The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a group of moms turned a Virginia trailer park into a village

To spend time with the moms is to see: Alone, some could find themselves drowning. But together, they’ve been able to do more than tread water.

A Virginia trailer park where a group of moms decided during the pandemic to help one another survive and thrive. (Theresa Vargas /TWP)

The heat was unforgiving and the mosquitoes were biting, but the women who filled the foldout chairs in Imelda Castro’s backyard didn’t seem bothered.

During the pandemic, that small strip of greenery tucked behind a Northern Virginia trailer park has been a haven for them. It has served as a classroom, an office and a community play space.

That backyard is where the women learned from a health-care worker what medical services their children are entitled to receive.

That backyard is where a DJ played music on Día del Niño, Day of the Child, and the community invited a police officer to take a swing at a piñata. “She had never hit one before!” said a woman who captured that moment on video.

That backyard is where, every Friday, the women form an assembly line and empty with impressive efficiency a truck filled with fresh produce and other goods, and then make sure everyone in the trailer park who needs food gets it.

“If we didn’t have this community we’ve built, we’d be very vulnerable,” Rosalia Mendoza said in Spanish as she sat in one of those foldout chairs. “We’re united, and it makes us stronger. What affects one trailer affects the whole community.”

Poverty often takes from people. It snatches. It steals. It can leave people with empty bellies, low self-esteem and a lost sense of security.

That’s why the women want people to know what they’ve created in that trailer park on Route 1. From a shared struggle, they have built something special — a network of moms who regularly check on one another, inform one another and push one another.

To spend time with those moms is to recognize this: Alone, some could find themselves drowning. But together, they’ve been able to do more than tread water.

“This is unique,” Patricia Moreno said of the community. “This is not everywhere.”

Moreno has spent the last two decades as an outreach worker for Anthem HealthKeepers Plus, a job that takes her into low-income communities throughout Northern Virginia to teach residents about their Medicaid benefits. Her fluency in Spanish and willingness to go into even the most neglected of neighborhoods has made her a welcome presence among Latino immigrants who don’t trust easily authority figures.

Moreno first learned about the women when one of them, Ana Delia Romero, called to ask whether she could come speak to them about health care. Moreno went to that backyard, and then she went again.

The population of the trailer park is one that nonprofit workers often worry about. The majority of the residents are immigrants from Central and South America, and their families are tied to the local economy by threads that are usually among the first to be severed during economic downturns. Most of the men work in construction and restaurant jobs, two industries that were hit hard during the pandemic, and many of the women don’t work because of a lack of access to transportation and child care. In the last few years, several families have gone weeks without income, and some have faced eviction.

Moreno said many people in the communities she visits are hesitant to ask for help, or accept it, but these mothers have worked hard to turn their trailer park into a village. They watch one another’s children. They give one another rides. They invite people to come teach them about subjects that will benefit their families and their neighbors. The women have created a WhatsApp group and use it often to communicate.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a system like this,” Moreno said.

On the day I visited, she sat with eight of the women in the foldout chairs. Also there was Ivana Escobar, director of collective impact for United Community, a nonprofit that provides food to the trailer park and support to the women.

“We go to every community in this area,” Escobar said, “and these women have made something stronger than anywhere else.”

As the women tell it, Ana Delia Romero, who is partially blind, is the one who started bringing them together. She was the first person in the community to test positive for the coronavirus, and she ended up in the hospital for six days. After she recovered, she started volunteering with the Health Department. She knew many Latinos were hesitant to learn about the virus and the safety precautions they could take, and she wanted to help get that information to more people.

She also wanted to make sure none of her neighbors was going hungry during the pandemic. She got involved with free food-distribution efforts and started knocking on her neighbors’ doors to ask whether they had enough to eat. Soon she realized the need was great enough that it would be easier if the food came to her community.

Escobar said that Romero asked United Community whether a truck could deliver food to the trailer park, and now, a truck comes every Friday. When it arrives, the women unload the contents and distribute them. On the day I met the women, all but one were wearing a United Community T-shirt. Escobar said they don’t get paid by the organization. They handle the food distribution as volunteers.

“The women here, they mobilized themselves,” Escobar said. “You wouldn’t even know they’re struggling because of how they show up.”

One of the women said being able to help her neighbors has boosted her self-esteem. Another said she hopes other immigrant communities hear about what they’re doing and put in place similar models.

“When Ana asked, ‘Who wants to volunteer?’ the answer was ‘Me, me, me,’ ” Elizabeth Villatoro said. “This community doesn’t have excuses. Ana doesn’t say, ‘I lost my vision, I can’t do anything.’ Alberta doesn’t say, ‘I have children with special needs, I can’t do anything.’ We do what we need to do.”

As two young boys ran through the backyard, the mothers talked about some of the community’s needs. The children don’t have a nearby playground, and the closest soccer field is a 30-minute walk. One woman also noted that adult classes would be helpful for community members who speak Indigenous languages and can’t read or write in English or Spanish.

“If this didn’t exist, if we didn’t know each other, it’d be a disgrace, because we wouldn’t know what to do in an emergency,” Mendoza said.

They wouldn’t know who to ask about their rights when facing eviction. They wouldn’t know who to tell when they realized the school year was about to start and they couldn’t afford supplies for their children.

On Friday, Moreno showed up again in that backyard. This time, she brought with her 200 filled backpacks.