In the 225-acre wedge of northeast Alexandria called Arlandria, where so many Salvadorans live that they call it Chirilagua, after one of their native villages, there is pescado seco (dried fish) in the stores and Sunday soccer games in the park.
There also are crowded apartments, drugs and tensions with black neighbors in one of the Washington area's largest concentrations of Hispanics, on the border between Arlington and Alexandria.
Alexandria planners calculate Arlandria's population to be about 4,500, but say the actual figure is likely to be much higher because of crowding in many apartments.
The community is a concern for city officials grappling with a growing array of problems, from ethnic tensions to a lack of affordable housing to drug sales on the area's streets.
Refugees and immigrants began arriving a decade ago, attracted by the proximity to service jobs and construction work. They brought their customs to the community, some of which, such as the cantinas, have run headlong into city laws and regulations. A way to help make ends meet, these little bistros serving meals and illegal alcohol have sprung up in apartments throughout Arlandria.
"What happens is when you shut one down, another one opens up to take its place," said Rose Boyd, of the Alexandria office of citizen assistance, who has been working with investigators from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to arrest violators.
The illegal restaurants also serve as gathering places in a community with a paucity of places to socialize other than street corners.
"There are very few activities except for soccer on Sundays," said Roberto Baldivia, of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who said socializing outdoors is part of Latin culture.
Although other Alexandria neighborhoods have higher crime rates, law enforcement officials are concerned by the violent nature of and rapid rise in crime in Arlandria.
Community workers say much of Arlandria is wracked by domestic violence, vagrancy, alcoholism and drug addiction. Last year, 89 percent of Alexandria's drug arrests occurred in Arlandria.
Property managers in the area complain about the neighborhood's decline. Christa McMasters, who manages the 400-unit Presidential Greens complex, said she has started canine patrols in the evening to keep prostitutes and drug dealers away.
Earlier this fall, the Alexandria police department, which has four Hispanic officers, began weekend patrols in the area, from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., to increase contact with the Hispanic community and help control crime.
"We felt that we needed to have a strong police presence," said Police Chief Charles E. Samarra. "We saw a pattern of escalation of violence and wanted to take control of that before it turned into anything major.
"I'm pleased from the aspect that our presence seems to have contributed to a decrease in some of the violence," he said. "I'm not pleased in establishing effective communication."
Police efforts to improve relations were dealt a setback recently when a Salvadoran man complained that he was beaten by two officers during an arrest. Police are investigating the complaint.
Police say they also are concerned about escalating tension between blacks and Hispanics.
Aysar Barbari, 30, has been watching the hostility mount over the past several months from his grocery store on Mount Vernon Avenue, which bisects the community.
"They can't stand each other," Barbari said, citing examples of recent clashes between blacks and Hispanics in which fists, knives, and even machetes have been used.
"A lot of the black-brown situation is from misunderstanding of cultural differences on both ends," said Baldivia, of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "The Hispanic community looks at the blacks and they don't know why the blacks have a problem, since they can speak English."
On the other hand, he said, some blacks, who were the dominant group in the area before many Hispanics moved in, feel displaced. Some black residents of Presidential Greens said recently that they intend to move out of the area.
"There's too many Spanish," said one woman who declined to give her name.
Emmitt Carlton, an officer in the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP, said some blacks are jealous of Hispanics because they believe a larger share of city services go to them -- a perception Carlton and others dispute.
"There has been a cultural shock for both groups," said Beverly Steele, the city's housing coordinator. In September, Steele organized the Arlandria Work Group, made up of city officals, community activists and property managers who discuss the community's problems.
"They're competing for jobs and low-income housing, and that leads to a crisis in the area," Steele said.
Many black community organizers say the two groups should concentrate on their shared interests instead of their differences.
"We have to be wise enough not to allow anyone to pit both groups against each other," said George Lambert, executive director of Alexandria's Urban League. "There are issues that don't divide along the lines of black or Hispanic . . . housing, employment, child care."
In a survey of Arlandrians conducted last year by the Alexandria Chapter of the United Way, Hispanic residents said their biggest concern was the language gulf that separates them from other residents. Second on their list was affordable housing.
As part of a court settlement after a battle between tenants and developers in the area, property owners are required to set aside 13 percent of the units in their buildings for federally assisted housing. But some community advocates say the apartments still are too expensive for area residents.
"Rents have gone up 150 percent over the past eight years," said Jonathan Liss, coordinator of the Tenants Support Committee, which supports Hispanic tenants' concerns. "It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to figure out that since the incomes of residents here haven't increased as fast, the situation for Arlandria residents is worse."
Take the Vasquez family. On Lillian Vasquez's $4.75-an-hour wage at a local Hardee's, plus husband Antonio's erratic construction pay and help from Hogar Hispano, a local charitable organization, the couple pays $788 a month for a cramped two-bedroom garden apartment they share with a teenage son and toddler daughter.
Despite the financial struggle, Lillian Vasquez said living in Arlandria is the next best thing to being in El Salvador. "Now that I'm living here," she said, "I'm not going to move anywhere else."
Steele said about 60 percent of the 1,800 rental apartments in Arlandria west of Mount Vernon Avenue are efficiencies or one-bedroom units, inadequate for families and groups of single men who have moved into them. Despite regular complaints that three and four tenants are sharing one-bedroom apartments partitioned by sheets and plywood, the city has not cited any violators in the past year.
"We don't intend to be bedroom police," Steele said. "We expect the apartment managers to enforce the codes."
Some suggest the city is lax in enforcing occupancy codes, which carry a fine of up to $1,000 for violators, because officials view the crowding problem as the lesser of two evils.
"If they go in there and start enforcing the codes, it would mean displacing a whole lot of Hispanics, and where are you going to put all those people?" Baldivia said.
The down-at-the-heels conditions and crowding in many Arlandria buildings are what developers and property managers hoped to cure three years ago, when they renovated most of the 1,800 rental units in the area. But Arlandria never attracted a large number of upscale professionals, as many developers had hoped.
One mostly black pocket within the predominantly Hispanic community is Humes Springs, an eight-square-block area in East Arlandria made up of 175 town houses. Much of the community's spirit has been built on home ownership, residents say, and the hope is that a similar federally assisted home ownership program will revitalize the rest of the community. A subcommittee of the Arlandria Work Group is exploring the issue.
The group also is planning a community day in Arlandria next year, in an effort to foster cohesiveness.
"We have to learn to get along, to live together and to work together," Baldivia said. "If cooler heads prevail, our relations will improve."