By Nina Zafar and Devan Kaney
Mount Pleasant has been one of Washington, D.C.’s longtime Latino centers, but the neighborhood has changed drastically over the past 20 years.
In the 1970s Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan were recognized as the heart of the Latino community in D.C. Seemingly, in recent years as housing prices rise, many of those who came here in the 1970s and 80s are opting for Virginia and Maryland suburbs as reasonably priced alternatives.
Quique Aviles grew up between Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant and is now a one of the neighborhood’s prominent members when it comes to keeping the Latino influence alive.
“I’ve been involved in the community for 35 years, I grew up here. We don’t live here in Mount Pleasant anymore because we got basically gentrified out. It got too expensive to live here,” Aviles said. “But this is our hub; you know it’s our community.
Aviles says he’s able to maintain a presence by putting on neighborhood events that highlight the diversity in the area. For several years he, along with a few local artists, has been organizing a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration in Lamont Park every year on Nov. 1. Aviles explains that the event always starts out small. But throughout the day, passersby and residents make their way to the small park to check out the festivities.
Gabriella Lujan is one of the artists that lends her time and effort to making the event a success. Like Aviles, she was born and raised in Adams Morgan. She moved to San Francisco to pursue her art career. It wasn’t long before she made her way back to her tight-knit community in D.C. She connected with Aviles again in planning Latino events.
“It’s a community thing which I find I need,” Lujan explains. “That’s what drove me to continue to do this every year, so we could build a community and a presence.”
While Mount Pleasant has lost more than 2,000 Latinos over the past decade, the percentage of Latinos in D.C. as a whole has actually significantly increased by about 21 percent. According to the D.C. Office of Planning, the jump in the city’s Latino population is due to an increase in Latino births.
Gentrification may be happening in Mount Pleasant, but there is still a strong cohort that believe the Latino community here is actually getting stronger.
The community presence that Lujan refers to is what so many Latinos find attractive about Mount Pleasant. Andrew Gonzalez is the owner of Lezo’s Taqueria, which he recently opened in the neighborhood with his mother. The family is originally from Mexico, but has been in Mount Pleasant for more than 20 years now. He says that Virginia and Maryland don’t have the same appeal as D.C. Latino communities there are growing, but many people miss the city feel.
“Of course you know, you have everything around here, all the stores. A lot people that I know had moved out, they’ve gone to either Virginia or Maryland, now a lot of people are starting to come back.”
Gonzalez says that his family’s business is just one of many that have opened in recent years. The area has gotten safer and big businesses, such as Target, have strengthened the appeal of the area.
Edwin Donis came to Mount Pleasant from Guatemala six years ago and now works at El Progreso, an international food market on Mount Pleasant Street. He echoes Gonzalez’s view that although Virginia and Maryland may be cheaper alternatives that many people vie for, D.C. is still an attractive option, particularly for business owners.
“The Hispanic community is getting bigger now. They’re important to the economy,” he says. “Some people prefer to stay here because they have their own business. You know, Washington is multicultural so here you will find Salvadorian, Mexican, South American people so it’s very flexible to have a business for this community.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the zip code encompassing Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, 20010, is among those across the country that have seen the highest increase in white residents over the last decade, jumping by 24.7 percent. Despite this number, some Latino residents, like Lujan, Gonzalez and Donis, are confident that small businesses and community events will continue to strengthen Mount Pleasant’s reputation as a Latino hub.