The 1970s and 1980s saw increased Latin American immigration to the United States, and to D.C. in particular. At the time, there was limited access to Latin American performing arts, something that Rebecca Read and Hugo Medrano sought to fix when they founded Grupo de Latinoamericanos Artistes (GALA) in 1976. They never expected, though, that GALA would take off and eventually become the National Center for the Latino Performing Arts. Their journey to becoming cultural icons in D.C. also coincided with the changing Latin American community in the District.
On August 1, 1971, as attendees walked through the brightly-colored and slightly cramped booths, the smell of freshly-made food, the sound of voices young, old, and everything in-between filled the park, and the sense that everyone here belonged followed them. The festival wasn’t as large as the ones that would follow, for sure, but what it offered to guests was overwhelming: a feeling of camaraderie and community. The vendors and many of the attendees had different accents, different cultures, and different histories, but in Kalorama Park, they all shared the joy of showcasing their countries’ traditions.
This was the Latino Festival of 1971, which would begin a long tradition of celebrating Latino culture in Washington, D.C.
Three figures with wolfish grins gather around a table, red as blood. What’s on the table? Money and houses. It’s a game of Monopoly, but the people aren’t people and the game is strictly metaphorical. This image occupies the upper right quadrant of a mural located at 1817 Adams Mill Road NW in Adams Morgan. The name of the mural is “Un Pueblo Sin Murales Es Un Pueblo Desmuralizado,” which literally translates to “A People Without Murals is a Demuralized People.” But the name in Spanish is a play on words: "A People Without Murals is a Demoralized People," emphasizing the value of public art — and artistic representation — to the community. Now over forty years old, this mural is the largest, oldest and longest-standing Latinx mural in D.C.
Angry mobs clashing with police… Looting… Flames…. It was a scene out of the 1968 riots. But this was a different time and place. The year was 1991 and D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood was boiling over.
The firestorm started at around 7pm on the evening of May 5. Angela Jewell and Girsel Del Valle, rookie cops from the Metropolitan Police Department’s 4th District, were out on patrol in the neighborhood. They approached a group of men who appeared to be drinking in public at 17th and Lamont Streets, NW. Angry words were exchanged and the men supposedly became disorderly. The officers began to make arrests.
Inspired by the new LATINO AMERICANS film, we decided to seek out a local perspective on the Latino experience in our community. With the help of the good folks at the Arlington Historical Society, I got in touch with Luis Araya, who is a Bureau Chief in the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services (public works). He immigrated to Arlington from Bolivia as a young boy in 1966, when very few Latinos lived in the county. He's worked for the county government for 40 years and he also happens to be a Director at the Historical Society. So he brings an interesting perspective on the experience of Latinos in Arlington over time. On top of all that, he's one of the most accomodating people I've ever met -- offering up not only his insights but also his family photos for our local video project.