Where We Live

A History of Welcoming Newcomers

By David Driver
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Juan Carlos Martinez and his wife, Elia, entered La Fondita Restaurant in the heart of Edmonston for lunch on a recent Saturday.

The couple sat in the back corner of the restaurant at one of the seven small, green tables, all occupied. A television played a show that counted down the top Spanish-language songs of the week.

A small sign on the wall in English read "Welcome Friends." It hung above two cacti, a nod to the rural Mexican landscape. There were also signs in Spanish, including advertisements written on iconic American Frisbees for "platanos fritos" (fried plantains) and other specialties.

Martinez, a life-long Maryland resident whose parents are from Mexico City, said he has been living in Edmonston off and on for 12 years. "It is easy. There are no problems," he said. "I like it."

La Fondita sits on Decatur Street, the main east-west artery that runs through the small inside-the-beltway Prince George's County town. Thanks to its authentic food, the restaurant is a major meeting place for immigrants and natives alike, many of whom have found in Edmonston a home they can afford.

"You can live in the D.C. region for Baltimore prices," said Adam Ortiz, the town's mayor, a New York native who went to college in Baltimore. "We attract young couples, immigrants and families buying their first homes. You have families who have been here a century and immigrants who have been here a year. In essence, we are a working-class town but providing first-class services."

Ortiz lists neighbors from Vietnam, Trinidad, El Salvador and Mexico. "A construction worker can afford a home. A lobbyist can afford a home. A professor can afford a home," he said. Single-family houses generally list for sale for less than $400,000, with an average sales price of less than $250,000 in the last year, well below other parts of the region.

Edmonston has long been a welcoming spot for newcomers. The town, founded in 1924, began when a bridge was rebuilt on Decatur Street over the northeast branch of the Anacostia River that connected the area to nearby Route 1 and Hyattsville.

Kinjori Matsudairi, the grandson of a Japanese feudal lord and a native of Pennsylvania, was the mayor of Edmonston in 1927 and again in 1943, according to the town Web site. Ortiz notes with pride that Matsudairi's second term came during World War II, when many people of Japanese descent were held in U.S. internment camps.

Construction worker Hector Duarte is one of the recent immigrants Ortiz mentioned. Duarte came to the United States from El Salvador in 1995 and lived in College Park for a while. He and his wife, Ena, bought their first home in Edmonston in 2001, a house across the street from La Fondita.

"The city here is very quiet and it is [less expensive] to own a house" than in other areas, Duarte said. "I like the house. I like everything over here."

Duarte works at construction sites in downtown Washington. He regularly leaves his home long before dawn and drives about 25 minutes to work. He is usually home by 2 p.m.

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