A Second Migration

Gloria Hernandez, 38, moved from Arlington to Prince William County last year.
Gloria Hernandez, 38, moved from Arlington to Prince William County last year. "I want to go back there, but I can't afford the rent," she said. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

When she was growing up in Arlington, Silvia Gutierrez remembers, there were fiestas nearly every weekend in Four Mile Run Park, where radios would blast salsa, people would merengue right on the grass and the air would be fragrant with the aromas of pupusas and other fare.

But those days seem to have disappeared along with her old girlfriends, who moved to Woodbridge and Manassas. "It's not like it was back in the day," said Gutierrez, 22, sitting outside her apartment mulling a move of her own while her little girl, Mireya, played on the grass. "It's a little bit lonely."

For decades, Arlington County was one of the first stops for newly arrived immigrants in the Washington area, forging the county's reputation as a diverse, welcoming community. In the 1980s and 1990s, with its cheap housing and proximity to downtown Washington, Arlington became a magnet for Latinos, especially Salvadorans fleeing their country's violent civil war.

But now, to escape rising rents and evictions caused by redevelopment, hundreds of Latinos are giving up on the county, and some newer immigrants are bypassing it altogether for exurban locales and communities as far away as Culpeper.

Census figures back that up. Although Hispanic populations in communities around the Capital Beltway have increased dramatically in the past five years, Arlington's Latino community is down 11 percent.

"Housing is at very high prices, and it makes it challenging for families to have space," said County Board Vice Chairman Walter Tejada (D), one of the few Latino elected officials in Virginia. "So a new Arlington is evolving in Woodbridge and Manassas and other parts of the Washington region, mainly in Northern Virginia."

A new identity is forming in Arlington as well, this one with less of the Latino presence that residents and officials have embraced.

Some Latino companies have seen business drop as much as 40 percent in the past few years. A community center closed its after-school program because of lack of interest. Waiting lists for adult English classes are a quarter of what they once were.

And Feb. 1, the Arlington County School Board appointed a committee to examine redrawing school boundaries -- in part because enrollments have dropped in the south end of the county, home to many Latino families, and risen elsewhere.

Although many residents such as Gutierrez say they feel the loss keenly, Arlington officials -- who have long prided themselves on the community's multicultural flair -- have sought to discourage the notion that the county is growing whiter and smaller.

County Manager Ron Carlee said he believes the Latino population in the county is underreported and cites other surveys that show the rate of Latino movement is holding steady or declining at a less precipitous pace.

In addition, the county has moved aggressively in the past two years to challenge the U.S. Census on Arlington's overall population numbers, which showed the number of people has dropped. The county won that battle twice; Arlington officially has a population around 199,000.

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