They call it the "Chicano Hilton." For the past dozen years, the Seville Hotel at 14th and N streets NW, with its 150 one-bedroom and efficiency apartments, has served as a welcome mat for Chicanos and other Hispanos who have come to Washington to work for the government or to play various roles in representing the interests of 13 million Mexican Americans.
"If they need a place to stay, they come here," says Seville resident Carola Chapa, an administrator working toward a doctorate in education. "The Chicano Hilton seems to be a stepping stone for newcomers to the city."
The scene of innumerable meetings, conferences and strategy sessions for Chicano causes, the Seville first opened its doors in 1965. Inside, a small lobby with a Spanish motif welcomes residents and visitors. The brass, iron and leather fixtures were selected by the building's original owners on their trips to Spain.
From their balconies overlooking Thomas Circle, tenants may view the statue of General George H. Thomas, who fought with Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War, and his nameless horse. The view includes two hotels, the International Inn and the Holiday Inn, and two churches, the red brick Luther Place Memorial Church and the National City Christian Church.
At no point in the Seville's history, residents say, have more than a small percentage of its apartments been occupied by Chicanos, as some Mexican Americans call themselves. But some of its residents, past and present, tell stories that have become part of the Seville folklore.
* Ernest B. Duarte, director of the Outreach Program for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and a tenant from 1972 to 1979, recalls the morning when 130,000 tortillas from Laredo, Tex., were dumped on the Seville's doorstep.
* Terri Hernandez, an administrator with the National Council of La Raza, who still resides at the Seville, recalls the night when she and other residents sneaked more than 30 farmworkers into their apartments for a night's rest before they challenged the nation's lawmakers the next day. The farmworkers had found themselves without lodging when funding for a hostel had gotten "messed up."
* Lionel Calunga, special assistant at La Raza, remembers the all-night poker games that ended with the winners, losers and their friends consuming a cauldron of menudo--a spicy tripe soup renowned as a hangover cure--which the players brewed all night.
* Oscar Cerda, assistant administrator of the national benefit plan of the National Association of Farmworkers Organizations, reminisces about the night eight boisterous out-of-town friends, unaware that the door was locked at night, spent the night sleeping in the bed of a truck after the building's manager turned them away from the Seville's entrance.
Over the years, the Seville's list of Chicano residents and reception guests reads like a "Who's Who" of Mexican-American officialdom. The leaders of every major national Chicano organization--the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Image, American G.I. Forum, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and National Council of La Raza among them--have been toasted or have borrowed a bed or couch.
Duarte, now a Virginia resident, recalls the 1972 inauguration, when his roommate, Celso Moreno, was in charge of the "Chicanos for Nixon" entertainment. He brought an 18-member mariachi troupe from Chicago, but the hotel reservations got fouled up.
When Duarte dragged in from a night of celebration, he encountered wall-to-wall musicians, all sound asleep. Six were lined up crossways on his bed.
"I decided to sleep in a hotel, but couldn't find a vacant room until I reached the city limits of Baltimore," he says.
How did the 130,000 tortillas end up on the Seville's doorstep?
"A long story," Duarte warns.
It began during the days when the barrios of the Southwest United States were getting federal help for community projects. An acquaintance of Duarte bought a one-way plane ticket from Laredo to Washington, firmly convinced that the community action proposal he brought with him soon would provide funds for his return trip.
After three months as Duarte's guest, the entrepreneur headed home. But before he left, he promised the American G.I. Forum chapter here that he'd help get supplies of tortillas and hamburger, as well as the ingredients for a sweet beverage called "agua de miel" that the members planned to sell at their bicentennial folk festival booth.
The ingredients arrived three days early. The meat was divided among the refrigerators of five Seville tenants. The six huge boxes of tortillas were squeezed into Duarte's living room, overflowing onto his balcony. His friends, working in shifts, spent all night frying them on his small kitchen stove.
Cecilia Presiado Burciaga, now vice president for academic affairs at Stanford University, found the Seville in 1970. It was just a block from her office at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
"It was safe, it was attractive, it was handy and it had a swimming pool on the roof," she said.
When she moved to California a year later, Frank Alejandro, now a researcher with the Department of Education, got her apartment.
Alejandro recalls: "At that time, there were 39 Chicanos--total--working here in Washington. I know. I counted them. Whenever there was a party, you saw the same 39 people. By nature, we're a friendly, helpful people and the Seville, because of Billie Murphy, was a friendly, helpful place for us. We built a Chicano network at the Seville."
Alejandro, who is from Weslaco, Tex., enjoyed the camaraderie.
"Nearly all of us then were from Texas. We'd get together, eat and drink, play the guitar and reminisce. Whenever any of us traveled back home, it was understood that we'd bring back a 'community Care package' of jalapenos, tortillas and chorizo."
Alejandro returned to Texas in the mid-'70s, married his childhood sweetheart and moved back into the Seville, remaining there until the couple bought a home in Springfield, Va., in June 1978. They still visit old friends at the Seville.
The nearby International Inn often hosts functions of national Hispanic organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association of Farmworker Organizations and the Mexican American Women's National Association. It's not uncommon, after the organizations' work sessions, for delegates to adjourn for refreshments to an apartment in the Seville.
As recently as last year, says Terri Hernandez, the Seville's Hispanic residents opened their hearts and doors to 30 visitors from across the country who were participating in a farmworkers' protest. "I had seven people in my room," she says. "I just gave them a blanket and a towel."
Although political activity at the Seville is not as intense as it once was, Mexican culture remains pervasive. Lionel Calunga treasures the all-night poker game-menudo feasts that bring neighbors together. The music is Latin, the food spicy and the conversation is Tex-Mex (a combination of English and Spanish).
"It's like a 10-story neighborhood," Calunga says.