By Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
The Smithsonian’s Latino DC History Project tells the story of the growth of the diverse Latino community in the Nation’s Capital and its suburbs.
The region around Washington, DC is well-known for being one of the nation’s most diverse Latino communities. Becoming politically visible in the late 1960s, a coalition of different Latinos 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. The Smithsonian’s Latino DC History Project tells the story and honors the memories of the people who helped build-up the Latino community in the nation’s capital. Today, Latinos make up almost 15% of the population of Washington, DC and its surrounding suburbs.
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 first part of the 1900s.
José Gómez Sicre (1941/1941) by José Gómez Sicre, courtesy of the National Portrait GallerySmithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
Embassy staffs sometimes settled locally, and the embassies themselves provided places for socializing and celebrating culture.
Encuentros IV - Contact Zones: Workshops and Art Schools (2012) by Smithsonian American Art MuseumSmithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
Similarly, international organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank or the Organization of American States (OAS) continue to attract many professionals from Latin America, some of whom establish roots locally; they are one of the reasons that DC has such a diverse Latino community.
1960-70s: Latino Community
By the 1960s, Spanish, Cuban, and other Latino-owned markets and small businesses, as well as Spanish-language church-services, reflected the growing Latino community in the neighborhoods of Adams, Morgan, Mt. Pleasant, and Columbia Heights.
The community was a mix of immigrants and exiles from across Latin American, as well as U.S. Latinos and Puerto Ricans who had moved to Washington, DC for government work. During this period, activists and cultural workers laid the foundations for the Latino non-profit organizations that would develop in the following decades.
During this period, 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 had already began moving into inner suburbs like Silver Spring and Arlington, seeking better educational and housing options.
DC’s oldest surviving Latino mural was painted in the mid-1970s by brothers Caco and Renato Salazar, critiquing the greed of real estate speculators and highlighting 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.
1980-90s: SalvadoranImprint on the Nation’s Capital
Today, Salvadorans, both immigrant and native-born, make up about 35% of the Latino population in Washington, DC and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Although small numbers of Salvadorans were already living in DC by the 1960s, the Civil War in El Salvador (1980-1992) was a major factor driving many Salvadorans, particularly from small towns in the eastern part of the country, to DC in search of safety and opportunity.
They have played an important role in the growth of the local economy (especially as small business owners and workers in construction, restaurants, and the service industry).
Importantly, Salvadoran educators, community organizers, and artists—often working with across ethnic communities—have also contributed to the civic-empowerment of DC’s Latino community.
Diversity within Diversity
The DC suburbs, especially Arlington County and Falls Church, are home to the highest concentration of Bolivians in the United States. Small numbers of Bolivians arrived there in the late 1960s, mainly as political exiles, however most local Bolivians start their DC migration story in the 1980s—a period of hyperinflation that destabilized many Latin American economies.
Local Bolivians reflect their country’s own ethnic, regional, and linguistic differences. Some identify strongly as Native peoples and speak Aymara or other indigenous languages (almost always in addition to Spanish); others relate more to Hispanic heritage of Latin America.
Like other groups in the Latino community, different generations of immigrants reflect different political ideologies; since no community is monolithic, the experiences and traditions of the Bolivian community can be quite varied.
Shawl component of a Bolivian carnival diabladadance outfit (1975/1975) by Carlos Sánchez (Aymara), courtesy of the National Museum of the American IndianSmithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
A City of Model Latino Non-Profits
Washington, DC is a crossroads for community-builders and change agents from around the United States and across the world. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists (two groups with U.S. 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.
Pioneering Transgender Community Organizers (2017/2017) by Daniel Ramírez, courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife ArchivesSmithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
DC’s culture of public service has created a number of non-profit organizations that are national models, including CASA de Maryland, La Clínica del Pueblo, and the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.
A Magnet for Latino Researchers
Organizations like the Library of Congress, the Organization of American States, the Smithsonian, local universities, and numerous research and policy institutes, have made Washington, DC a destination for Latino researchers and scholars.
Experiencing the Festival (2011) by Smithsonian Folklife FestivalSmithsonian Latino Center (SLC)
Given its relatively small and new Latino population compared to cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, DC’s place as the nation’s capital has privileged it as the headquarters of high-profile organizations like the Unidos US (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the Pew Center for Hispanic Research, among others. Local scholars make up one of the many dynamic layers in the region’s socially, culturally, and ethnically diverse Latino community.
While the city was once the center of DC’s Latino community, now the suburbs, with their cheaper housing and better schools, are home to most of the region’s 800,000-1,000,000 Latinos. Formerly affordable neighborhoods across the city are now gentrified, with the effect of pushing many working class African American and Latino families eastward into suburban Prince George’s County in Maryland. In Virginia, a newer Mexican population now outnumbers Salvadorans. The DC area’s extremely diverse Latino community is frequently organized by social class, profession, politics, and nationality; while it can be said to be fragmented, growing numbers of locally born or raised Latinos are developing a particularly DC sense of belonging and identity. Their story that is still unfolding.
Smithsonian Latino Center
Curated and Written by Ranald Woodaman, Exhibitions and Public Programs Director, Smithsonian Latino Center
Implemented by Paola Ramirez, Digital Media Specialist, Smithsonian Latino Center