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Langley Park Immigrants Strive For Economic Power, Defer Political Power

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Walter Renaldo Arias in the restaurant he owns with his sister, Emily's on University Boulevard in Langley Park.
Kate Sheehy
Walter Renaldo Arias in the restaurant he owns with his sister, Emily's on University Boulevard in Langley Park.

Walter Renaldo Arias is a Salvadoran immigrant who came to Langley Park 22 years ago. There weren't many Salvadorans here then, he says, but now, Salvadoran businesses like his restaurant, La Emilia's, are everywhere.

Arias says when you walk around Langley Park, nearly everyone is speaking Spanish. The Latino population in the area is around 77 percent, according to recent census data. Immigrants from all over Central America come here, he says, because it feels like home.

"Our culture is very complicated; people don't put a lot of effort in trying to assimilate to the culture of the U.S. So they have their own place here," says Arias.

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 3 or 4 a.m., leaving little time for much else.

"We are not prepared academically to help in the evening with homework, to go to PTA meetings," Arias says. "At 7 in the evening, almost everyone is working."

Arias says increasing civic involvement is another big challenge for Salvadoran immigrants.

"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," Arias says.

Salvadorans have a beautiful culture, but they just don't know to promote it, he says.

Bill Hanna is one of those trying to reach out to the local Salvadoran community. At dinner time 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.

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.

"Initially it was discovering something about a working class and poor neighborhood and in part, I guess I thought I could do something that might make a difference," says Hanna.

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.

"If I were bilingual, we'd be a better organization, it's as simple as that," he says. With few exceptions, people in the neighborhood don't show up. But it is not just the language barrier keeping people away, he admits.

Dorita Escobar is the owner of La Chiquita Express, a local chain of restaurants and money changing locations. 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.

"Langley Park is a very special place to me, there are many Latinos here and we feel like we're in our countries," says Escobar. She too, came to this neighborhood more than 20 years ago from El Salvador.

People seek Dorita out for advice on how to find a good doctor, and where to get a job. Besides her businesses, she has helped start a local organization that raises money to help immigrants pay for funeral costs and sending bodies back home.

More undocumented people are getting involved in the public sphere, she says, but many are afraid to be noticed.

"I know there is a lot of help offered in the U.S. and in local governments, but you have to be documented. So when you are undocumented, you don't have a voice," she says.

At one of Dorita's check cashing locations on Riggs Road, customers, such as Juan Pineda of Honduras, wait in line to send their hard-earned money home to the families they are supporting. Pineda is focused more on a few big national debates than on local issues.

"We want immigration reform," Pineda says. "We want Obama to fulfill his promise."

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: schools, safety and access to health services.

Hanna has been attending their meetings. He's hopeful, but skeptical.

"I think people seem to care about doing good, but they don't have resources, they have the potential of re-allocating, but there's no new money for it," says Hanna.

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.

[Music: "Con que Ojos (instrumental)" by Latin Band from Bachata 2010 Pistas"]

Photos: Langley Park

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