Janeth Valenzuela will always remember the first time she met Viviana Oxlaj Pérez. Six years ago, on a rainy Thursday evening at the start of the school year, Valenzuela ordered pupusas for a meeting of Hispanic parents at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington.
“We offered to pay her,” said Valenzuela, a community activist. “And she refused. She said, ‘No, I want to help the school, I want to help the parents.’”
Oxlaj Pérez, who became known as the “lady on the bike” for donations like those, died after being struck by a driver Monday evening while crossing the street on foot at the intersection of South Old Glebe Road and 2nd Street South, leaving a community to mourn the devoted mother and grandmother who spent much of her time bringing help, joy and tamales to Arlington’s schools and streets. She was 52.
A 62-year-old man from Arlington identified by police as the driver, Julio Villazon, was detained and charged with driving under the influence, involuntary manslaughter, hit-and-run and other offenses. Court records indicate that the Arlington public defender’s office is representing Villazon. The chief public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
“My mother was a hard worker,” Hilary Lopez Oxlaj, one of Oxlaj Pérez’s daughters, said in a brief phone interview Wednesday. “A person that would do everything in order to help those that were in need, and also help her family to go forward.”
“I’m so proud of my mom,” said Sandra Lopez Oxlaj, another one of Oxlaj Pérez’s daughters. “She tried to be a good mom, she tried to be a good grandma, she tried to be a good person whenever somebody needed help.”
Those who knew her described Oxlaj Pérez, who moved to the United States from Guatemala, as cheerful and kind, with the quiet strength needed to provide for six children and haul food and drinks, such as her home-cooked tamales, around the neighborhood by bicycle to sell.
Eventually, she earned enough to swap her bike for a new tricycle with a large bed for cargo in the back. It was on rides around Columbia Pike, her small figure dwarfed by the trike’s baby-blue frame and the coolers of food and drinks usually loaded behind her, that Oxlaj Pérez earned her endearing reputation in the neighborhood.
“The tricycle was like a Mercedes-Benz for her,” Valenzuela said.
Several days a week, Oxlaj Pérez brought soft drinks to sell at the soccer field at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington Heights. Valenzuela organized catering for teacher appreciation weeks in schools across Arlington and always tapped Oxlaj Pérez, who never accepted payment for her tamales.
That wasn’t uncommon, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said — Oxlaj Pérez regularly gave people food for free if they were short on cash. Sometimes, she asked Lopez for spare clothes that she could donate to customers in need. Oxlaj Pérez shrugged off Lopez’s concerns when she worried that her mother wasn’t making enough money.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sandra Lopez Oxlaj recalls her mother replying. “People like my food, so I have to do it.”
Oxlaj Pérez was crossing the intersection of South Old Glebe Road and 2nd Street South on foot near the Thomas Jefferson community center and middle school when she was fatally struck. Her family said she’d made charamuscas, a popular Latin American frozen snack, to sell at the soccer field that evening, and she was walking to buy ice from a nearby 7-Eleven to keep them cold.
Oxlaj Pérez was transported to a hospital, where she died of her injuries, police said.
Arlington County Board member Takis Karantonis said people raised concerns on social media about the safety of crossings on 2nd Street South after news of the accident, Arlington’s first pedestrian death this year. The intersection where Oxlaj Pérez was struck sits in a school zone, on the southmost corner of Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and is crossed frequently by pedestrians to reach the school and community center. Karantonis said the county would consider installing speed cameras on the road.
Oxlaj Pérez had planned to eventually return home to Guatemala with her husband, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said. Her family plans to send her body home and are raising funds to do so. As of Friday, the family’s GoFundMe page had raised more than $30,000 in donations — a sign, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said, of how many in the community Oxlaj Pérez and her tricycle had reached.
“She was one of us,” said Karantonis, who saw her frequently at community events he organized. “She fit in this mosaic of hard-working, extremely colorful and diverse people we are.”
Teo Armus and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.