They remember being dazzled by the lights of the huge foreign capital at the conclusion of their first airplane ride. They recall the terror and the teasing on the first day of school.

Then came English classes, and working two jobs, and building floats for the annual festival, and sharing long, laughing dinners in small apartments with countless cousins--and everything has turned out all right.

"I still miss my mountains and my ocean," said Veronica DeNegri, who was tortured by police in her native Chile. "But when I go to Chile, on arriving and leaving, I go to the cemetery--that's what's most important to me. Aside from the people who suffered, I don't feel any ties to Chile."

An elegant and powerful exhibit called "Coming to Washington" tells in detail the stories of DeNegri and five other Latino immigrants driven by strife at home and drawn by hope in a strange land. The words, pictures and personal artifacts are on display at the Latin American Youth Center, 1419 Columbia Rd. NW.

The families came from four countries, reflecting the diversity of Hispanic nationalities in the Washington area. Propelled by politics and economics at home, the immigration came in waves, Caribbean islanders in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by South Americans and Central Americans in the 1970s and 1980s.

The inspiration for the project came from the dawning realization that generations are growing up with only a dim understanding of the cultures and struggles their parents and grandparents left behind, while those older family members are dying and taking their stories with them.

"We're dealing with the first generation of children born here," says Lori Kaplan, executive director of the youth center. "A lot of those kids are starting to lose their sense of history."

These young visitors to the exhibit are adding to it by building small dioramas that tell their own stories.

"A lot of the youth here don't know their parents' culture," says Ronald Chacon, who, with Nilda Villalta, creates educational programs based on the exhibit. "They heard their parents came from a different country and so on. They don't know what it took to get here and why their parents chose Washington, D.C., out of all the cities in this country."

Chacon's father, a printer, only recently mentioned that he used to print fliers for the guerrillas in their native El Salvador. Chacon says of the exhibit, "It gives them a chance to go home and ask their parents questions."

In the exhibit, Tila Rodriguez Berrocal tells of arriving at Dulles International Airport from the Dominican Republic at night with her mother and four younger brothers in 1975. Her two older sisters were living in Washington, the first having come in 1965 as a servant for a diplomatic family. Berrocal took English classes, quickly earned a high school equivalency degree, and held tutoring and translating jobs to pay for tuition at the University of Maryland.

Now she is a loan counselor at a bank branch in Adams-Morgan, a reassuring presence for her many Latino customers. "You can see what kind of community this is," she said for the exhibit. "They are very hard workers. They have their fat little accounts."

Rosa Betancourt's family's farm was looted repeatedly by guerrillas and government forces during the civil war in Colombia in the late 1940s and 1950s. She came to Chevy Chase to work in a diplomatic household, then got a job at the Sheraton Hotel as a cook and served on the board of directors of Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

When she got here, "you hardly ever saw any Latinos. Now you find Latinos wherever you go." She contributed to the exhibit examples of the cookware she uses to make her native delicacies, and she listed all the spices and ingredients she couldn't find in Washington. "Now," she notes happily, "there are several stores where you can get these items." Indeed, the exhibit includes a small replica of a typical Latino grocery store in Washington, with the peppers, grains, herbs and beans of Latin cuisine.

Betancourt says that her daughter, with a solid government job, is bilingual, but her grandson speaks only English.

DeNegri, a partisan of slain Chilean leader Salvador Allende, was imprisoned for less than a year after Augusto Pinochet seized control of Chile. "After I was released, free of charges, nobody told me, 'Sorry for the torture,' " she is quoted for the exhibit.

DeNegri wasn't really free. She was briefly detained several times, and some of the records of her existence were destroyed. She and her youngest son came to Washington in 1977, later joined by another son, Rodrigo. DeNegri had always been politically active and that continued in Washington, where she worked as a chambermaid and at other jobs while becoming a housing activist and leading protests against U.S. intervention in Central America. In 1986, Rodrigo, a photographer, was killed during a return trip to Chile after a run-in with soldiers.

Now DeNegri is a tour guide, and speaks publicly for Amnesty International and other groups.

Haydee Ruiz Vanegas de Alas came to Washington from El Salvador at age 17 during the civil war in her homeland, though she freely admits her sense of curiosity and adventure was as powerful a motive as the war. She and her father arrived in Washington one February night and found her aunt's building, but they didn't know her apartment number, so they stood outside all night hoping to catch her in the morning on the way to work.

She went to high school and got a job as a waitress. Now, she and her husband, Mario Ernesto Alas, own the popular Haydee's Restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street NW. "I always knew I would have a business," she said. "I did not know what kind, but I knew that I would do it. . . . Si, se puede! Yes, it can be done!"

Maria Alvarenga remembers the kids in her middle-school class jabbering at her and making obscene gestures. The 13-year-old girl with no English just smiled at them, so badly did she want to make friends.

Her mother came ahead from El Salvador, in 1966, to work for a family in Bethesda. Alvarenga came three years later. She had grown so much her mother didn't recognize her at National Airport.

"The first three years here, you just learn how to survive," she said.

But Alvarenga made her way, joining the District police department, and now is a captain in the 5th District. Once she made a trip back to Suchitoto, El Salvador, where she spent her early years. Those who have left maintain close contact with home, sending money when they can, and streets in Suchitoto are called Columbia Road and Washington Boulevard.

Osvaldo Ramos was born in the Dominican Republic and came to Washington in 1954. The Ramos family is represented in the exhibit by artifacts from Corrective Shoe Repair, the successful shoe business that the family has operated in Washington.

The exhibit also includes an altar, with pictures of members of the Latino community who have died or been killed since their families came to Washington.

The exhibit was created in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, whose curators, including Olivia Cadaval, gave it a professional polish; the Historical Society of Washington D.C.; and the Humanities Council of Washington D.C. On Tuesday, the council presented the youth center with an Outstanding Public Humanities Institution Award for the exhibit.

The exhibit will continue for another 17 months in the youth center's Latino Community Heritage Center.

CAPTION: Lori Kaplan, director of the Latin American Youth Center, explains how the exhibit came about and what it means to the community.

CAPTION: Haydee Ruiz Vanegas de Alas, owner of Haydee's Restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street NW, in a photo taken after she arrived from El Salvador at age 17.