Arlington Activist Pursues Quest To Lead His Salvadoran Home City

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

When Arlington activist Hugo Salinas announced his mayoral candidacy last year, he chose a hotel ballroom a block from the White House and spoke to a crowd of supporters that included some of the area's well-known Latino leaders and businessmen.

But when he took the podium, Salinas didn't announce he was running for office in the United States, which he had called home for more than 14 years. He announced he would be moving back to El Salvador and running for mayor of Intipuca, the sun-drenched city where he was born.

Since then, Salinas's candidacy has been the subject of intense scrutiny locally and in his home country.

His candidacy, observers say, will test the political power wielded by Salvadoran immigrants here, who sent more than $2.8 billion home last year and are demanding a greater say in their country's affairs. A hefty chunk of change went to Intipuca, which, thanks to this influx, is now a thoroughly Americanized town where the streets were paved with U.S. dollars.

"Basically, he's going to be representing us," said Andreas "Elmer" Arias, who is president of the U.S. Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce. "We send a lot of money home, and . . . we need a voice over there. We're investing in our home towns -- buying housing, building roads and other projects -- and we'd like to see a good mayor we can trust."

Salinas, 44, calls Intipuca a "municipal icon for migration," and the town does have a special -- some say unhealthy -- bond with the United States. So many Intipuqueños have settled in the Washington region that they have formed a hometown association -- United for Intipuca Foundation -- which has raised nearly $1 million for capital projects over the years for the city, including a $400,000 soccer stadium.

Intipuca has changed from a sleepy village into a modern city of three-story colonial brick houses. A prominent sign says brightly, in English, "Welcome to Intipuca." The streets are named for U.S. presidents and Arlington's Columbia Pike. In the early days, so many residents had new televisions and other appliances that the rudimentary electrical system was often overwhelmed, and brownouts were common.

But as the wealth arrived, some say, torpor grew. What industry there was shrank as residents gave up low-paying agricultural jobs to wait for their remittance checks.

"People pretty much spend the money they get. They don't invest it," said Salinas's younger brother Henry, a coach and Spanish teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "There's not a lot of agriculture or factories. It's a very dependent society."

Hugo Salinas, a volunteer and activist, sees it as his mission to change that. He wants to bring tourism to the town, which is just a few miles from a beach, and industry to generate jobs. He speaks of creating bilingual programs for youths and has helped produce a modern Web site for the city.

"The national press puts a lot of emphasis on my race because I'm opening up a new way, a new system for politicians in El Salvador," Salinas said. "If I win, I have an obligation to do a good job. I have a sense of responsibility" not only to the residents of Intipuca, but other immigrants living in the United States who hope to follow in his footsteps and return.

The same media have been polite about not mentioning central facts of Salinas's life, that he is gay and has HIV, that could become major political liabilities in a largely conservative and Catholic country.

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