For Walter Tejada, the road to the Arlington County Board had humble beginnings -- shining shoes in El Salvador, later selling ices on the streets of Brooklyn and organizing Latino immigrants to try to save a treasured soccer field in Northern Virginia.
On Tuesday, Democrat Tejada handily won a seat on the County Board, beating longtime GOP activist Mike W. Clancy and becoming the first Latino to be elected to a governing body in Northern Virginia.
His career as a political organizer took off when the Eckerd Drug company announced plans to build a store on a soccer field in the Culmore section of Fairfax County several years ago.
"It really wasn't just about a soccer field," Tejada said yesterday after a long day of responding to well-wishers and Spanish-language media outlets. "It was about helping a voiceless community have a say against a huge corporation that wanted to change its neighborhood."
Although the effort was unsuccessful, and the store was built on the field, Tejada, 45, saw the cause as eye-opening for many Latinos in the area. "I wanted to make sure that all immigrants and those on the margins knew how to be engaged in the political process and fight for their rights," he said.
Tejada, who likes to play soccer himself, said he knew the field was part of the lifeblood of his community and that fighting for its survival was important for the self-esteem of nearby residents.
It was one of many causes he has taken on over the past decade, and one that helped make his victory this week. During the Culmore struggle, when Tejada encouraged the community to boycott J.C. Penny, Eckerd's parent company, some didn't understand what was so important about a soccer field.
But some Arlington activists say it was one of the central events that helped the new board member learn to listen and organize one community while negotiating with another.
"He has a broad understanding of what this community is about" said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), an early supporter of Tejada. "He's taken on issues that other people wouldn't, and that's one of the key skills needed to be a County Board member."
Tejada, who is filling a seat left vacant by the death of board member Charles P. Monroe (D), will be sworn in Friday afternoon and participate in his first board meeting Saturday.
The trajectory to victory has not been easy. There was the long trip to the United States when he was 13 with his mother, brother and sister from a small town south of San Salvador, where Tejada shined shoes on the streets to make ends meet. There were the tough Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhoods, where he worked the streets selling rainbow snow cones to help his mother.
During high school, he had a string of jobs that opened up opportunities working for several local governments, where he investigated human rights abuses and death penalty cases. From there, he also worked for Rep James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Gov. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). He now consults for area banks, helping them do business with Latino companies.
He is married to Robin Tejada, an Arlington schoolteacher, and they live in the Dominion Hills section of the county. He has completed coursework at George Mason University but has no degree.
To many in Arlington's burgeoning Latino community, the Tejada story is an immigrant dream they know well.
"When we think of Walter, we know he is somebody that has worked hard for our community, done a lot for us, whether it's a small business or working with community centers," said restaurateur Manfredo Mejia. "We feel that he has lived what we have lived and can help us have our voices heard."
Many in Arlington see Tejada's victory as the beginning of a new chapter in county politics. Arlington has the highest concentration of Latinos in the Washington region, at 19 percent, and until now much of the community has been removed from mainstream politics.
But as many point out, Tejada won not only with Latino support but with mainstream organization from the Democratic Party and campaign promises to cut the real estate tax rate, make open space a priority and address the county's affordable housing challenge.
"It will be a challenge to balance all of the needs of the community," Tejada said. "But I have pledged to be a candidate for the entire community, and I plan to do so."
Some national political experts said Tejada's challenge is shared by many Latinos running for political office where there isn't yet a solid Hispanic voting block. County officials have estimated that 1 in 10 actually cast votes on Tuesday.
"What many Latinos are going to have to do in places like Virginia is move much of their platform to the center in order to get elected," said Antonio Gonzalez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, a national Latino organization based in Los Angeles. "They don't really have the advantage of large Latino voting blocks like New York and Miami."
Tejada's critics worry about his dearth of experience in civic finance. Yet some of his supporters worry that he may abandon his core values in the face of political pragmatism.
Tejada says he is confident. "I'll be able to do what it takes to handle this job," he said yesterday. "What Arlington needs most is someone who understands all parts of this community, and I have proven I can do that."