El Cabo stood in the thin afternoon sunlight, looking at faces that needed identifying.
“We’re going to bring the photos here tomorrow, if there’s no wind,” Quique Aviles said. “Here” was the sidewalk in front of the 7-Eleven at Mount Pleasant Street and Kenyon Street NW, where El Cabo, a 63-year-old house painter, has been hanging out for 40-odd years. The photos Aviles referred to were portraits taken over the past six months of the regulars who come there to meet friends, play checkers and chat.
A photo exhibit and oral history of the spot and its denizens titled “La Esquina” (“The Corner” — those who hang out there are known as “esquineros”) will open Wednesday at GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. But Aviles, the project’s director, and Rick Reinhard, its photographer, had hoped to set up a mini-sidewalk exhibit in advance for the esquineros themselves, and wanted to make sure they had everyone’s name right.
El Cabo, a Salvadoran native whose real name is Jose Luis Marquez (many of the regulars there have nicknames; “cabo” roughly translates as “corporal”), pointed at a picture of a middle-aged man.
“What? You’re serious?” Aviles said.
“He was sick; he was diabetic and on dialysis.”
“How old was he?” Aviles asked. “He was young; 50, 51?”
“Yeah,” El Cabo said. “But to die you don’t need to be old. When your time comes, your time comes.”
That kind of exchange — of information and wisdom — has taken place for decades at this spot and mirrors similar ones around the world. Townspeople of a certain age sit around, exchanging news and views and keeping an eye on the neighborhood.
The men (and a few women) on the corner tend to be middle-aged or older and hail from Spanish-speaking nations, especially El Salvador. The Washington area is home to the nation’s largest community of Salvadorans, who began coming in large numbers in the early 1980s after their country became engulfed in civil war. Many were men who left their families behind, and this strip of small shops and restaurants became a second home.
“For most of us Salvadoreans, landing in D.C. meant landing on Mount Pleasant Street,” Aviles, 52, wrote in text to accompany the exhibit. Aviles, a self-described local “poet, actor and troublemaker,” arrived in 1980 at age 15 and lived a few blocks from the main strip. “If you didn’t live there, you were told about it. Back then, there was this notion that ‘if you go there, you will feel better’ — that on this street you could find a cure for the heartbreak of being away from home.”
This continues to be true, he wrote, even for those who have been here for years. Many people experience loneliness even years after immigrating, and a regular hangout like Mount Pleasant Street can be a salve, Aviles wrote.
“When I go there — just walking those 8 blocks, stopping at the beauty salon, the pharmacy, Los Primos — I feel better. You know you will see people you know. Mount Pleasant is the only place in this city that is a small town — un pueblito. And just like any pueblito, you have your characters.”
From their street-corner perch, the esquineros have witnessed layers of transformation, as stores selling tamales and tropical fruit opened in the once largely African American neighborhood and street battles between Latinos and police gave way to street fairs with face painting and bake sales. Now, rowhouses sell for more than $1 million and gourmet cafes and restaurants are taking root between the liquor stores and pupuserias.
To the esquineros, whether they still live in Mount Pleasant or have moved elsewhere in the region and come back to socialize, the street is “a homing place,” said Reinhard, the photographer. “It’s where their stuff is, where they can get their food.” As mainstays whose faces are known, he said, “I think that they’re a contributing presence to stability on the street.”
Reinhard, who moved into Mount Pleasant in 1973, on President Richard M. Nixon’s Inauguration Day, also sees the esquineros as a prism through which to look at the neighborhood and its evolution. “How do these guys exist in a world that’s gentrifying?” he said. “It’s not intended to be a project about Latinos in Mount Pleasant or Latinos in the DMV area; this is a small-bore look at an interesting group.”
They talk about soccer — Salvadoran and international teams. They exchange information about jobs or spot someone a cup of coffee or some food when a friend is out of cash. In interviewing them for the project, the theme that kept coming up was companionship, Aviles said. “A lot of them have left their families, and they’re renters, so especially on the warm days it’s a place to hang out with your own people.”
The project, which is funded in part by a grant from Humanities DC and is sponsored by the community organization Many Languages One Voice, includes an ethnographer, Olivia Cadaval, who is a research associate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“When you think about it, Mount Pleasant has really established what would be an equivalent to a downtown,” said Cadaval, who is from Mexico and moved to the neighborhood in 1985. “You don’t have this in Maryland or Virginia. People come here on Sundays. . . . A lot of them are older, retired — ‘That’s my home, that’s where I know people.’ ”
Unlike some other 7-Elevens, this one is not generally a place where men wait to get hired as day laborers, nor do they seem particularly concerned about immigration raids, Cadaval said. “I think most of these people have some form of document,” she said. When news came of Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdowns at scores of 7-Elevens across the nation during the project, “We were very worried about it,” she said, “and they were very relaxed.”
In working on the project, Reinhard said he expected there might be blowback from neighbors who didn’t like seeing the esquineros on the corner, who perhaps thought they made the neighborhood look less tidy or less affluent.
Instead, objections came from another quarter. When Cadaval’s husband announced the upcoming exhibit on a neighborhood email list under the heading “Latinos in Mt Pleasant,” more than 30 comments followed. Many were enthusiastic, but some expressed concern that the project objectified the esquineros and smacked of racism.
“I suggest learning more about the history of the neighborhood rather than intrusively documenting our neighbors and turning them into an ‘art exhibit,’ ” wrote a commenter who described herself as a young woman. “However well-intentioned, this project seems dehumanizing and creates an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ perspective. Our neighbors aren’t art. They are people who should be able to hang out wherever they want without us gawking at them — or worse, calling the police for no reason. This whole Mt. Pleasant thread has become rather racist lately. Perhaps we all need to reflect on our own privilege before pointing fingers at (or taking photographs of) our neighbors.”
Another commenter warned against “micro-aggressive racial bias” and urged “the necessary prudent examination of racial privileges in a neighborhood that, a few decades ago, was not predominantly white but now happily normalizes whiteness by differentiating others on basis of race.”
Both commenters declined to give their names, and both deleted their posts after being contacted by The Washington Post. But the second one, a woman in her late 20s who lived in Mount Pleasant for two years but has moved out of the District, said in an interview that the project “seems like it’s coming out of a problematic place. . . . Just the fact that it seems to be around the basis of their race, it seems a little bit, I don’t want to say purposely insensitive, but culturally unaware.”
To Aviles, such critiques fell flat. “Get to know the neighborhood? We are the neighborhood,” he said, noting that most of the seven-member project team has deep roots in Mount Pleasant. “This is coming from us; it comes from the neighborhood. It’s an inside job.”
To Cadaval, the controversy isn’t a bad thing if it creates a dialogue.
“For once, our project isn’t invisible,” she said. “We’re putting up this incredibly dignified exhibit. I think there’s a possibility of a conversation.”
The weekend sidewalk exhibit ended up being canceled because of wind. But as Aviles stood there with his sheaf of photos, more esquineros strolled up.
“They couldn’t get a better picture?” Maribel Garcia, 55, one of the few women, laughed when she saw her photo. “I’m a ruin!”
El Cabo chuckled and promised to attend the opening at the theater. “Claro, magnifico, bien,” he said. “We’ll be there.”