In the beginning there were the spired and crested mansions along 16th and Mount Pleasant streets, and the opulent embassies nearby on Massachussetts, Kalorama and Wyoming Avenues NW. During the early 1950's, domesticas--Dominican, Puerto Rican and Mexican women--worked hard at these residences polishing floors and silver, ironing ruffles and plumping pillows.
These women, who left countries, homes and families behind to carve out a better future for their children, were the pioneers of Washington's Latino community, now conservatively numbered at from 60,000 to 100,000.
Today at the crossroads of Adams-Morgan, on 18th Street and Columbia Road, the local McDonald's presents its menu in Spanish and English. And although the community still has at its core skilled manual laborers, it also can boast of doctors and lawyers, university professors and wealthy businessmen.
New immigrants arriving in Adams-Morgan or Mount Pleasant with little money, no friends, perhaps one relative and no knowledge of English, are unaware that their neighborhood once was an address for the wealthy, or that there are more Latinos here than ever before. They have left their past behind and are not attached to their new home by any sense of history.
Last year a dozen young Latinos ranging in age from 13 to 25, representing a dozen countries, decided to change all that, by tracing their roots in Washington.
The Latin America Youth Center sponsored the project through a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"We started learning about the community by interviewing anybody who was willing to talk to us," said Jacqueline Rodriguez, 18, a Cuban who came here two years ago. "There was one girl who would just take her recorder out to the park and stick the microphone in front of the first person she saw. We learned a lot that way.
"Personally, I was stunned to discover how many of us there were, how many of us came from so many different countries, and how well everybody got along together."
According to the group, the nucleus for the Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant Spanish-speaking communities began in the mid-l950s when wealthy whites started moving to the suburbs after court rulings prohibited discrimination in the sale of housing.
Many Latinos, who had lived some distance away, now were free to move into the apartment buildings in Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant, closer to their jobs. They established their homes and began bringing their families from their native countries.
Project members discovered that Catholic church organizations and Latino-run small businesses followed, and played a key role in the development of the communities' institutions and leaders.
"In the 1960s, many of the first Latina women who worked as domestics turned to the area churches for help in the face of long work hours, low pay, and sometimes, abuse," according to the project's report. "Through the efforts of individual priests and nuns, the churches became centers of information and support for the D.C. Latino community."
The first community organizations sprang up partly as an outgrowth of the church groups. Some now receive funding and support from the local and federal government.
"AYUDA a legal aid center , the Latin American Youth Center, and Andromeda a health center . . . and other organizations . . . form the bedrock of the Latino community," according to the history project.
The small businesses supplied jobs where the immigrants could work using their native language. The stores also supplied the commuinity with goods from their homelands, helping to ease the strangeness that surrounded them.
"A 1982 survey estimates there are currently 180 Latino businesses in the city offering a wide range of retail products and services," according to the project's report. " They provide approximately 1,000 jobs, about two-thirds of them for Latin workers. Generally, the growth and development of the Latino community has stimulated the growth of Latino businesses," the report continues.
Today the oral history project has more than 80 hours of taped interviews, a traveling photographic exhibit, and a written history that the group calls a "creation myth." Later this year the group will produce a one-hour slide show that will be used in the area's schools and community organizations.
Through discovering their communities' history many in the group also have found a new personal identity.
"I feel like somebody, now," said Enrique Aviles, 18, one of the project's coordinators. "I know we're part of a cultural, political and economic process in this country. Without us, this city's hotel and restaurant industry, for example, would be in serious trouble, and we still have much more to contribute. We have brought the collective culture of 20 countries here. Our different cultures arrive here, mingle, transfrom themselves and in turn help to transform the community around us."
Sitting on the porch of the youth center's offices on l5th and Irving streets, several project members were busy last week making posters and tickets for their upcoming benefit dance, scheduled to take place during July's Hispanic Festival. Their laughter and banter made clear that their work has linked them into something like an extended family.
"The project will be important for us, for young people, because it serves as a place where we can share . . . the experience of coming to a strange country, feeling disoriented, feeling confused, feeling attacked, and needing to change this situation," they wrote in their report.