front page - search - community 

A growing community

Latinos still struggle to overcome barriers in D.C.

(Published July 15, 2002)


Staff Writer

Dozens of corner street lamps and telephone poles in Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan bear the slogan for Ward 1 City Councilman Jim Graham’s re-election campaign – "Unity and Progress."

Far from the typical election-year platitude, the theme for his posters was carefully chosen in light of the ward’s growing number of Latino residents. Not only is the phrase printed in both English and Spanish, but according to Graham, it’s also a well-known political battle cry throughout Latin America – a region from which immigrants have flocked to the District during the last decade.

These immigrants who make it to Washington are often forced to live in overcrowded apartments and survive on low-paying jobs that no one else wants, said Kristina Roy of the Washington-based Council of Latino Agencies. Though some of them are well-educated professionals, the majority come to the city with little or no English skills and limited job training, she said.

Last year, Roy conducted a study of the 2000 Census showing that language is a major stumbling block for many Latinos in the District. While 70 percent of residents from age 5 to 17 speak English with relative fluency, that number decreased to 45 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 64, the study said. As many as 15 percent in that age bracket speak no English at all. Consequently, Graham said that English language training needs to be expanded, not only in Washington but nationwide.

"I think we need more bilingual education, because this country is becoming bilingual," he said.

Graham said many of his constituents consider Spanish to be their primary language. Last year, the council subcommittee he chairs held a televised hearing on the subject, the first of its kind to be broadcast simultaneously in Spanish and English.

"It really was a symbolic effort to remind ourselves that a lot of people in Ward 1 and in the city don’t speak English," he said.

Graham pointed to the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, an institution that assists non-English speaking D.C. residents with language training, as an example of the services the city should be providing for incoming Latinos. Around 75 percent of the roughly 1,500 students at the center last year were Latinos, said Anna-Maria Nuevo, the school’s assistant director. Nuevo said the center is by far the largest of its kind in the District, though it’s not the only one.

"A lot of smaller churches and community organizations provide similar educational services, but one of the assets of our school is that we provide them on a larger scale," she said.

The school offers three 13-week sessions per year with classes to help students obtain English skills, job training and high-school equivalency diplomas for a $10 registration fee per session. Nuevo said that Latino immigrants who complete the program are often able to find better jobs and improve their access to services within the community.

"I see students that make it, going from chopping vegetables in the back of a restaurant to becoming hosts and managers in restaurants," she said.

Language problems have affected the relationship between the Metropolitan Police Department and the Latino community as well. In 1991, a police shooting of an unarmed Latino man sparked a riot in Mount Pleasant. Critics of the incident argued that the police were unable to communicate with the man, who spoke no English. The riot precipitated calls for more bilingual officers in the department.

MPD recently announced a plan to recruit at least 60 police officers from Puerto Rico in an effort to narrow the communication gap between Latinos and the department. Burt Ennis, MPD’s director of human resources, said the plan is a necessary first step in addressing the issue, even though some critics argued that it might dissuade immigrants from learning English.

"The fact that we have a large Latino community here is because no one said ‘You have to speak English or you can’t come in,’" Ennis said. "It’s not a matter of catering or pandering, it’s just the reality."

Others, like Roy, said the plan overlooks the cultural disparities that exist within the circle of Latino immigrants. Latinos from different countries in Latin America have been known to harbor ethnic rivalries, she said. The majority of Latinos who come to the District are from El Salvador and wouldn’t necessarily relate to police officers from Puerto Rico, simply because they’re Spanish-speaking, she said.

Josh Gibson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 1C, said there are plenty of potential bilingual recruits within the District that MPD should be focusing on, rather than pursuing outside candidates who lack an understanding of the District’s culture.

"There are certain resources already here in the community," Gibson said. "You wouldn’t go to New York to find more museums and you don’t necessarily need to go to Puerto Rico to find quality Spanish-speaking police officers."

The growth of the Latino population in Washington has been an issue since the 2000 Census data was released last year. The statistics confirmed that the number of Latinos had increased by more than 37 percent since 1990. The nearly 45,000 Latinos estimated to be living in the District make up 7 percent of the city’s residents, and the figure could reach as high as 70,000 by 2010, according to the study by the Council of Latino Agencies.

Roy said the vast majority of Latinos in Washington are immigrants who followed friends and relatives to the area in search of a better life. Many came looking for jobs, while others arrived from countries with turbulent political landscapes, seeking asylum in the city that symbolizes the democratic tradition of America, she said.

"There is an attraction, a need to arrive in a place where they can get political attention so they can become legitimate," she said.

Graham, whose ward is home to almost half of the city’s Hispanic population, said Washington holds a unique attraction for immigrants.

"You’re going to the capital of the United States – there’s a special significance to that," he said.

States with a traditionally large number of Latinos, such as California and Arizona, have been saturated to the point where blue-collar jobs that typically go to immigrants are scarce, sparking a greater flow to places like Washington, Roy said.

Because the District is the center for a large international diplomatic community, including embassies and non-governmental organizations, it requires a steady stream of people to work in the hospitality industry. Many of these jobs in hotels and restaurants are filled by Latinos, Roy said. A large number of immigrants also find employment as cooks, gardeners and cleaners, she said. These kinds of jobs allow Latinos hobbled by language barriers to make a living.

Despite the District’s 45,000 Latino residents, there are no Latino members on the D.C. City Council and only three advisory neighborhood commissioners representing 299 ANC single-member districts. One of the three commissioners, Jobi Jovanka Magana of ANC 1C, said that a lack of voter participation in the Hispanic community is a big part of the disparity in political representation.

"Many Latino people in the city are not registered to vote and if they are, you have to hunt them out," said Magana, whose parents came to the United States from El Salvador in the 1960s.

Census statistics show that only 24 percent of Latino residents are U.S. citizens, leaving the majority without the right to vote.

Christia Alou, deputy directory of the Office of Latino Affairs, said the city should attempt to give more of a voice to the Latino community by encouraging citizens and non-citizens to participate any way they can.

She also said the city has benefited greatly on a cultural level from the presence of Latinos and other immigrants.

"There are so many different kinds of people in this city and that contributes to the diversity of D.C. culture," she said. "I think it educates us all."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator