Smoke billowed under tents of blue and white on a crowded street in Alexandria yesterday, not from a raging fire but from the meat and cheese Salvadoran tortillas, called pupusas, simmering on each vendor's grill. Under the hot midday sun, a Latino community gathered to revel in its many cultures through food and music.
The Arlandria-Chirilagua Festival held its fifth annual one-day celebration on Mount Vernon Avenue, drawing a mostly Latino crowd to the area known as Arlandria, an Alexandria neighborhood with immigrants mainly from El Salvador but also from Honduras and Guatemala, among other countries. Many immigrants hail from Chirilagua, an eastern city in El Salvador.
"This part of Alexandria is really at the heart of the Latino community," said Suyapa Hernandez, a community member of 18 years whose organization, the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee, helped organize the event along with the city and a number of corporations.
Alexandria's Latino community has grown considerably over the years, making up about 14 percent of the city's 128,000 residents and more than 60 percent of Arlandria's population, according to census and city records.
Given the area's diversity, festival coordinators made a concerted effort to appeal to their audience, bringing in acts from El Salvador and Honduras and showcasing such musical genres as bachata, guitar music that originated in the Dominican Republic.
"Mexico is unique for their food and mariachi, but Guatemala, which is right next to it, is just totally different," Hernandez said, explaining the reasoning behind the event's multicultural approach.
El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, Rene A. Leon, said the festival's approach appeals to all Latinos, not just the estimated 400,000 Salvadorans living in the area.
"Latinos are not a race; we are an ethnic group," he said. "That's the beauty of this kind of festival. You can treasure and value these kind of differences."
"In the end, when we are all together, we are all Latinos," Leon added.
Many festival-goers and community members said that they have friends from various countries and that their common experiences helped form relationships. Olimpia Calderon, originally from Honduras but now an Arlandria resident, said that she found it easier to make friends with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Bolivia. This could be because, as Arlandria resident Maria Hernandez said, many immigrants already have friends and family here.
"We have people from different countries. Not only Latino people, but we have people from Africa, like Tunisia," said Vicky Menjivar, a Salvadoran resident of 20 years who said the diversity is her favorite aspect of living in the area.
While Arlandria continues to attract immigrants from all over Central and South America, the area has been threatened by rising housing prices, which have pushed some residents to outer suburbs. As jobs move outward and rents escalate, some Arlandria residents have moved to western Virginia and Maryland.
"There are a lot of people who have been moving, been forced to move," Menjivar said.
So in some ways, the point of the festival is to bring the community together, Suyapa Hernandez said.
And it might be working. Noemi Chicas, a 15-year-old girl from western Virginia whose parents are from El Salvador, said that although she lives far away, she feels at home in Arlandria.
"I came here because I wanted to see how the community was doing," Chicas said.