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2000 Annual Meeting: August 12-16, 2000

A Vibrant Latino Presence in Washington, DC

by Rose Ann M. Rentería1

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Latino migration into the Washington, DC area consists of several waves. For example, civil wars in Central American during the 1980s and 1990s pushed many Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans into the area. The Andean drought of the 1970-1980s prompted Peruvians and Bolivians to relocate, and revolutions in the Caribbean in the last 1950s and 1960s transported Cubans and Dominicans. Today, nearly 60% of Latino immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area identify themselves as Central Americans, and about 31 percent describe themselves as Salvadorans.2  Nonetheless, the Latino population remains quite diverse and the distribution of nationalities tends to vary from the rest of the nation (Table 1).

Growth of the Washington area Latino population remains an important issue. According to the U.S. Census, the Latino population in the Washington, DC-MD-VA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), has grown from 223, 067, according to the 1990 Census, to an estimated 330,544 Latinos in 1998, an increase of 48 percent (Table 2).3  In 1998, the Census estimated that 9,770 Latinos lived in Arlington County, representing over 18% of county’s total population, and between 1990 and 1998, both Montgomery County, MD, and Fairfax County, VA, had over 30,000 new Latinos residents in their respective areas (See Table 2). In particular, two localities experienced dramatic growth in the Hispanic population during the 1990s: Prince William County, VA, and Manassas City, VA, as noted in Table 2. Growth among youth in public schools has also occurred. Recently, the Washington Post reported that the City of Alexandria, VA, had more Latino students than non-Latino whites; Montgomery County, MD, had 15% Latino students, and Prince William County’s (VA) Latino student enrollment had increased by 16% in 1998.4 

In the summer of 1999, the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s School of Public Health conducted a locally representative telephone survey (in English and Spanish), which included 603 self-identified Latino adults in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, along with 309 D.C. area non-Latinos.5  The survey found that three out of four Latino adults in the area are foreign-born, most have lived in the U.S. for about 12 years, fewer than half of the area’s Latinos are U.S. citizens, and more than one third have voted in their native country since coming to the U.S. The area’s Latinos also tend to be less educated and make less money than the rest of the population in the area. The lower education levels are partially due to immigrants from Central American who arrived during the 1980s and 1990s.

The survey showed that Latinos are two times more likely than the population at large to have a family member working two jobs to make ends meet, and that Latino students have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group in many Washington area schools. In terms of language usage, 40% of the respondents said they are able to read English only a little, or not at all, and 40% said that they communicate only in Spanish. The dominance of Spanish has prompted most counties and cities to respond. Some hospitals, police departments, court systems, and public schools now actively recruit Spanish-speaking staff. In Virginia, Arlington County’s YMCA offers free classes for adult English as a second language classes. Area colleges in Maryland and Virginia do the same. However, waiting lists are often the norm. Interestingly, the survey revealed that the majority of the Washington area Latinos have favorable views of government, police, schools, and other institutions. This was true even though nearly half of the Latinos surveyed said that they or someone they know had experienced discrimination.

Community Issues

Growth issues along with the gentrification of predominately Latino neighborhoods are of particular importance to Latinos residing in Washington, D.C. The Council of Latino Agencies, formed in 1976, currently has 35 member agencies in Washington, D.C. The Council and its member agencies respond to a number of critical issues for Latinos in the District, including amnesty and immigrant rights, client’s fears of deportation, Latino leadership, housing and legal service for clients, domestic violence and ensuring an accurate Census count in 2000. In particular, the Council works closely with Latino residents in the Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, according to Cynthia Garza, the Council’s director of advocacy and community (2000). Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, according to Cynthia Garza, the Council’s director of advocacy and community relations and caseworker for the transitional housing partnership program.

In a recent interview, Ms. Garza discussed the Council’s efforts to understand and address housing issues for Latinos. Both the negative impact of little to no affordable housing and the ongoing gentrification of the Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods are critical issues for DC Latinos. Indeed, the lack of affordable housing has contributed significantly to the displacement of Latinos from DC to the Washington suburbs.

While gentrification is often viewed in positive terms, Ms. Garza explained how it negatively contributes to the rising costs for housing, causing an economic barrier for many Latinos. As Latinos rent cheaper, substandard apartments, their quality of life diminishes. Ms. Garza told of Latino tenants who refuse to pay rent in an effort to get landlord improvements but are often evicted. Other Latinos share housing with others, which tends to lead to evictions because of overcrowding. In sum, many Latinos live in precarious housing situations, which contributes to a growing pool of clients needing housing assistance, including families and single income households. According to Ms. Garza, the intersection of housing and gender is of particular importance to Latinas. As women attempt to remove themselves from family violence and secure housing, many encounter little help because the DC area seriously lacks culturally appropriate shelters for Latinas in addition to few housing options.

The Council and its member agencies continue to educate DC residents about priority issues to the District’s Latino population and to encourage active community participation at various levels. For example, the Council sponsors marches in the District and helps clients to become familiar with advisory panels for various city departments. These priority areas continue to drive much of the work accomplished on behalf of Latinos in Washington, DC area – this is especially true as the community’s needs are better understood and addressed.

Rose Ann M. Rentería, PhD, currently serves as a Senior Research Associate for the Center for Women Policy Studies, and Adjunct Faculty at Trinity College in Washington, DC.

Moreno, Sylvia, Philip P. Pan, and Scott Wilson. “Hope and Hardship. Latino Newcomers Struggle to Adapt and Excel.” Washington Post, January 23, 2000, pA01.

Wilson, Scott and Philip P. Pan. “A Diverse, Growing Population.” Washington Post, January 23, 2000, pA16.

1The terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably throughout the article.

2See Moreno, Pan, and Wilson (2000) and Wilson and Pan (2000); these articles are used to summarize 1999 survey findings and Washington area overviews.

3The U.S. Census Bureau defines the Washington, DC – MD – VA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as the District of Columbia; Maryland’s counties of Calvert, Frederick, Montgomery, and Prince George; Virginia counties of Arlington (includes Fairfax City and Falls Church), Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William (includes Manassas and Manassas Park), and Stafford; and the City of Alexandria, VA.

4See Moreno, Pan, and Wilson (2000).

  5 This particular survey defines the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area as the District of Columbia; Maryland’s counties of Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s; Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax (includes Fairfax City and Falls Church); Fauqier, Loudon, Prince William (includes Manassas and Manassas Park), and Stafford; and the City of Alexandria, VA.