Hispanics not surprised by burst of rioting in D.C.

May 12, 1991|By Peter Honey and Jacqueline Lerma | Peter Honey and Jacqueline Lerma,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Jorge Moreira came to America looking for the promised land. Instead, he says, he has found only poverty and squalor.

Shirtless and barefoot, he sits in a dingy, one-bedroom apartment overlooking Mount Pleasant Street, cradling his sister's 6-month-old baby. Through the cracked, grimy window he can see the traffic of the Northwest Washington neighborhood that has been his home for 10 months, smell the corn bread and barbecued ribs from the restaurant below, and hear the children kicking a tennis ball.

An outsider could have mistaken it for a normal Wednesday morning. But for those trying to eke out a living in the Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan areas of Washington, the tension that day was almost tangible. It glinted in the stormy faces and gestures of the young men clustered on the corners, crackled in their jeers and shouts. Wherever one looked, it seemed, there were police officers.

It had been worse the night before, when a dusk-to-dawn curfew forced people to stay indoors. On Sunday and Monday nights it was intolerable: Gangs running through the streets smashing windows of stores and restaurants, hurling bottles and rocks at police, setting cars and buses on fire; police firing tear-gas salvos until the whole neighborhood seemed choked in clouds of stinging fumes.

It was shocking, yes. But nobody who actually lived there, or who had been watching the tremendous growth of the Hispanic community the past 10 years, seemed surprised by the fact that Washington's worst riots in more than two decades erupted there last week.

"This was just the tip of the iceberg," said Adams-Morgan activist Pedro Aviles. "These people were just ventilating frustrations that have been building for many years. People here are tired of being treated like second-class citizens."

He and other activists say the roots of the problem are many, ranging from bureaucratic indifference, police brutality and gross underrepresentation in government to a host of socioeconomic disadvantages, including educational backlogs and poverty in the native countries of the new wave of immigrants, and language and cultural barriers here.

Mr. Moreira sighed. His breath smelled of wine. He would normally have been working that time of day, he said. He worked as a gardener in Virginia for $5.50 an hour. But he was too afraid to go out -- afraid of getting caught up in more riots, afraid of the curfew, afraid of being blamed for all the trouble, afraid of a lot of things.

The 28-year-old Salvadoran national said he had never been educated -- he could not even write his name -- but he had at least been able to earn a living in El Salvador, better than here.

His sister, a single mother, works as a cleaner in a neighborhood restaurant for $3.50 an hour, he said. If it weren't for her income and occasional contributions from their two Salvadoran lodgers, they would not be able to survive, he said, gesturing at the sparse furnishings. Then, of course, there was also the need to send money each month to his "viejita," his aged, widowed mother, in El Salvador.

"The only thing I got now is a job cutting grass . . . and these three fingers," he said, holding up the blackened digits of his right hand, which he had injured on the spinning blade of a power mower a few days earlier. If he could find the money to get back home to El Salvador, he would, he said.

The riots began after a policewoman shot a Hispanic man during a scuffle that broke out when she tried to arrest him for drinking in public.

"How can you imagine a macho man being arrested by a woman?" was the incredulous comment from Alex Compagnet, the Chilean-born head of a Latino community self-help group in Washington called Salud.

"It is inconceivable, and it shows how important it is for every policeman and woman to be trained in the sensitivities of Latino culture," said Mr. Compagnet.

He said Hispanics in Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant had long felt discriminated against -- particularly by the police. He had personally reported the police beating of a handcuffed Hispanic about a year ago, but nothing was done about it, he said.

Government officials and community activists say that the Hispanic population of greater Washington -- including Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland and Virginia's Fairfax County -- has mushroomed dramatically -- some say tripled -- in the last 10 years, and that it is continuing to grow rapidly.

Nobody seriously accepts the 1990 census, which found fewer than 40,000 Hispanics in the District. The number is between 70,000 and 85,000 -- 10 percent to 14 percent of the city's population -- officials and activists agree. But Hispanics account for only about 1 percent of the city government's work force.

Some 80 percent of the newcomers are Salvadoran -- an `D important factor when considering the impact, or needs, of Washington's Hispanics, said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a member of Montgomery County's elected Board of Education.

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