El Barrio: The Latino Neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

13Washington, DC Latin American and Caribbean immigrants to Washington have formed a very unique Latino community in this city distinguished by its multinational and intercultural character. It has now spread throughout the metropolitan area but el barrio, anchored by Mt. Pleasant Avenue, Columbia Road, and 18th Street in these two neighborhoods, con- tinues to be the heart of the community. After World War II, the establishment of Latin American embassies and interna- tional organizations in the nation’s capital generated a small, Spanish-speaking, multiethnic population in Washington.

This population grew as Washington became a world capital as well as a national one. Professional staff and domestic workers of the Spanish-speaking embassies and world organizations set up residence near present-day Adams Morgan and Mt. Pleasant. These neigh- borhoods were convenient to the many embassies situated around 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Many domes- tic workers stayed after their host employ- ers left the city. Once settled in the area, they kept contact with the home country and encouraged relatives and friends to come to Washington. This started the community-building process. Some peo- ple returned home for a while and then re-immigrated. Latin American students in area uni- versities added another significant seg- ment to the growing Spanish-speaking population. Puerto Rican and Mexican American white-collar workers came to the area in great numbers for the feder- al jobs generated by the New Deal and World War II. For the most part, students and the professional Mexican Americans kept themselves separate from the work- ing-class Latino community.

Cubans joined this mix in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a result of the Cuban revolution. In the 1960s the Spanish-speaking population began to grow rapidly. The economic hardship and political turmoil in Latin America, combined with the attraction of an alluring image of the United States, “where the streets were paved in gold,” created a flow of legal and illegal immigration to this country. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Americans El Barrio: The Latino Neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Olivia Cadaval 14 African American Heritage and Multicultural Guide came in large numbers; major immigra- tions of Central Americans followed in the 1980s.

Today, Latin American immigrants continue to come to the area but some arrive directly to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia where relatives and friends have now settled. Immigrant populations from other cities like New York and Los Angeles have also moved to the Washington Metropolitan area. Yet el barrio continues to be the heart of the community.

El Barrio

Murals on building walls, mom-and- pop grocery stores, music, jewelry, cloth- ing and all sorts of sundries shops, bak- eries, restaurants, evening clubs, and street vendors characterize el barrio. Visitors can take a walking tour or select a few spots to visit to become acquainted with el barrio. A visit to a grocery store can lead to an exploration of foods from around the world, bottled drinks of the most unusual flavors, and meat cuts tradi- tional to El Salvador and other Latin American countries. Here you can pick up free local Latino newspapers and become acquainted with local activities and cur- rent issues of interest to the community.

Are you interested in traditional healing systems and herbal and spiritual remedies? Visit the boutique-like Yemaya Botánica Changó or the more tradition- al Bótanica San Lázaro. A meal at a restaurant will not only be a culinary treat, but you will enjoy a community atmosphere and, if you are lucky, listen to roving musicians who will play favorite traditional pieces on request. If you are up to dancing there are several evening clubs, such as Habana Village, Latin Jazz Alley, or Rumba Café, which feature DJs or live Latino music. Perhaps you want to check out merengue, cumbia, salsa, or other Latino dance music at Zodiac Records.

You may want to see a play in Spanish at GALA Theater with English translation over earphones, go to a per- formance or poetry slam at DCArts Center, or attend a concert or dance sponsored by a local organization, such as Centro de Arte or La Casa del Pueblo. During certain seasons, especially Holy Week before Easter, you are bound to run into a religious procession. If you are a sports fan, you may be able to catch a soccer game at Kalorama Park, once the site for the Latino Festival, which has now moved to Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues downtown.

A Walking Tour

If you chose a walking tour, you can begin at the Dupont Circle Metro station, Q Street exit, taking the 42 Bus north on Connecticut Ave. The 42 Bus, celebrated in local poems and songs, is el barrio’s bus and an important part of life in the community. Ride the bus to the end of the terminal on Mt. Pleasant Avenue. This was the trolley car terminal, which closed in the 1950s. You can now begin the walk- ing tour down Mt. Pleasant. Stop at Heller’s at the top of the hill on your left. Once a German bakery and now owned by a local Latino leader, it continues to offer European baked goods but has now introduced the pan dulce made by its recently hired Mexican baker. Los Primos grocery store across the street was one of the first Latino busi- nesses in the area.

Check it out and compare its products with the Mt. Pleasant Grocery Store down the hill. Compare these to the grocery stores on Columbia Road, such as El Gavilán, another early store, or Izalco. Looking at their foods, you can often learn about the multinational clientele they serve. What other goods and services do they offer? Telephone calling cards and money delivery services to home coun- tries are very important. Haydee’s Restaurant, near the cor- ner with Irving Street, is a neighborhood institution where you can meet everyone from Mayor Williams and local Latino leaders to the young Latino workers who are the economic base of this communi- ty, and listen to strolling musicians on weekend evenings.

Across Irving Street from Haydee’s is Ercilia’s Restaurant, which started vending pupusas and tacos from the back of a truck. Continue past the Latino-owned car repair garage, through the park known as “Pigeon Park,” or “Parque Farabundo Martí” for the leader of the 1932 Salvadoran rural movement, and west on Columbia Road. You could make a detour to the new Latin American Youth Center just east on Columbia Road and across 16th Street, which has an exhibit on the history of the Latino community in its Latino Heritage Center. Leaving 16th Street, you are now ready to go down Columbia Road to the heart of el barrio. Store fronts and window displays on Columbia Road will offer you a glimpse of a syncretic, commercial barrio aesthetic. Notice the elegant apartment buildings that date back to the turn of the century. As you walk down the left-hand side, drop in at the Gavilán grocery store.

Amarylis is a pleasant Salvadoran family restaurant. La Churrería Madrid around the corner on Champlain Street is a Spanish restau- rant and a longtime favorite place for the local artists and musicians who started Centro de Arte in the 1970s. On the same block, Avignone Frére, once a northern Italian and now a Salvadoran restaurant, is a great stop for coffee while you read the paper. Check out the Guatemala House window display. Its owner continuously redecorates accord- ing to season and with new imports from his most recent buying trip. The Mixtec across the road is always good for a Mexican taco or tamal for lunch. Turn left and go down 18th Street.

On the left side, Omega Restaurant is a must — the best ceviche (fish cocktail) in town. Don’t miss the mural young Latin American Youth Center artists painted under muralist Jorge Somarriba’s direc- tion on the wall facing the parking lot. Remnants of another mural are on Columbia Road across Biltmore Street. You may want to have a meal at El Tamarindo, another established Salvadoran restaurant located at Florida Ave. and 18th Street, NW. Come back on 18th Street, go left on California Street back up to Columbia Road, and turn right towards 18th Street. Check the kiosk at the cor- ner of 18th and Columbia for cultural events. To conclude your tour, turn left at 18th Street where Adams Mill Road and Calvert Street start. On the wall In the alley on the right-hand side of Adams Mill is one of the earliest murals from the 1970s, depicting life in el barrio at the time. Neighbors often joined the artists after work to help paint the mural.


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