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

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Introducing: Arlandria

Situated in Alexandria, right past the Alexandria/Arlington line, and a zip code away from some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city, is the area commonly called “Arlandria.”
While it can be pinpointed on a Google map and some may recognize the strip of stores and restaurants on Mount Vernon Avenue, which serves as its main street, many people, including those nearby, might not be aware of what—and who—makes up the Arlandria community.
The diversity and significant Latino population in the Arlandria neighborhood creates a unique intersection of class, language and culture in the inner suburbs of D.C.

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

(Photo 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.

Scenes from Arlandria…

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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.

See and hear more from Tenants and Workers United members about the organization’s health project and its impact on the community.  The project organizers hosted an event in November to celebrate Thanksgiving and inform community members of their healthcare rights and resources.

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.

Hear Ruth Dinzey, Education Project Organizer for Tenants and Workers United, talk about the challenges immigrants face in the school systems, including language barriers, suspension and difficult living situations.

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.”

Exploring the “G-word” in Ward 8

While Ward 8 has endured a culturally rich past and troubled present, the “east of the river” community is currently home to a revival of sorts – and, according to some of its residents, plenty of misperceptions as well.

By Kate Musselwhite

Gentrification: exploring the “G-word”

Gentrification. From news reports to documentaries, the term has come to encompass many of the problems and changes that affect residents in the city’s southernmost and poorest ward.

Gentrification means something to everybody — so we asked.

A community activist

According to Ward 8 resident, entrepreneur and blogger, Nikki Peele, there is a “Renaissance” going on east of the river.

Continue reading “Exploring the “G-word” in Ward 8″

A look back at Ward 8

A former convicted felon as a council member. The beginnings of new development. A proud, culturally-diverse populace. Ward 8 is the one of the District’s most historically significant areas.

By Kate Musslewhite

Welcome to the ward: At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road a panel of 8's welcomes visitors. Photo by Dan Merica
Welcome to the ward: At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road a panel of 8's welcomes visitors. Photo by Dan Merica

The poorest ward in the District, Ward 8 is the southernmost geographically and home to nearly a dozen individual neighborhoods, historic landmarks such as the Frederick Douglas National Historic Site, Barry Farm, and various other attractions.

Continue reading “A look back at Ward 8”

Marine Corps Marathon boosts morale

The Marine Corps Marathon – established in 1975 as part of the U.S. Marine Corps mission to promote physical fitness and good will in the community – will bring tens of thousands of visitors from around the country and world to the D.C. metro area this weekend.

Click below to listen to Kate Musselwhite’s report on the Oct. 31 race, one of the nation’s top, and hear from a coach and runner with the Capital Area Runners, a local running group, about what it takes to prepare for the 26.2-mile challenge.

More on Coach Buckheit and the Capital Area Runners…

More on the marathon…

“It’ll be noticeable all over town that it’s marathon weekend.” – Marc Goldman, on the upcoming race and events

  • The first year the Marine Corps Marathon offered online registration, the servers immediately crashed because of the volume of runners bidding for a race bib, said Goldman.
  • Goldman said that the Marine Corps Marathon has always attracted runners and has traditionally been a “gateway” to the sport of running.

“This event…has a great reputation.”  – Marc Goldman, on the annual Marine Corps Marathon

  • According to Goldman, the last time the race fell on Halloween was 2004.  Before that  – 1999.
  • Goldman said that many marathoners dress in costume for the race – whether or not it’s Halloween – but that he expects to see more costumed runners this year than usual.   “Regularly occurring characters” at the Marine Corps Marathon include the devil,  who specifically requests bib number 666, and Kermit the Frog.

“I imagine we’ll see a lot of Superman and who knows what else.” – Marc Goldman, on the event’s Halloween start date this year.

Art and community intersect in Southeast

The house at the top of the hill: The gallery, which founder Juanita Britton says sits "off the beaten path" in the historic Anacostia area, opened six years ago. Photo by Kate Musselwhite

The Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique is hard to miss. Campaign signs line the green chain-link fence that encloses the front yard. Fire-engine-red front steps lead up to a shiny blue porch surrounded by a bright yellow railing. Decorative mirrors and carved wooden chairs lean against the front wall, on which brightly colored geometric shapes are painted. Abstract designs wind in purples, blues and greens around the porch columns, sprawling up and across the second-story facade. An “Open” sign hangs in the front door.

Situated in the D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia, at the top of a hill where Bruce Place intersects Fort Place Southeast the house-turned-gallery is flanked on one side by nondescript brick row houses, on the other by an empty grass lot. Some weekends, in the empty lot next door, a hand-made sign touting the “Rev. Moses Tabernacle Church Yard Sale” hangs in front of an array of clothes, furniture and other miscellaneous items — including, one Saturday afternoon, a toy Tweety Bird sitting in an overstuffed chair.

“You’d think that because it’s off the beaten path, you wouldn’t have customers,” Britton said. “And why would you put a gallery in a challenged neighborhood like that?”

The locale might be unexpected, but founder Juanita Britton said the house-turned-art gallery is beginning to serve as a new landmark of sorts, both for the ethnic and cultural art it showcases, and the Anacostia intersection at which it sits.

Though she said her decision to start the gallery six years ago was challenging, she opened her extensive personal collection of international art — as well as her home — to the public when she learned that the nearby Anacostia Community Museum couldn’t afford a shop of its own.

“Everything in the gallery is done by people of color from all over the world,” said the gallery’s curator and art enthusiast, Barry Blackman. “Wherever we are as people. … We showcase the things that make up the African diaspora.”

Blackman and Britton said its artifacts also add to the gallery’s historically significant surroundings.

Anacostia’s African American roots run back hundreds of years. In post-Civil War D.C., when many recently freed blacks were left homeless or living in slum-like conditions, the Freedman’s Bureau worked discreetly with Barry’s Farm in the 1860s to build housing and support education for blacks. This planted the seed for one of the oldest communities of blacks in the nation’s capital, according to a documentary based on 2010 census data. Complaints, by both black and white Anacostia residents, about a disparate flow of government services “east of the river” trace back to this time as well.

Almost a century later in the 1950s, the black population in the area, now known as historic Anacostia, sky rocketed because of several social, economic and political factors, and many blacks in the District moved into neighborhoods abandoned by wealthier blacks and whites who left for the city’s suburbs.

According to the 2000 census, the Anacostia Art Gallery’s zip code — population at the time nearly 50,000 — was 96.5 percent black or African American, and about 32 percent of the individuals there were living below the poverty level. The latter percentage had fallen to just over 27 percent in a 2008 study by

Recent growth and development in and around the history-rich Anacostia area have drawn more visitors to the area — and, in turn, the gallery — by way of walking and biking tours of the area’s historic landmarks, like the recently restored Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Blackman said.

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Also fortuitous is the gallery’s proximity to the Anacostia Community Museum, a federally funded project of the Smithsonian.  Many of its visitors — who Blackman enthusiastically greets, asking what brought them — have just come from the exhibits down the street.  Both Blackman and Britton spoke of a certain “synergy” between the gallery and the nearby museum.

Though Blackman said the art gallery and its events do draw some neighborhood support, he added that art might not be a top priority for all of the neighborhood’s residents.

But the gallery seems to be a known fixture in the neighborhood, even if its visitors don’t always live there.

Before catching the Metrobus at the stop across the street, local residents Latarcha Massey and Eric Jones said they both knew of the art gallery but only from the outside.

“I keep meaning to drop in there, but I’ve never been,” Massey said, adding that she’s heard the owner has “a lot of nice stuff in there.”

Tomika Douglas, a first-time gallery visitor who lives in Clinton, Md., had also been meaning to drop by — for years. She remembered seeing Britton — sponge in hand — getting the front porch ready for business as she drove by on her way to and from work.

“I watched her over the years just buy different things, travel around the world … and then just leave it right here for the community,” said Douglas, who was visiting the gallery with her children. “You can be in the same community for years, and you don’t even know that you have treasure right here.”

The gallery’s eclectic mixture of handmade, international “treasure” includes wine bags from Madagascar, sculptures from Jamaica, candleholders from Ghana, tile art from Los Angeles and paintings from the District. A pair of bongos sits alongside a case displaying crystal figurines. Colorful tapestries and ceramic masks adorn the walls.

Nearly every inch of the gallery, from the front porch to the backyard, is filled with art, culture or creativity — right down to the colorfully decorated floor, and a light switch cover embellished with what looks like Egyptian drawings. Dangling from displays in the kitchen-turned-boutique are necklaces and bracelets made out of copper coils from old refrigerators by a group in Mali. Jewelry fashioned from old, repainted glass in Ghana and from beans in Peru, hangs near purses made from recycled candy wrappers.

Shelves are lined with books by or about icons like Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, Tupac Shakur, Nelson Mandela and B.B. King. The Story of the Negro League Baseball lies alongside The Adinkra Dictionary and a book about “50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50.” Music plays softly in the background.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Blackman said, of the gallery’s collection.

Outside the gallery’s walls, the beginnings of development and gentrification that are trickling into the Southeast D.C. neighborhood from across the Anacostia River are generating a great deal of debate and evoking mixed emotions.

Regardless, Britton’s passion for the image and potential of the historic Anacostia area — especially the kids living there — is evident in the various ways she’s contributed to the artistic and local community, within and beyond her gallery, for over a decade. She offers gallery tours and free art classes to low-income neighborhood children in attempts to “pique their interest in art and music and culture” — anything to keep them interested and dreaming big, she said. And her public relations and marketing firm helps small businesses build “better consumer and community relationships,” according to her website.

She said the more negative associations that may have been tied to the neighborhood in the past — “around crime, drugs, violence” — are somewhat dissipating over time.

She said: “Now people … when they say how to get up to that neighborhood, they say, ‘You know the big art gallery at the top of the hill? That’s where we live. We live over by the art gallery.’”

For more information on the Anacostia area, see some of the area’s community blogs: And Now, Anacostia, Barry Farm (Re)Mixed, River East Emerging Leaders.