Again, District Salvadorans Face an Impossible Choice

Photo: Andrew Lightman

In January, President Donald Trump announced that his administration plans to end temporary protected status (TPS) for the 200,000 Salvadorans who came to the United States following a series of devastating 2001 earthquakes. They now have until September 2019 to obtain a green card or leave the country, putting them and their 190,000 US-born children in limbo.

The largest groups of TPS recipients in the country, fully 32,000, live in the DC area. They constitute roughly a tenth of the region’s 300,000-strong Salvadoran community – the region’s largest immigrant group. Though applying for a renewal every 18 months reminded many TPS recipients of their precarious legal status, most have felt secure enough to build lives for themselves here: opening businesses, taking out mortgages and starting families. Though well integrated into the region’s culture and economy, the DC Salvadoran community, as its history reminds us, has always had to protest – sometimes violently – to have its needs addressed by an uncaring, when not hostile, government.

Small numbers of Salvadorans began coming to the District in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as embassy staff and members of political or cultural delegations. Their numbers, along with the city’s Latino population overall, began to grow significantly beginning in the late 1950s, spurred first by political turmoil back home and later by the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allowed for greater immigration from Latin American countries. Like other Spanish speakers, Salvadorans clustered in the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, which had been bucolic streetcar suburbs for white Washingtonians.

Women such as Rosa Lopez drove the Salvadoran immigration to DC in the 1960s and 70s. Lopez worked as a housekeeper for an American family that was posted with the US Agency for International Development in San Salvador in the 1960s. When the family returned to Washington, they brought Lopez with them, and she eventually became a permanent US resident. She settled in Mount Pleasant, and her husband Javier joined her in 1968. In the ensuing decades, 35 Lopez family members migrated to the Washington area.

Pioneering women like Lopez helped transform Mount Pleasant/Adams Morgan into the city’s unofficial barrio, with “Se habla Espanol” signs and Latino restaurants, bodegas, a churreria and other businesses peppering the commercial strips near the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road. Squeezed between mostly low-income black residents to the east and high-income white residents to the west, the community’s heterogeneous population represented nearly two dozen different countries.

In the 1980s, the Salvadoran community grew rapidly as men, women and families fled a murderous civil war fueled in part by the US, which supplied the right-wing government and its death squads with billions in military aid, training and intelligence. The Salvadoran influx doubled the city’s Latino population, which reached nearly 33,000 by 1990, and gave the DC Latino community a distinctly Salvadoran feel.

Mostly young, male and poor, the new immigrants packed into dilapidated, overcrowded apartments, emerging each day to work as busboys, janitors and construction workers. Fully half of the area’s Latinos lived in households that contained four or more people and earned less than $20,000 per year. Because many immigrants had arrived without papers documenting their legal status, they could not vote, and the city government largely ignored them. With little access to government services and concentrated in the most vulnerable segments of the economy, they were hit hard by the 1990 recession.

As unemployed Salvadoran men filled neighborhood parks to wait for work and socialize, their more established neighbors, black and white, came to see them as alien and threatening. Police officers, few of whom spoke Spanish, rousted loitering men from area parks, often becoming rough with the non-English speakers who could not understand. Tensions between the predominantly African-American police and the Salvadoran community increased dramatically.

Daniel Enrique Gomez knew these tensions well. Gomez arrived in DC from El Salvador in 1989 and secured a job washing dishes at the Georgetown Marriott. Once his shift was over, he would grab a bottle and catch up with friends at a small park at the corner of 17th and Lamont streets NW. On May 5, 1991, Gomez and three friends were thoroughly drunk when officers Angela Jewel and Griselle Del Valle cited the men for public intoxication. The men resisted arrest, and during the ensuing scuffle Jewel shot Gomez, wounding him critically.

Rumors that a black officer had shot and killed a Salvadoran man coursed through the Latino community. Crowds of angry residents gathered along Mount Pleasant Street as hundreds of police reinforcements scrambled to the scene. By nightfall, bystanders were throwing bottles and rocks at a wall of riot police. Groups of young men raged up and down the Mount Pleasant commercial strip, burning police cars, smashing windows and looting. Though frightened by the violence, many residents could not help but sympathize. “They’re standing up for their rights,” insisted Mount Pleasant resident Bea Rodriquez. “If you live here you see a lot of abuse by police.”

No one was seriously injured, and property damage was limited to the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Road commercial strips. But the riot helped inspire a new generation of Salvadoran leadership and kindled a new assertiveness that focused attention on the poor relationship between the city’s black-run government and the fast-growing Latino community. Latinos made up more than five percent of District residents but less than one percent of municipal workers, and the city bureaucracy did a poor job of providing Spanish-language services. Latino leaders demanded their fair share of city resources. Long-time community leader Beatrice Otero called for “equity and parity,” while younger activists such as Pedro Aviles of the DC Latino Civil Rights Task Force warned, “Unless these problems are addressed in a comprehensive way, we will have the danger of having similar disturbances again.”

After the riot, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon promised to open the government to the Latino community. She promised to revitalize the Office of Latino Affairs and pass reforms aimed at giving Hispanic residents a measure of power and influence in city affairs.

Yet, in a recession economy, Dixon’s initiatives faced fierce opposition. Some within the black community rejected Latino demands entirely. “If [Latinos] don’t appreciate our country, get out,” snapped Councilmember H.R. Crawford. Others sought to protect their own constituents’ interests. “I believe the Latino community is entitled to their fair share of city contracts and services, but I won’t allow that to happen at the expense of the African-American community,” asserted Councilmember William Lightfoot. Dixon’s initiatives stalled. By the end of her term, Latinos made up only 1.7 percent of city workers, many agencies still did not have translators and Latino activists picketed the District Building as the cash-strapped DC Council considered the elimination of the Office of Latino Affairs.

In the ensuing decade, the District recovered from its near bankruptcy, and the Salvadoran community continued to grow, swelled by migrants fleeing a devastating succession of economic disasters, earthquakes and gang violence. The largest influx came in 2001, when three catastrophic earthquakes killed 1,200, left 1.5 million homeless, and sent tens of thousands fleeing the country. At the behest of Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, who desperately needed the millions of dollars in remittances Salvadorans living in the United States sent home every year, the George W. Bush administration created a work permit program. Local social service organizations such as Casa de Maryland were overwhelmed by the number of people seeking help with the paperwork.

Though swelled with new immigrants, the Salvadoran community still struggled to exercise political power. Though Salvadorans represent more than one-third of the city’s Latino population, no District Salvadorans have gained elected office above the level of the advisory neighborhood commission. Only two have retained seats in the Maryland General Assembly – one each from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, where most of the region’s Salvadorans now live. Local elected officials like County Executive Rushern Baker III have raised their voices in opposition to Trump’s recent order, but they have not been able to help their constituents.

The Trump administration has justified its order by claiming that the emergency created by the 2001 earthquakes has passed. This is indeed true, yet international gangs, including MS-13, that were created in part through US immigration policy have turned El Salvador into one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The violence claims an average of 15 lives per day.

In light of that violence, many TPS recipients have told reporters that they will stay in the United States illegally. The carnage aside, many have lived here longer than they lived in El Salvador; their jobs, friends and homes are here. Their children know no other home.

The President has created for them an impossible choice: violate the law or suffer in silence. The District’s Salvadoran community has faced this choice before.

From “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital” by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, 2017. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.