It began as a school project, a way for law students at George Washington University and the Antioch School of Law to gain real-world experience. They rented a narrow storefront in Adams-Morgan and offered free legal services to the Latino immigrants who had begun to cluster in the neighborhood.
It was a place where there were always too many clients with too many problems, where idealistic students worked long hours in cramped quarters. The students called it "Ayuda para el Consumidor," or "Help for the Consumer."
Since that start in 1971, it evolved into Ayuda Inc., a nonprofit legal clinic for low-income Hispanics and immigrants that is now one of the city's enduring institutions. Last night, hundreds of lawyers, community leaders and former clients celebrated that transformation with dinner and dancing inside the grand Hall of the Americas at the Organization of American States building.
"I think it's obvious that we're here to stay," said Yvonne Martinez Vega, who joined Ayuda as an attorney 20 years ago and has served as its executive director for the past 14 years. "It's obvious that there's still a need for this organization. The problems are still there and, if anything, there's more of a need."
It was a night of reunions and memories and the camaraderie of a shared passion. Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, attended with her husband, Michael Coughlin, an English-language instructor in Arlington. The couple met while working at Ayuda, she as a staff attorney and he as the volunteer coordinator.
"Everybody knows somebody who interned, worked or volunteered at Ayuda," Kelley joked. "At least everybody in liberal circles who cares about immigration."
It was also a moment to reflect on how much Washington has changed in the 25 years since Ayuda was incorporated. Richard Gutierrez, Ayuda's first executive director and now an official at the Justice Department, recalled how Adams-Morgan was the region's only Latino neighborhood in the early 1970s.
"Back then, it was really poor and unsafe. There were no fancy restaurants or anything, and there was a real need for agencies like Ayuda but very few of them around," said Gutierrez, who as director protested against INS agents who hassled Latino soccer teams playing on Hains Point while ignoring the Irish or German ones.
Luis Rumbaut, an attorney in the Corporation Counsel's office who joined Ayuda as a law student and served as its director in the late 1970s, said the city's Latino population was much smaller and much less organized.
"As little as we're represented now, back then we were nonexistent as far as the rest of the public was concerned," he said. "The Central American population was already present, but it was nowhere near what it became in the 1980s. We handled immigration cases, but also a lot of divorces, child-support cases, some landlord-tenant cases, contract issues."
Since Ayuda was established, the Latino population in the Washington area doubled again and again, growing from perhaps 50,000 to more than 350,000 today, transforming the city's culture and economy and remaking neighborhoods around the Beltway.
"Ayuda has been at the forefront in introducing an entire community to the city," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza and one of the chairs of the evening's event. "A lot of people who came here confronted legal problems and a system that was strange and foreign to them, and Ayuda helped fill that void."
As a wave of Central American immigrants converged upon the District during the civil wars that wracked their homelands in the 1980s, Ayuda's caseload turned almost entirely to immigration law. After Congress granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986, long lines outside the clinic's Columbia Road offices were a familiar sight.
In recent years, the clinic has turned its attention to the problem of domestic violence against immigrant women, who often are more vulnerable because they are away from their families, cannot speak English and are unfamiliar with the legal system.
Ayuda still employs student volunteers from the local law schools, usually 15 each semester, but it also has nine attorneys on staff now. It also enjoys greater support from the city's legal community, as evidenced by the list of big-name firms that purchased tables at last night's banquet.
"Ayuda represents the best values of the legal profession," said Claudio Grossman, dean of the law school at American University, who served as the evening's master of ceremonies.
He noted that even as Ayuda continues to struggle for resources--its offices remain a cramped warren of makeshift walls and donated furniture--it now represents a more diverse range of immigrants, including many from Asia and Africa. Handling more than 10,000 cases a year, he said, Ayuda already has helped tens of thousands of people.
One of them is Collins Tadjou, a refugee from Cameroon who won political asylum here with Ayuda's help. Now the owner of an electronics repair business in Gaithersburg, Tadjou said he was happy to celebrate Ayuda's 25th birthday yesterday because "it changed my life."
CAPTION: Yvonne Martinez Vega, right, Ayuda's executive director, greets Vanessa Ruiz at last night's anniversary dinner for the Adams-Morgan legal aid clinic.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) Yvonne Martinez Vega, right, with Angela Kelley at last night's gala.