.4 million Dominicans and one million Guatemalans.

The fact that the nation's Salvadoran community remains smaller than its Cuban community was a surprise to some demographers tracking various surveys; they expected the Salvadoran population to be higher.

"Estimates going into the census suggested there were more Salvadorans than Cubans," said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "The census shows it's the other way around, but they are very close."

The U.S. Census Bureau has not yet released figures about the Salvadoran population and other Central American groups by cities or counties, but recent surveys show the Bay Area remains one of the nation's Salvadoran hubs.

Sonia Garcia moved to the Bay Area from El Salvador as an 8-year-old in the 1980s, and she was always one of the few Latina girls at her Dublin schools. Today, she said one can find pupusas -- the quintessential Salvadoran dish of stuffed corn tortillas -- at restaurants from Brentwood to Mountain View. Garcia's family opened their own Livermore restaurant, La Pupusa House, a few years ago.

"We're leaders by nature," she said. "We're go-getters. We're businesspeople. We survived a civil war. Coming to America is like a walk in the park."

More than 8 percent of Latinos who live in the Census Bureau's six-county San Francisco-Oakland-Vallejo metropolitan area cite El Salvador as their country of origin, behind only the Washington, D.C., and Boston areas, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center. Nationally, Salvadorans represent just 3.3 percent of the total Latino population.

One of the biggest waves of Salvadoran immigrants arrived amid the Central American country's civil war that lasted from 1980 to 1992. Unlike Cuban refugees, who were granted routine asylum if they could manage to flee the communist island nation, many Salvadorans were declared economic migrants and turned away. Cities including San Francisco and Oakland declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, especially those fleeing repression and violence in Central America who crossed the border seeking refuge.

The percentage of Salvadorans and other Central Americans who are living in the country illegally remains higher than many other Latino groups, a factor that might make them harder to count, Cardona said.

"Those who are counted do not reflect all of the numbers of Salvadorans here," Cardona said.