In N.Va., a Latino Community Unravels

At El Rinconcito Latino in Dale City, the lunch rush has vanished. Owner Doris Sorto says business is down 60 percent.
At El Rinconcito Latino in Dale City, the lunch rush has vanished. Owner Doris Sorto says business is down 60 percent. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

A vibrant Latino subculture built in Prince William County over more than a decade is starting to come undone in a matter of months.

With Latinos fleeing the combined effects of the construction downturn, the mortgage crisis and new local laws aimed at catching illegal immigrants, Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once-busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.

County officials who have campaigned for months to drive out illegal immigrants say they would be unhappy to see businesses suffer or legal immigrants forced out in the process.

"But I believe the benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors and a leading advocate of the new policy allowing police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other violations. "And there will continue to be . . . a thriving Latino community in the county into the future."

At least for the moment, however, to travel through Prince William's Latino enclaves is to witness scene after scene of a community's transformation.

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It was just past noon, a time when dozens of Latino construction workers used to troop into Doris Sorto's Dale City restaurant.

Yet on this recent weekday, the only occupied table was the one where Sorto, 54, sat with the restaurant's disc jockey, sipping chicken soup as she worked up the nerve to tell him she would need to let him go. She had already laid off one cook and three waitresses.

A U.S. citizen, Sorto moved to Prince William from El Salvador in 1986, opening a mini-mart in 2001 when a construction boom and cheap housing were luring Latinos to the county. As their share of the population in Prince William grew from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent, so did Sorto's ambitions.

In 2006, she opened the restaurant, naming it El Rinconcito Latino, or Little Latino Corner. By last March, Sorto was doing so well she decided to sign a 10-year, $18,000-a-month lease on a cavernous mall space where she hoped to open a Latin American-themed supermarket.

But since October, she said, business at the restaurant has dropped by 60 percent. Last month, after Sorto had spent more than $100,000 on cabinets for the new market, her banker informed her that he could no longer approve the $950,000 loan they had been finalizing.

"If things keep going this way, I don't know how I'm going to survive," said Sorto, massaging a sore arm her doctor blames on stress.

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