Hispanics in Washington are the most affluent in the nation

Charles Vela is a Salvadoran-born research engineer who runs his own consulting company.
Charles Vela is a Salvadoran-born research engineer who runs his own consulting company. (The Washington Post - Bill O'Leary)
By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:08 AM

The Washington region, with the most affluent and one of the most highly educated Hispanic communities in the nation, has lots of people like Charles Vela.

A Salvadoran-born research engineer who runs his own consulting company, Expertech Solutions, Vela came Washington to work on a National Academy of Sciences brain-mapping project. He stayed to develop new ways for the IRS to handle tax returns, for the State Department to detect fraudulent visa applications and for NASA to operate its space telescope.

Now Vela earns a six-figure income, and he and his family live in Potomac, where he said he moved partly to give the children he mentors a taste of the affluence that a science career can bring.

"I want them to want to live in Potomac," he said.

The Washington area has been a magnet for educated Hispanics for decades. Now, new figures from the Census Bureau illustrate how exceptional they are. The region's 700,000 Hispanics have a median household income of nearly $61,000 - the highest in the country among Latinos. One in four Hispanic adults here has at least a four-year college degree, almost double the national rate for Latinos.

The statistics reflect both the unique characteristics of the region and of the Hispanics who are drawn here.

Many were part of an educated elite in their native countries when they immigrated here in the 1960s, '70s and '80s on the heels of political unrest and natural disasters. The nation's capital - with its embassies and its abundance of professional jobs in government, the law, international institutions and nonprofit organizations - was a natural fit.

"What attracts other highly educated folks here attracts highly educated Latinos," said Vela, who came to the United States from El Salvador as a child and has advanced degrees from California State University and the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It's opportunities."

To be sure, many Hispanics in the region do not share the opportunities. About 12 percent live below the poverty level. And the number of Hispanic adults who have less than a ninth-grade education is about the same as the number with college and advanced degrees.

Demographers and community leaders say the Hispanic community here is more diverse than in other cities.

According to census statistics, people from Central America or their descendants make up almost half the Hispanics in the region. The biggest share, about 230,000, comes from El Salvador. In addition, there are almost 100,000 who trace their heritage to Mexico, about 50,000 each from Puerto Rico and Guatemala, and more than 40,000 each from Peru and Bolivia.

"There's a big difference between Latinos who reside in Maryland from the rest of the Latino population in the U.S.," said Jessy Mejia of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "You have a higher percentage of Latinos in Maryland who are citizens or legal residents, who are studying here, getting not just bachelor's but master's degrees."

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