MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from the Woodley Park National Zoo area to Columbia Heights. In the early 1980s Columbia Heights and its neighbor, Mount Pleasant, were in the midst of some serious change. A civil war was raging in El Salvador and thousands of Salvadorans were fleeing their country and making their way to these two neighborhoods. But here's the thing, the Cold War was on, right. And because of Cold War politics, the U.S. government didn't officially recognize Salvadorans as refugees. So without legal status they couldn't access basic services. There was one organization, however, that stepped in to fill that void by providing free health care. And now, decades later, La Clinica del Pueblo is celebrating its 30th birthday. Jacob Fenston visited La Clinica and found out just how much D.C.'s Latino community has changed over the past three decades.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Nurse Lorena Ania (sp?) is visiting with a patient named Dulce (sp?) who's having trouble seeing out of her right eye.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
La Clínica del Pueblo serves some 8,000 patients annually. Most, like Dulce, are immigrants and more than 40 percent have no health insurance. Salvadorans still make up the biggest group of Latinos in D.C., but the Latino community has changed a lot since 1983 and so has the city.
MS. CATALINA SOL
It was a black and white city, with a small Latin American community, that was made up of people who worked in the embassies and the international organizations.
Catalina Sol is the chief programs officer at La Clinica, where she first started working in 1991. Like many, she moved to the D.C. area from El Salvador in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, I'd have to say that many people who came here as children or as teenagers or as adults do not remember Washington, D.C. as being a welcoming city. They saw it as a city that did not have services for them and frequently rejected them and that was a decade to be survived, you know. In 1991, people who lived in Washington, D.C. saw perhaps the Central American community for the first time because there were riots in Mt. Pleasant after a Salvadoran man who was under the influence was shot or seemed to be shot at point-blank range by an African American police officer. And there were three days of rioting that followed as a result. And for us, at La Clinica, that was several months after I had first started working.
It was an opportunity for the first time to start speaking to other bodies, including the police. I remember interpreting for our executive director then, who was a torture victim, to the police about what the experiences of torture and war had done to our community and why this particular act had led to so much outpouring of rage. And so it wasn't a very good time for people from El Salvador and Central America.
What was La Clinica like when you started working here? I mean, you were just talking about the aftermath of the riots, but what was it like in general?
Well, we were in a different building. And it was a piece of Latin America, in all of its ways. Our clinic night was starting at four o'clock. We would register 40 people by 4:30, and then we would serve them until 12:00 midnight, 1:30 in the morning, you know, with the volunteer residents that we had. But it was a place where people could come and be greeted by someone who would recognize the name of their very small village, that might not even be on the map. And when they said, I'm from this particular place, there would be others who would know, oh, that was the site where there was a massacre in 1981. Or, you know, that was the site that had all of the bombing with white phosphorus. You know it was a place where people could identify where they came and others would know what that meant without having to explain a lot.
And it took us a long time to actually incorporate as an organization because I think that we all believed that eventually we would return, that we weren't going to stay here forever, which is, you know, the way that the immigrant experience is lived. You know, you think you're only going to be here for five years and then you'll go back home or you'll go back home when the war ends. And then, as time goes on, you realize that you belong here.
How has the population of patients that you serve changed over the past 30 years?
Our community includes now people who were adults at the time that the war began, the children and adolescents who were fleeing military conscription or who perhaps were combatants that were forced to be in the armies in the '80s. They're entering their 40s now. Yesterday one of our mental health therapists was saying, you know, we have a whole generation of people who were children and adolescents in the worst part of the war who are entering this age group. It's more likely that their post-traumatic stress disorder is going to become more active, because that tends to happen with age. Are we prepared to deal with a whole generation?
Many people are represented in our substance abuse program are of that age group, you know. Central Americans who were teenagers in the '80s and who experienced all of that disruption in their formative years. You know, many times people will say, why are you still talking about the war that ended 30 years ago. But we're living it in many, many expressions of our life. And the community continues to represent that mix of people who have been here for a very long time, and people who just got here a day ago, three days ago, six days ago. And the whole community is affected by this transformative historical period of war during the '80s that affected our whole region. And that is the mark of our immigration experience, you know, that experience of war.
That was Catalina Sol of La Clinica del Pueblo, speaking with "Metro Connection's" Jacob Fenston. La Clinica is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend.
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