Langley Park Immigrants Strive For Economic Power, Defer Political Power (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Langley Park Immigrants Strive For Economic Power, Defer Political Power

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
Another community that's changed a whole lot in recent year is Langley Park in Prince George's County, Md. The area has become a thriving hub for Latinos, who constitute more than three-quarters of the population. But as Kate Sheehy tells us, translating that majority status in political power has been a challenge.

MR. WALTER RENALDO ARIAS

00:00:21
(Speaking foreign language)

MS. KATE SHEEHY

00:00:23
Walter Renaldo Arias is a Salvadoran immigrant who came to Langley Park 22 years ago. He says there weren't many Salvadorans here then. But now, Salvadoran businesses like his restaurant Emily's are everywhere.

MS. KATE SHEEHY

00:00:39
Arias says when you walk around Langley Park nearly everyone is speaking Spanish.

ARIAS

00:00:43
(Through interpreter) Our culture is very complicated. People don't put a lot of effort in trying to assimilate to the culture of the U.S.A. So they have their own place here.

SHEEHY

00:00:55
But having their own place also keeps many people from adapting to life in the U.S. And he says the long hours of work most immigrants commit to also marginalize Latino communities. Arias says he, like many immigrants, works seven days a week until sometimes three or four in the morning leaving little time for much else.

ARIAS

00:01:13
(Through interpreter) We are not prepared academically to help in the evening with homework, to go to PTA meetings. At 7:00 in the evening, almost everyone is working.

SHEEHY

00:01:26
Arias says increasing civic involvement is another big challenge for Salvadoran immigrants.

ARIAS

00:01:30
(Through interpreter) The majority of us here, when we get citizenship, almost no one votes. The only way we can we can better ourselves for people to know us is to vote, but most people don't realize that, because that is the way our culture is, very informal.

SHEEHY

00:01:48
He says Salvadorans have a beautiful culture but they just don't know how to promote it. Bill Hanna is one of those trying to reach out to the local Salvadoran community. At dinnertime on a recent summer day, he settles into a booth at one of his favorite spots, Irene's Pupuseria, just up the street from the bustling center of Langley Park.

MR. BILL HANNA

00:02:08
(Speaking foreign language)

SHEEHY

00:02:12
He orders his usual, thick corn tortillas known as Pupusas. Hanna began working in Langley Park in 1995. He chose the location for a group of his students from the University of Maryland's Urban Planning program to do research.

HANNA

00:02:26
Initially, it was discovering something about a working class and poor neighborhood and in part is was, I guess I thought that maybe I could do something that might make a difference.

SHEEHY

00:02:43
He says he saw a need to mobilize the community to have its voice heard in the local government. Hanna formed Action Langley Park in the late 1990s and began confronting problems with the school system and neglected apartment buildings. But he's struggled to get residents engaged with his efforts. He says he has gone from holding meetings monthly to just six times a year.

HANNA

00:03:03
If I were bilingual, we'd be a better organization, simple as that.

SHEEHY

00:03:08
Hanna says with few exceptions, people in the neighborhood don't show up. However, he admits it is not just the language barrier keeping people away. Dorita Escobar is the owner of La Chiquita Express, a local chain of restaurants and money changing locations.

SHEEHY

00:03:28
She says people call her la Chiquita, another word for small in Spanish, and she named her business after this affectionate nickname. She's only about four-foot-eight, but La Chiquita is a big name in Langley Park.

MS. DORITA ESCOBAR

00:03:39
(Through interpreter) I know there is a help offer in the U.S., in local governments but you have to be documented so when you don't have papers you don't have a voice.

SHEEHY

00:03:52
She says more undocumented people are getting involved in the public sphere. Still, many are afraid to be noticed. At one of Dorita's check cashing locations on Riggs Road, customers, like Juan Pineda of Honduras, wait in line to send their hard-earned money home to the families they are supporting. Many people, like Pineda, are focusing more on a few big national debates than on local issues.

MR. JUAN PINEDA

00:04:15
(Speaking foreign language)

SHEEHY

00:04:17
We want immigration reform, he says. We want Obama to fulfill his promise.

SHEEHY

00:04:23
Finishing his Pupusas at Irene's, Hanna says he does believe the needs of Langley Park are becoming more visible to city officials. In April, Prince George's County launched the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative. Langley Park is one of six neighborhoods chosen to participate in the program which will focus on many of the issues Hanna identified years ago, problems in schools, safety and access to health services. Hanna has been attending their meetings. He says he's hopeful, but skeptical.

HANNA

00:04:52
I think people seem to care about doing good but they don't have resources, mind you. They have the potential of re-allocating, but there's no new money for it.

SHEEHY

00:05:03
In the meantime, Hanna will continue do what he can. As he's getting ready to leave the restaurant, a waitress inquires about where she can take English classes and he is more than happy to help her out. I'm Kate Sheehy.

SHEIR

00:05:24
After the break, it's not a bird, it's not a plane, but it is a superhero. A real-life superhero.

STORMBRINGER

00:05:32
All of these people are just regular people who put on brightly colored spandex and they try to put an end to this thing that they can't stand.

SHEIR

00:05:40
It's coming your way on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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