In Mount Pleasant, immigrant communities ‘occupy D.C.’ their way

February 28, 2012

Arturo Griffiths is a kind of unofficial ambassador to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The African Panamanian immigrant has lived in the area almost 40 years, and he seems to be on a first-name basis with everyone — from the day laborers that stand outside the 7-Eleven to the waitresses at Dos Gringos, the local coffee shop.

“I came here during the height of the Black Power movement,” he said. “At first I had a lot of problems with language and with the African Americans here, because they didn’t understand where I was from. But little by little, we both adapted.”

Griffiths and his friends are part of what he says is a growing number of D.C. immigrants who are coming to identify with the goals of the Occupy movement, even if they don’t participate in it directly.

Rather than focusing his energy on maintaining a presence at the recently evicted camp at McPherson Square, he’s working on building a community organization, La Voz del Barrio (the Voice of the Neighborhood). The group has been meeting with existing neighborhood groups to see how they can work together to confront the problems many of them share. 

“The cost of rent is one of the greatest issues that we’re facing here,” Griffiths’s friend, Martín Iraheta, said. Iraheta, who said that his rent has nearly tripled since he first arrived in the neighborhood, learned organizing skills in the labor movement in his native El Salvador. He said he later fled the country and landed in D.C. after the leader of his union was murdered.  

“Most of us are leaving the area because it’s too expensive,” he said. “That’s why it’s necessary that every neighborhood gets together and forms its own organization.”

The struggle for equal access to education is another battle that’s being fought not only in McPherson Square, but also in rented offices tucked inside a church in Mount Pleasant. 

Sapna Pandya, an Indian American community organizer, is the director of Many Languages One Voice, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit that advocates for translation services for immigrant populations. Pandya said she’s concerned about the way private charter schools have been promoted locally while, at the same time, closures are being planned for three public schools that serve the ESL high school students she works with. 

Pandya described charter schools and the voucher system as a divide-and-conquer strategy that makes it hard to organize for improvements in the school system.  She admitted she sometimes feels frustrated when working with families that don’t look beyond short-term gain. 

“The reaction that a lot of immigrant parents have, Latino and otherwise, is, ‘I want my kid to have the best education possible.  Whether it’s a charter school or a public school, I don’t care,’ ” she said. “That’s why this kind of education is tough.” 

To address these issues, Pandya’s group has started participating in the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Assembly, another network that has sprung up over the past several months. Much in the same spirit of the Occupy movement, the Neighborhood Assembly is an open forum for neighbors to meet without imposing an agenda. While the group has only had two meetings, one of the ideas that has been percolating is an audio project to record the stories of community members. 

Pandya also notes that the assembly is taking pains to hold its meetings in English and Spanish, providing headsets and volunteer translators to facilitate discussions.  She hopes to be able to eventually pull Amharic-speaking Ethiopians and Vietnamese immigrants, who make up a smaller portion of the community, into the conversation.

At the same time these discussions are taking place, however, Griffiths and his friends say there’s a disconnect between newer community groups like theirs and more established organizations such as the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance (MPNA) and even the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN), a nonprofit founded in 1981 to help Central American refugees that were streaming into the D.C. area. 

Luis Figueroa, another member of La Voz del Barrio, said some of these institutions have gone from empowering the neighborhood to being more concerned about creating jobs for their staff and members. 

“The majority of these institutions get funds from private banks or from the government,” he said. “We want to form an organization in Mount Pleasant that’s honest and transparent and isn’t caught up in politics or religion.”

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.

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