The Washington region, more than any other major U.S. urban area, draws immigrants from across Latin America. Unlike Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago or New York, no single nationality dominates the Hispanic population here. The creation of this multiethnic community can be traced to Washington's unique role as the nation's capital.
Hispanic migration to the city began in the years immediately after World War II, when Latin American embassies proliferated and international organizations were established here. Many of the professionals who staffed those organizations put down roots in Washington, bringing domestic workers who also remained--and sent word home that the city was a place of opportunity.
At the same time, particularly as President Lyndon B. Johnson began his "war on poverty," the growing federal government attracted significant numbers of educated, American-born workers of Puerto Rican and Mexican ancestry from other parts of the country.
But Washington soon became a primary destination for refugees who grew up in countries where the capital city served as the traditional center of commerce, culture and education.
In the 1950s and '60s, Caribbean revolutions brought Cubans and Dominicans. In the late '70s and early '80s, Andean drought spurred Peruvians and Bolivians. With the '80s and '90s came the largest wave, tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans fleeing civil war in Central America.
A significant demographic divide exists between the newest arrivals and the more established Latinos. A survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University indicates that Latinos born in the United States are far more prosperous and better educated than the immigrants, and trace their ancestry to a different mix of countries. In fact, they are slightly better educated than the rest of the Washington region.
There are significant differences among immigrants, as well.
About one in four area Latino immigrants was born in South America, making Washington one of the few cities in the United States with a large concentration of residents from those nations.
Many of those families originated in the urban middle class, and the survey shows that they are better educated and more prosperous than the area's other Latino immigrants.
Jorge and Rocio Venegas are among them. University graduates and high school teachers in Bolivia, the couple first saw Washington in 1978. Now Jorge supervises a Sodexho Marriott housekeeping unit of 21 workers. One child is in college; the other is college bound.
The United States "gave my son and daughter their education and their opportunity to live a better life," said Venegas, 48, who purchased a house in Arlington 12 years ago. "I can return to my country with my wife, but in our country, they won't have the same opportunity they have here."
Nearly 60 percent of Latino immigrants in the Washington area identify themselves as natives of Central America, and two in five describe themselves as Salvadorans--the largest community in the region's Hispanic mosaic. Large portions of some Salvadoran villages--Chirilagua and Intipuca, among them--have resettled in Washington and its suburbs. Because so many of those immigrants fled rural areas during the civil wars, their education and income levels are particularly low, according to the survey.
The diversity and newness of the Hispanic population has complicated efforts to unite the community in a political bloc.
The survey suggests that the region's Latino immigrants have maintained particularly strong ties to their homelands. The vast majority remain legal citizens abroad, and more than a third have voted in their native country since coming to the United States.
Fewer than half of Washington area Latinos are U.S. citizens, and barely a third of the population is registered to vote.
"Only if they organize can they make things better here," said Francisco Pacheco, a Salvadoran activist and former guerrilla organizer now teaching community leadership classes to Latinos in suburban Maryland. "The idea is to wake up their interest in a common community. It is very difficult but not impossible."
Washington's Latinos: Rich Diversity
For all Latino adults, including immigrants
Washington Area The Nation
Central American 48% 10%
Salvadoran 31 6
Guatemalan 9 1
South American 24 6
Puerto Rican 8 10
Mexican 7 61
Cuban 2 5
Other 10 8
Note: The numbers don't add up to 100 percent due to rounding.