DC Hispanic History Month Talk

Tuesday, September 28, 2021 By: Monica M Smith

Today, I would like to honor Hispanic Heritage Month [September 15-October 15] with a brief overview of the history of Latin Americans in Washington, DC.
For national context, according to the Pew Research Center, “all 50 states and the District of Columbia have seen growth in their Hispanic populations since 2010.The U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.1 million in 2020…a 23% increase in the Hispanic population [that] was faster than the nation’s growth rate (+7), but a slower increase than in the Asian population (+36%). In 2020, Hispanics made up nearly one-in-five people in the U.S. (19%)... Four-in-five Hispanics/Latinos are U.S. citizens. This includes people born in the U.S. and its territories (including Puerto Rico), people born abroad to American parents, and immigrants who have become naturalized citizens.
According to the U.S. 2020 Census report, Washington, DC's population is listed as 689,545, a 14.6% increase since 2010, representing the 7th highest growth rate in the nation. People who define themselves as “Hispanic/Latino” comprise about 12% of DC's population. I will use the term “Latino(s)” for simplicity rather than Latina or Latinx, especially since the latter term is controversial within the community.
In the nation’s capital, the Latino presence became more visible during and after World War II, when the federal government grew dramatically in size and influence. The city became crowded with embassies and international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States. Political turmoil in Latin America—particularly in Cuba and the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—plus economic and political changes in the U.S. starting in the 1960s, contributed to significant new Latin American immigration here, including Washington, DC.
The district has a very diverse Hispanic population. The largest ancestry group of Hispanics are of Salvadoran descent (about 25%), followed by Dominican, Mexican, and Puerto Rican descent (each about 10-11%). It should be reiterated that there is no monolithic Latino identity. As stated in the Guide below listed under Resources: “For the Washingtonians who moved here—from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Panama—their nationalities and their class and race differences, not to mention their varying reasons for leaving behind their homeland, are often stronger markers of identity than commonalities of language.”
I will share a few highlights of the Latino history in this city, courtesy of the Smithsonian Latino Center:
"By the 1960s, Spanish, Cuban, and other Latino-owned markets and small businesses, as well as Spanish-language church-services, reflected the growing Latino community in the neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Mt. Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. The community was a mix of immigrants and exiles from across Latin America, as well as U.S. Latinos and Puerto Ricans who had moved to Washington, DC for government work. During this period, activists and cultural workers laid the foundations for the Latino non-profit organizations that would develop in the following decades. At the same time, some Latino families had already began moving into inner suburbs like Silver Spring and Arlington, seeking better educational and housing options."
“Today, Salvadorans, both immigrant and native-born, make up about 35% of the Latino population in Washington, DC and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Although small numbers of Salvadorans were already living in DC by the 1960s, the Civil War in El Salvador (1980-1992) was a major factor driving many Salvadorans, particularly from small towns in the eastern part of the country, to DC in search of safety and opportunity. They have played an important role in the growth of the local economy.  Importantly, Salvadoran educators, community organizers, and artists—often working across ethnic communities—have also contributed to the civic-empowerment of DC’s Latino community.”
While Bolivians comprise a minor part of the total Latino population, “The DC suburbs, especially Arlington County and Falls Church, are home to the highest concentration of Bolivians in the United States. Small numbers of Bolivians arrived there in the late 1960s, mainly as political exiles; however most local Bolivians start their DC migration story in the 1980s—a period of hyperinflation that destabilized many Latin American economies.  Local Bolivians reflect their country’s own ethnic, regional, and linguistic differences. Some identify strongly as Native peoples and speak Aymara or other indigenous languages (almost always in addition to Spanish); others relate more to Hispanic heritage of Latin America. Like other groups in the Latino community, different generations of immigrants reflect different political ideologies; since no community is monolithic, the experiences and traditions of the Bolivian community can be quite varied.”
"Washington, DC is a crossroads for community-builders and change agents from around the United States and across the world. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mexican American and Puerto Rican activists (two groups with U.S. citizenship and access to government jobs) came together with immigrants and exiles from across Latin America to rally around issues like education, health care, housing, and legal services, often with the support of African American neighbors, or allies in the white hippie and punk communities.
DC’s culture of public service has created a number of non-profit organizations that are national models, including CASA de Maryland, La Clínica del Pueblo, and the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. Organizations like the Library of Congress, the Organization of American States, the Smithsonian, local universities, and numerous research and policy institutes, have made Washington, DC a destination for Latino researchers and scholars. Given its relatively small and new Latino population compared to cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, DC’s place as the nation’s capital has privileged it as the headquarters of high-profile organizations like the Unidos US (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the Pew Center for Hispanic Research, among others. 
While the city was once the center of DC’s Latino community, now the suburbs, with their cheaper housing and better schools, are home to most of the region’s 800,000-1,000,000 Latinos. Formerly affordable neighborhoods across the city are now gentrified, with the effect of pushing many working class African American and Latino families eastward into suburban Prince George’s County in Maryland. In Virginia, a newer Mexican population now outnumbers Salvadorans. The DC area’s extremely diverse Latino community is frequently organized by social class, profession, politics, and nationality; while it can be said to be fragmented, growing numbers of locally born or raised Latinos are developing a particularly DC sense of belonging and identity. Their story that is still unfolding.”
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