Angel Henriquez’s family never stayed put for long.
By the time he reached his teens, Henriquez had known five different homes around the District. Living arrangements varied, but one thing did not: the violence.
Once, Henriquez, his mother and his father were chased by a man brandishing a knife and vowing to kill them. When Henriquez was only 5, he saw someone shot outside his apartment building. The family’s every move was an attempt to find a safer neighborhood — and lessen Henriquez’s chances of a violent death — though his parents never told him that.
He figured it out anyway.
“Your mental health changes. It turns from ‘You’re safe’ to being worried all the time, and that’s what I felt growing up,” said Henriquez, who now lives with his parents in North Michigan Park in Northeast. “I still sometimes have high anxiety walking around my neighborhood, because you never know if you’re going to be next.”
Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Brandeis University, Henriquez is determined to make his hometown a better place to live by pursuing a career in District politics after graduation. He wants to become the first Latino member of the D.C. Council — and, eventually, the first Latino D.C. Council chair. He has begun organizing young people and working to improve government outreach to the District’s Latino community, work that earned him a “Right Direction” award from Attorney General Karl A. Racine at a celebration Thursday night.
Henriquez was one of 27 honorees of the Right Direction program, which pays tribute to at-risk youths in the District who have chosen positive paths and are working to improve their communities. Other award recipients included a young man heavily involved with his local Boys & Girls Club, and a young woman who advocates for homeless youths.
The ceremony, held downtown at One Judiciary Square and featuring live music, a spoken-word performance, barbecued pork and fresh tacos, provided a sharp contrast to — and respite from — the world many of the young people wake up to every day.
As of Aug. 9, the city had registered 100 homicides this year. Six of the victims have been 18 or younger. They include an 11-year-old boy, Karon Brown, who died last month in a shooting.
“The story that’s not often told is the story of young people who are coming through all of these conditions,” Racine said. “All of that hard work, that toughness, that resilience that these kids go through, and the leadership they embody, is worthy of celebration.”
Henriquez said his parents, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the 1980s, have always demonstrated a tremendous work ethic — and a fierce determination to protect their son. But as they sought to avoid violence, the family also struggled to find affordable housing, a resource diminishing in the District as gentrification proceeds.
The couple often scrambled to make rent, Henriquez said, and still do despite drawing three paychecks. His father, Miguel Sanchez, recently took a job cleaning streets in addition to his work as a cafe cook. His mother, Sonia Henriquez, a nighttime janitor, is looking for a second salary, too. Neither parent was able to attend the awards ceremony Thursday because both had to work.
The city’s shortage of affordable housing and the high rates of violence in its lower-income neighborhoods were “highly personal issues” for Henriquez from a very young age. But, for a long time, he saw these conditions as constants, upsetting but unchangeable. He had no political ambition, hoping instead to become “something in sports,” maybe a team manager.
Then Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
“I just couldn’t believe somebody who said all these xenophobic, racist things could win an election,” Henriquez said. “I was like, ‘I gotta take action,’ I can’t have this happen ever again. I can’t have my kids see this, ever.”
At first, he wanted to go into national politics. That changed after he helped organize a mayoral youth forum with the local nonprofit Mikva Challenge DC in May 2018. At the forum, students questioned candidates in that year’s D.C. mayoral race on topics including gun violence and gentrification — and Henriquez saw democracy at work.
He was electrified, enchanted.
“That opened my eyes to local politics and the real issues, and how hands-on local elected officials are,” he said. “I realized local government is more important because you could enact more change — and national government is much slower, too.”
Henriquez has stayed involved with Mikva DC, which aims to get D.C. youths engaged in politics. He served as a fellow for the program last summer and has become a major recruiter for the initiative, finding and persuading scores of young people to sign up.
Mikva DC’s executive director, Robyn Lingo, said Henriquez frequently texts her about new connections he has made — in places as unlikely as the aisles of a supermarket — and urging her to contact them as possible volunteers. Lingo said she fully expects Henriquez to achieve his D.C. Council dreams.
“He is just a perfect combination of incredibly passionate about what he wants to do in his own life, while never leaving behind any of his peers,” she said. “He’s always trying to think about how he can bring young people together around common issues they can work to advance in the city.”
Henriquez is making more-overt ventures into the political sphere, too. At Brandeis, which he attends free through need- and merit-based scholarships, he is majoring in political science. And he has twice interned for D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). During his second stint with Allen, he also worked at the restaurant Oyamel to help his parents pay the bills.
Henriquez long ago observed that his Latino neighbors can feel uncomfortable interacting with local officials, even for something as simple as a broken streetlight. Distrust of the government has deepened under the Trump administration, he said, partly because of the president’s immigration policies. Over the past several weeks, Henriquez crafted a memo proposing ways that Allen could better reach Latino constituents: for example, by working through nonprofit organizations.
Pointing to the memo, Erik Salmi, Allen’s director of communications, said Henriquez brought “an incredible passion for serving his home community to our office.”
Henriquez believes his mere presence on the D.C. Council would improve its relationship with Latinos in the District. If he won a seat, not only would he make the council seem more approachable, but he also would inspire others like him to run, he said. His personal motto is, “I want to be the first but not the last.”
Henriquez sees it all — his college studies, his internships, his work with Mikva DC — as preparation for eventual service on the council. It’s a career choice he never doubts. Though he knows well that the District has many problems, Henriquez said he could never imagine living in, or working for, any other city.
“It’s just a passion for my city. I just love this city,” he said. “People say, ‘Move to Cali; it’s so beautiful.’ Well, D.C. is my Cali.”
He keeps a D.C. flag on the wall of his dorm room in college. Sometimes, he takes it down and wears it around campus, draped across his shoulders.