Prince George's Hispanics turn to 'Don Jorge'
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
At a concert in Langley Park featuring Guatemalan country music, the crowd is divisible by headwear, cowboy hats vs. baseball caps. Older immigrants wear the ranch garb of rural Central America; younger ones, the Terps and Nike caps common in suburban Washington.
At the edge of the two-stepping audience, one man stands hatless. Immigrants of all ages approach Jorge Sactic-España to shake hands and pass a few words of Spanish with the man they call Don Jorge or, sometimes, Mayor.
An older man in a white, wide-brimmed hat checks in with the don (a Spanish honorific showing great respect) about an ongoing dispute between Latino store owners and managers of La Union Mall, where the concert is taking place. A younger man (blue N.Y.C. cap) asks if he knows of any construction or painting jobs. A woman in jeans with a bare midriff seeks help with a fundraiser for hungry children in Guatemala.
Dispensing aid and advice is routine for Sactic, although he is no elected official. He owns a bakery.
His Chapina Bakery is a popular gathering spot in the two-story shopping center, the epicenter of the large Hispanic enclave in this part of Prince George's County. Sactic's cachitos and gallinitas are known as the most authentic Latin American sweet buns around.
But it's his standing as a onetime illegal immigrant who has mastered life in the United States that makes him a bridge between newcomers and old-timers, Latinos and gringos -- the unofficial mayor of La Union Mall.
"Some people call me that," Sactic, 48, says with a dismissive wave. His nearly fluent English rises over the accordion music of Paco Pinado, a singer flown in from Guatemala to croon country ballads for homesick compatriots. "To me, it's just a matter of helping whoever I can. I see the value in all of us working together. This is in my nature."
What makes Sactic stand out from other immigrants-made-good is his continuing devotion to the neediest members of the diaspora, say those who have worked with him.
"Once they get their paperwork and a profession, their focus usually becomes more inward, toward their career, their children," says Amanda Martin, director of the Washington-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. Her group regularly calls on Sactic to host meetings at the bakery. "That's why it's incredible that Jorge is still so engaged. He is the cement between the bricks in that world."
Sactic, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002, represents a crucial character in the story of immigrant enclaves such as Langley Park, says Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor of public policy at Duke University and an expert on assimilation. As the rare immigrant comfortable in both worlds, Sactic acts as a "cultural concierge," he says.
"We have examples throughout the history of the country of people like this who have taken it upon themselves to serve as conduits of information," Vigdor said. "They find answers for the newcomers."
'Known to everyone'
With the campesino tunes still filling the mall, Sactic retreats to the tiny bakery office to do paperwork through the night.