The region around Washington, DC is one of the nation’s most diverse Latino communities. Today, Latinos make up almost 15% of the population of DC and its surrounding suburbs. See how this community organized, grew, and continues to thrive.Less
On December 27, 2020, legislation passed calling for the Smithsonian to establish the National Museum of the American Latino. The new museum will be the cornerstone for visitors to learn how Latinos have contributed and continue to contribute to US art, history, culture, and science. The Smithsonian’s Latino DC History Project, one of the museum’s early initiatives, tells the story and honors the memories of the people who helped build-up the Latino community in the nation’s capital.
THE INTERNATIONAL CITY - The early history of DC's Latino community is connected to the growing numbers of embassies and international organizations established in the nation’s capital in the early 1900s. Appearing by the 1920s, Latin American embassies provided spaces and entertainment for the burgeoning Latino community. The Mexican Cultural Institute, which functions as an exhibit, lecture, and performance space, is one of the city’s most dynamic cultural venues today.
DC’s Latino community, then centered around Adams Morgan, became politically visible in the late ‘60s. Activists advocated for better access to education and services for residents. One of the legacies of this early activism is the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School; teaching English, civic engagement, and work skills, at no charge, to DC residents from around the world. Community leaders Carlos Rosario and Sonia Gutiérrez with Rep. Walter E. Fauntroy at the Latino Festival
During the ‘60s, DC’s Latino community numbered under 20,000 residents. Its residential and commercial hubs were the adjoining neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. DC public parks, including Lamont Plaza, were community venues of summer concerts and other free public programs, following the devastating riots that shook the city after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
The Latino community was a mix of immigrants and exiles from across Latin America, as well as US Latinos and Puerto Ricans who had moved to DC for government work. During the ‘60s, activists and cultural workers laid the foundations for the Latino non-profit organizations that would develop in the following decades. At the same time, some Latino families began moving into inner suburbs like Silver Spring and Arlington, seeking better educational and housing options. Outreach in Kalorama Park
Becoming politically visible in the late ‘60s, a coalition of different Latinos and Latinas began to demand fair access to education, healthcare, and housing. They also sought new avenues for cultural expression and exchange, including festivals and parades, murals, concerts, and street theater. ENLACE was DC’s first Latino LGBT organization. It operated between 1987-1994, connecting immigrant community issues like language access with LGBT rights and AIDS activism. Gathering at Malcolm X Park
DC is a crossroads for community-builders and change agents from around the US and across the world. Beginning in the late ‘60s, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists (two groups with US citizenship and access to government jobs) came together with immigrants and exiles from across Latin America to rally around issues like education, health care, housing, and legal services, often with the support of African American neighbors, or allies in the white hippie and punk communities.
In 1983 Salvadoran immigrants and US advocates founded La Clínica del Pueblo. Originally, it provided healthcare to thousands of Central Americans in the DC area. Even though they were fleeing war, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were not recognized as refugees. This limited their access to legal status, services, and support. Over the years, La Clínica has grown from a weekly clinic to a multi-site organization, ever guided by the conviction that health is a human right.
Salvadoran educators, community organizers, and artists have also contributed to the civic-empowerment of DC’s Latino community. After 1980, Salvadoran children fleeing their country’s civil war began filling DC classrooms. With tensions between Central American and African American students running high, two friends from the Duke Ellington Performing Arts High School, Quique Avilés and Michelle Banks, founded Latinegro Theater Collective to build unity and understanding between local youth.
DC’s oldest surviving Latino mural was painted in the mid-1970s by brothers Caco and Renato Salazar. The mural critiques the greed of real estate speculators and highlights the plight of working-class immigrants. While the iconic mural was restored in 2015, the expensive Adams Morgan neighborhood where it is located is no longer a hub of the Latino community.