Carlos Reyes left El Salvador in 1980 to escape the civil war and moved to the District of Columbia six months ago. He learned one lesson quickly.
"In Salvador you might get shot and you're dead," said Reyes, "but here, if you don't have money or a place to live, you suffer in flesh and blood."
It was a lack of money and housing, Reyes said, that led one of his friends and several other Salvadoran immigrants to move into the basement of a house at 1629 Irving St. NW where a fire broke out 11 days ago, killing nine persons and injuring seven.
Fire investigators said 17 people, most of them Salvadoran immigrants, were in the basement when the blaze broke out.
Such overcrowding is common in Mount Pleasant, for the immigrants cannot afford the rising rents that have come as a result of young professionals moving into the neighborhood's renovated homes. The immigrants, many of them illegal aliens with little education and menial jobs, do not complain about the living conditions because they fear deportation.
Reyes, 40, is unemployed and lives with four other men in a tiny $450-a-month, one-bedroom apartment just off Columbia Road NW in Mount Pleasant.
"It is not a cheap area to live in, but the people want to live here because of the large Latino population already in place," said Carmen Monico, coordinator of the Salvadoran Refugee Committee at Calvary United Methodist Church at 1459 Columbia Rd. NW.
City officials said many immigrants comprise an "invisible population" who are undocumented and unable to speak English well enough to take advantage of services available to them.
Recent population figures are unavailable, but a 1980 U.S. Census Bureau survey stated that 17,679 Hispanics were living in the District. Those familiar with the community say that number is several times greater, and growing.
Many work at low-paying jobs and send money to relatives back home. Because the immigrants are unable or unwilling to pay high rents, they sometimes share unfinished basements or small apartments with friends and split expenses in order to survive.
"One of the big things is that this neighborhood is being regentrified," said Eric Olson, director of La Casa Esperanza, a community-based service agency. "One of the only ways for these folks to pay the rents is to double up or triple up."
"Overcrowding is a major problem and one never knows the dimension of it until something like this tragedy brings it to the forefront," said Mara Lopez, an equal employment opportunity officer with the city government.
Reyes, who needed a place to live after losing his job as a dishwasher, ran into Acevedo Tovar, an old friend from a neighboring town in El Salvador, who allowed him to move into his apartment.
There are sometimes six men living in their apartment, including Reyes, Tovar's nephew who stays there occasionally, and two immigrants who signed the original lease.
Tovar said the building manager is unaware that so many people are living there, and although they are cramped for space, he said he and his roommates are probably better off than other Salvadoran immigrants in the neighborhood.
Overcrowding is not exclusive to Hispanic immigrants, but their problems are compounded by language and cultural barriers, and the fear of deportation.
"Landlords have been known to threaten people by saying they are going to call Immigration," said Judith Arandiz, director of Adelante Advocacy Inc., a housing counseling agency for Hispanics. "They finally come to us when they can't take it anymore."
Some landlords and homeowners in the neighborhood, however, are sympathetic and allow large groups to rent units designed for smaller families despite potential hazards.
"As a landlord you count on renters to be reasonable," said Henry Billey, who owns a house two doors from where the fire occurred. "You try to shut your eyes but you have to be very careful because of these drunk guys."
Police investigators said many of those who died in the fire appeared to have been drinking earlier that night, and alcohol may have impaired their ability to escape. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
A memorial service will be held tonight for the fire victims.
City officials and community agencies are trying to figure out how to avoid such tragedies in the future.
"The city can't just evict people because there is overcrowding," said Arlene Gillespie, director of the city's Office of Latino Affairs. "People have to complain about housing code violations or safety hazards, then we can move in and inspect."
Gillespie said her office and the police and fire departments are starting a "massive public education campaign" and will inspect buildings suspected of being overcrowded or in violation of housing regulations.
"We will go in with a fire protection unit and identify housing code violations and provide education and brochures on fire prevention written in Spanish," she said.
City officials and community agencies expect more overcrowding. "More people are coming," said Monico. "The war is taking so long in El Salvador that people who came here in 1980 and thought they would go back in a year or two are now bringing the rest of the family."