Walking tours highlight shrinking D.C. Latino neighborhoods
By Isabel Fajardo – December 2019
Gentrification is making it almost impossible to find authentic Latin culture in D.C. One group is harnessing the power of the local Latino community to preserve its rich history.
Hola Cultura, a nonprofit Latino cultural magazine, has been conducting walking tours of Washington D.C.’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods — the same areas where gentrification is hitting hardest.
The publication recently completed a murals bus tour for youth working for the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs as part of the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (MBSYEP).
Christine MacDonald, who founded Hola Cultura in 2011, says she began offering tours in 2018 as the organization was looking for ways to “liberate stories from our online archives and share them more widely with the public.”
“We find people really enjoy learning about local history while walking the same streets where it was made,” she said.
Each summer, Hola Cultura recruits from the youth employment program to research and report on the history of Latinos in Northwest D.C. These young people also serve as bilingual tour guides around the area, pinpointing specific establishments and infrastructure in the midst of change.
The route of the walking tours extends from Mount Pleasant to the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Due to the rapid nature of gentrification, last summer‘s tours look slightly different than one given just months later, with the development of yet another luxury condominium building. Although much of the tour highlights changes, the presence of the remaining Latino community is apparent, like the newsstands for a Latin American newspaper.
Studies show that gentrification has become a threat to public health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “displacement has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations, including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.” Although there are health benefits for new residents to reap, those who are pushed out suffer limited access to healthy food options, quality schools, and public transportation, among other effects.
In the 1970s, Latinos began to become more visible in Northwest D.C. as South American refugees fleeing coups and brutal wars back home arrived en masse.
As part of their research through MBSYEP, students interviewed Latino seniors at Vida Senior Centers in Adams Morgan. Many interviewees commented on how the neighborhood has changed. They said their memories of the resonant and spirited arts scene are fading away. Cumbia, Bachata, Salsa and other types of Latin American music play from the speakers as remnants of what once was — both in the neighborhood and in their home countries.
The younger Latino community is not in Northwest D.C. anymore.
Between New York, Los Angeles and D.C. — three cities undergoing considerable gentrification — D.C. officially ranks highest in “intensity of gentrification.” Residents have been forced to leave neighborhoods they once called home due to high rent and property prices. Barry Farms in Anacostia, and even Prince George’s County, Maryland, are among the neighborhoods that absorbed displaced residents, as well as much of the vibrancy that Latino culture has to offer.
MacDonald and many of those involved in the D.C. Latino arts scene agree that the role of murals in Hola Cultura‘s ongoing projects is of vital importance. The murals are a form of both self-expression and resistance throughout the difficult eras of Latin American history.
The Unity Mural, for example, represents the influx of Central Americans to D.C. in the 1980s due to strife back home. If you take a short stroll down Columbia Road, the bright hues of murals painted by Latino artists will scenically remind you of such times.
As each tour concludes, Hola Cultura volunteers sell postcards and T-shirts designed by intern Yanci Flores in the style of the Unity Mural, the last stop of the walking tour painted by youth from the famous Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in the 1980s. One of those youth, as seen on the mural’s nameplate, was Enrique “Quique” Aviles. He is the teen program leader at GALA, a local Hispanic theater that is another example of the dwindling Latin presence in the area.
The walking tour script will soon change again. Pepco, the owner of the building that hosts the Unity mural, has decided to destroy it in 2022. A petition was formed to stop its destruction, but after the interns met with Pepco CEO David Velasquez in 2018, it seemed as though saving it was not even on the table for consideration.
There are some newer murals in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, but they usually have little to no cultural significance. As muralism has changed in the past few decades, “street art nowadays is less likely to advance an activist cause, and more likely to be used as an advertisement,” Hola Cultura tour guides explain, citing the corporate-funded “Shop Small” mural off 18th street to promote small businesses.
Log onto the Hola Cultura website and you will find around 1,000 original articles, videos, online maps and other posts. These include interviews with local Latino artists, oral histories with neighborhood residents and special issues and topics. These include Latino settlement patterns in greater Washington over the last half-century, interviews with indigenous language speakers, community connections linking art and activism, recipes for Latin American foods and gentrification — an effort to spread and maintain the rich arts and culture the Latino community still has to offer D.C. and beyond.
Although the website is a small corner of the internet, the impact of the Latino community on D.C. history is – like most things in this city – monumental.
Fajardo is a freshman at Pomona College and served as an intern for Hola Cultura from June 2018 to August 2019.