On a blustery February morning in 1975, Jorge Luis Somarriba, 17, who had just arrived from Nicaragua, stood on a streetcorner in
Adams-Morgan and surveyed his new homeland.
A policeman stopped him, asked him why he was not in school and took him to the nearby Lincoln Junior High School, where a counselor befriended him and gave him some quick pointers on surviving at the predominantly black school. "He said, 'Smile at everybody and say hi,' " Somarriba recalled recently.
Later, Somarriba wore an Afro hairstyle and learned to imitate the black dialect of his classmates. "The few Latins who were there were always getting beat up, so I'd pretend I was cool like everyone else."
In the intervening 12 years, the local Hispanic community has swelled from less than 30,000 people to about 80,000, as Central American refugees, mainly from El Salvador, increasingly have left their war-torn country seeking a better life in the United States.
And during that time, the uneasy, sometimes strained relationship between the local black and Hispanic communities has continued to be a strong concern for Somarriba.
Although he no longer wears an Afro (his brown hair is short-cropped and he keeps it tucked neatly beneath a colorful cap), Somarriba, 29, now a fine-arts student at American University, has devoted his artistic talent as a mural painter to helping Hispanics and blacks communicate better.
The subject of one of his energetic, brightly colored murals, which are displayed on several walls in the Columbia Road area, is a group of black, white and Hispanic schoolchildren holding hands.
Although the mural is displayed at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, it was designed to hang at Lincoln Junior High School, which now is 34 percent Hispanic and in recent years has been the site of racial friction between black and Hispanic groups. Somarriba said he was unable to get permission from the school board to place it at the school.
Another mural, Wall of Dignity, which was completed this summer and hangs on a wall of a building at 2830 Georgia Ave. NW, near Howard University, is dedicated to "our brothers and sisters of African American heritage" and is a historical portrayal of black Americans.
A dozen Hispanic teen-agers worked with Somarriba on the murals, which were joint projects of the Latin American Youth Center, the Mayor's Summer Youth Employment Program and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
His newest and most ambitious project is now in the making at the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs in the Reeves Municipal Center, 14th and U streets NW.
Commissioned by Arlene Gillespie, the director of the city's Office of Latino Affairs, the $5,000 project is a series that will depict on four walls the history of Latin America, the migration of Latin Americans to the United States, the history of the local Hispanic community and its future.
"The idea is to educate the Anglo and black communities about the local Latin American community," the soft-spoken Somarriba said one recent morning of the four-month-old project.
"A lot of the racial problems arise because we are not clear about who we are and where we come from," he said.
The first wall, a symbolic portrayal of the discovery and conquest of Latin America, has been finished. In the other three, he said, he will use landmarks from the Columbia Road area and D.C. Hispanic leaders to depict the history of the local Hispanic community.
For his final mural, he sees Latin, Anglo and black students seated together in classrooms as well as professionals of every race and color working side by side.
Gillespie said this last mural will "show the positive relationship between Latinos and blacks and will show that the future lies in education, good racial relationships and better understandings between the two major minorities in the District."
Somarriba, the son of a schoolteacher and a poet-photographer, said his mother came to the District to work as a housekeeper in 1969 because of the difficult economic conditions at home. When she left, he was 11 and his parents had divorced. He and his three younger brothers and sisters remained behind with his grandmother.
He joined her six years later after she had obtained her so-called green card and was able to petition legally for him. His brothers and sisters came later.
"My first impression of the United States was that I was surprised to see so many black people," he said. "My first reaction was: Wow, it's different from the movies."
While still in school, Somarriba became friendly with a group of exiled Chilean mural painters and began learning to paint. After working briefly as a bilingual counselor in a vocational program, he won an art scholarship to American University.
Now he divides his time between his studies and the Reeves Center, where he spends about 20 hours a week.
Initially, the four murals were supposed to be finished by September, in time for the Hispanic Festival. But now, Somarriba says, the murals will not be completed until January, possibly in time for the one-year anniversary of the death of Carlos Rosario, a well-known local Hispanic leader.
Somarriba said he made a "serious miscalculation" of the amount of time it would take him to complete the murals. "I was putting so much pressure on myself because of the deadline that it was affecting my performance."
After a discussion with Gillespie and the more reasonable January deadline, Somarriba said he has begun "to paint in a more contemplative manner."
"My definition of success is not a lot of money but having self-fulfillment. I exist because this is my very best."