Marta Palacios started life in Washington much like the parents of many of her Latino students: crowded into a small basement apartment in Mount Pleasant, sharing the space and the rent with another immigrant family.
She worked stints filling a steam dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen, washing linens in a fancy hotel and baby-sitting children. She and her husband struggled to make ends meet. But that was almost 30 years ago.
Today, this 51-year-old woman--a Salvadoran immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1979--is Dr. Palacios. She has a doctorate in bilingual special education from George Washington University and is one of very few Hispanic administrators in the D.C. public school system.
She and her husband, Jose Morales, a construction worker for Metro, own three houses in the metropolitan area. The one they live in is a large, four-bedroom home in Silver Spring with a wooded back yard that dips down to a creek. A fourth house is just outside Orlando--a retirement nest.
One son is a medical school graduate in his residency. Their daughter is a University of Maryland sophomore, and their younger son won a track scholarship to American University. All three read, write and speak English and Spanish fluently.
Palacios is unlike the metropolitan area's recent arrivals from Central America in many ways--not just financially.
"There's a big difference for us who came first," Palacios said. "It was harder to make it, yet we had the strong moral values. For us, the United States was una casa ajena [someone else's home], so we had to show the best of us even to those who thought we were invading. We had to show we had something to offer. But this generation is totally different."
Palacios was trained to be a teacher in her native country but left before she began teaching. In the mid-1970s, she began learning English at the Spanish Educational Development Center, an Adams-Morgan establishment that has served as a steppingstone to success for many Latino immigrants since its founding in 1971.
Encouraged by SED Center administrators, Palacios got a general equivalency diploma and worked her way through bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees, and from teacher's aide to assistant principal.
Now part of Palacios's job is to work with the Latino immigrant parents of her students at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in Northwest Washington. She sees many parents, illiterate in their own native Spanish and tied down to back-to-back low-skilled jobs, who say they don't have time to get involved.
She worries that they don't think about their futures here. She pleads with the adults to attend school functions, learn English, get involved with their children's education. "It's not that they don't care for their kids. They don't know how to prioritize," Palacios said. "As a foreigner and a mother, their priority should be their children. That frustrates me.
"They're always thinking they're going back, and that's not bad, but you have to prioritize your living conditions here while you wait to go back--if you ever do. Most don't."
During the past 30 years, Palacios has sponsored the immigration of her parents and eight siblings and their families to the Washington area. They see her as the "head" of the large extended family here, and many look to her for advice. She maintains strong family and cultural ties. She speaks English and Spanish interchangeably. Still, her family believes "I became too Americanized," she said.
"Willful distancing" is what Ana Sol Gutierrez calls the cultural gap between Latinos who immigrated decades ago and recent arrivals. Gutierrez, a former member of the Montgomery County Board of Education whose family moved here from El Salvador when she was 3, graduated in 1960 from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Her father was a founding director of the World Bank. The only other Latino in her graduating class was the son of the Argentine ambassador.
"There has been very little help from the established Latinos to the newcomers," Gutierrez said. "There's little social conscience. But that is not necessarily unique to Latinos."
For Latinos born in the United States, the distance is not artificial.
Camilo Arbelaez, 28, who was born in the United States and grew up in Montgomery County, now lives in an apartment in Mount Pleasant.
Arbelaez, a computer consultant, is the son of middle-class immigrants from Colombia. His neighbors are immigrants as well, but they hail primarily from rural Central America.
"They come for economic reasons or human rights reasons and, I guess, it's kind of alien to me because my family is fairly well off," Arbelaez said. "As far as exposure to these people, I haven't had that much. There's a distance. My ties to the first generation aren't very strong at all."
Still, Arbelaez said he feels some connection with the new immigrants, certainly more than most Americans would.
The question with significant implications for the future of the region's Latino population is this: Will Latinos who are born here identify strongly enough with the immigrants to push for services they need?
"I'd advocate for them just because they're Hispanic or Latino," said Gerard Valdivia, 21, of Alexandria, an officer candidate in the Army whose parents are Bolivian immigrants.
"I don't feel a connection personally, but I see where they're coming from."