Blocks away, a world apart: Latino immigrants shape and meet the needs of the unique Alexandria community

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Photograph by Kate Musselwhite| By Kate Musselwhite |

Arlandria is easy to miss.  The Spanish-language signs end almost as quickly as they begin after crossing over into Alexandria from Arlington on Mount Vernon Avenue.  Before you know it, you’re in the midst of typically quaint Alexandria areas like Del Ray and historic Old Town. Just blocks away, these neighborhoods seem worlds apart.

Alexandria resident Margaret Lorber, who has worked for years with the Arlandria community and the city’s schools, said many are unaware of what goes on in the neighborhood.

“You just can’t believe how many sides there are in Alexandria,” she said.

To the outsider, Arlandria might hastily be defined as the strip of nondescript Latino stores and eateries stuck between the more posh surroundings that lie beyond Glebe Road.  But, while it is a predominantly Latino community, there is more to Arlandria than a few stop lights, storefronts and tiendas.  It is a community that embodies the cultures, concerns and contradictions that so many immigrants encounter living in America.


Though the roots of Central American migration to the Washington area trace back a more than half a century, many Latino immigrants began coming to the metro area in the 1980s, fleeing Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that were overwhelmed at the time by devastating civil wars and natural disasters.  Two of these countries are still designated for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S.

According to a 2007 report, “Washington’s Latin American and Caribbean population has grown six-fold over the past 25 years,” and Latino immigrants have traditionally had much lower incomes than those of the general population.

In time, many Latino immigrants have relocated to the District’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs, including Arlandria.  2008 data shows that more than a third of the residents in the area’s zip code—which has a total population of nearly 17,000—are foreign born, coming mostly from El Salvador and Honduras.

So many come from El Salvador, in fact, that Arlandria has been nicknamed after a region there.

“Most of the people that were living here, they were from that town there, so that’s why they call it Chirilagua,” said Ena Moran, a Salvadorian who immigrated to Arlandria 20 years ago.  “Now this part of town…is just called Chirilagua, so it’s kind of famous.”

Moran said she came to the U.S., and Arlandria specifically, looking for her mother who had emigrated from El Salvador seeking better work and an education for her children.  She said many people immigrate here to reunite with their mothers or family members.

She said the Latino community in Arlandria formed and continues to grow around the commonalities shared by so many of its residents — the Spanish language and the experience of being an immigrant in a new and very different place.

Concerns and contradictions

Studies have shown that certain burdens traditionally afflict immigrants in the U.S., including language barriers, low incomes and limited access to social services.  This is no different for Arlandria’s Latino residents.

Through her work with the community, Lorber has seen the “hand-to-mouth” circumstances some of Arlandria’s immigrant families find themselves in — sometimes, she said, entire families living in one bedroom, barely scraping together rent and utilities on low-paying jobs.

“To me it’s very interesting, that probably the majority of Alexandrians just have no idea how many people live that way,” she said.

“This is a really low-income community,” said Evelin Urrutia, a native of El Salvador and the Community Organizer for Tenants and Workers United, a grass-roots organization based in Alexandria that advocates for the rights of low-income communities.

The organization’s projects and campaigns—namely around housing, education and healthcare—reflect the major social problems that affect much of the Arlandria community.

Tenants and Workers fights to maintain affordable housing in the low-income Arlandria community, a seemingly continuous battle against rising rent costs in the increasingly gentrified surrounding area.

“Things have changed so much since 1994,” Urrutia said, pointing to the rather quick development of the neighboring Del Ray area.

Tenants and Workers also promotes improvements to healthcare services for Arlandria residents, and offers programs to help reduce medical debt for the many who are uninsured.

“Insurance is so expensive,” said Moran, adding that the waiting time for an appointment at the neighborhood clinic can be as long as three months.  “It takes so long, sometimes the people get really sick…or have to go to the emergency room, but they don’t have insurance.”

The nonprofit organization also focuses on increasing awareness and communication between the Arlandria community and the public schools.  Ruth Dinzey, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, is the Education Project Organizer.  She said that challenges have lessened as schools have hired more bilingual staff members.

She said the project is also making recommendations about ways to individualize education to meet immigrant students’ needs.

[ Click to listen to an interview with Ruth Dinzey ]

While some city developments have worked to proactively integrate the low-income population—like the Four Mile Run Farmers Market that is planning to accept food stamps in future seasons—some advocates have questioned other development decisions. For instance, some suggest Arlandria’s strategic plan doesn’t fully include the immigrant and low-income community.

Regardless, Tenants and Workers United continues to draw support from the community at large, and from its own members, in its mission to help immigrants become self-sufficient in America.

“It seems to empower the community,” she said.  “We teach them how to be a part of all these systems, know their rights and improve their lives.”

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