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La Clinica Del Pueblo Marks Thirty Years In D.C.

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Catalina Sol is chief programs officer at La Clínica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights.
Jacob Fenston
Catalina Sol is chief programs officer at La Clínica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights.

In the early '80s, Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant were changing. Thousands of refugees from the civil war in El Salvador were pouring into these neighborhoods in the middle of Washington, D.C. But because of Cold War politics, the U.S. government didn't recognize Salvadorans as refugees, and without legal status they lacked access to basic services. Now, decades later, an organization that stepped into that void to provide free health care is celebrating its 30th birthday. Today, La Clínica serves 8,000 patients annually. Most are immigrants, and more than 40 percent have no health insurance. Salvadorans still make up the largest group of Latinos in D.C., but the clinic has changed a lot since 1983 and so has the city. Metro Connection's Jacob Fenston paid a visit to La Clínica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights, and spoke with chief programs officer, Catalina Sol. She has been at La Clínica since 1991. Like many, she moved to the D.C. area from El Salvador in the 1980s.

What was Washington, D.C. like for immigrants in the 1980s?

"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. But not a city that had ever experienced so many Latinos from a particular place. So, unfortunately, I'd have to say, many people that 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. That was a decade to be survived."

What was La Clínica like when you started working here?

"We were in a different building. 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 midnight, one in the morning, with the volunteer residents that we had. But it was a place that 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, '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."

How has the population of patients you served changed over the past 30 years?

"Our community includes people that were adults at the time the war began, the children and adolescents who were fleeing military conscription, or 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, we have a whole generation of people who were children or 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?

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 in our life. And the community continues to represent that mix of people who have been here 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."


[Music: "Mad World" by Sungha Jung from Guitar Prodigy]

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