The Mount Pleasant uprising was an important inflection point in the longer history of Central American disenfranchisement in the United States and a pivotal chapter in the Latino civil and human rights movement. The uprising brought the issue of police brutality against Latinos to the attention of the city, as community leaders pointed to the years-long neglect of Latinos by D.C. institutions, agencies and services. Central Americans were seen through one of two prisms: as a threat or as exploitable, but hardly ever as residents who were part of the fabric of the District. The uprising occurred alongside a longer struggle by immigration activists, residents and community leaders who called for local, national and international attention to the crisis experienced by Central American refugees who were escaping civil war in their homelands and simultaneously trying to survive the American city.
Mount Pleasant was a majority-White neighborhood until Black residents began settling there in the mid-20th century. White flight and suburbanization accelerated the trend. However, as early as the 1950s, a small number of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Latin Americans who came to work for the federal government found housing opportunities in the community between low-income Black residents to the east and well-to-do White residents to the west. Businesses serving a Spanish-speaking clientele emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua began arriving, transforming the neighborhood again. They settled there because the prior settlement of Latinos had helped turn Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan into D.C.’s unofficial barrio. The census showed that D.C.’s Latino population nearly doubled between 1980 and 1990, from 17,679 to 32,710.
The arrival of these Salvadorans and Guatemalans remade Mount Pleasant into a neighborhood of sanctuary, services and cultural affirmation, where one could live as an undocumented Spanish-speaking worker and be among a majority, not a minority. Many found jobs as domestic workers, cooks and service workers, living in overcrowded apartments and pooling their money to pay the rent. Despite these difficult conditions, Central Americans created a space of refuge in the nation’s capital.
Such a refuge was necessary because the Reagan administration made many of these Central Americans ineligible for asylum, thus politicizing their circumstances since they were fleeing authoritarian regimes supported by the United States because of Washington’s Cold War anti-communist aims. Yet their undocumented status left these refugees vulnerable as they contended with systemic racism and racialized policing. Living as undocumented immigrants, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were subjected to relentless deportation raids while working in restaurants, playing on soccer fields or resting at home. This association with illegality carried over to mistreatment by D.C. police, who often viewed Central Americans as less than citizens. Two D.C. journalists examined this sentiment presaging the 1991 uprising, by noting: “Latinos already felt that they were the victims of police harassment.”
This policing created a powder keg of resentment. And then, on May 5, 1991, it erupted. A clash broke out between a police department ill-prepared to serve a growing immigrant population from Central America and the residents of the neighborhood. On that spring day, an immigrant laborer from El Salvador, Daniel Enrique Gomez, was enjoying a break from work with some friends on a street corner, drinking beer out of a container in a brown paper bag, when D.C. police officers descended on him. He was handcuffed, and after a tense exchange of words and Gomez’s resisting apprehension, a rookie police officer took out her gun and shot him in the chest.
That became “the shot that shook the capital,” as a Washington Post reporter put it. Crowds of angry Latinos expressed their frustration with the police by throwing bottles and flipping patrol cars. Skirmishes between community members and the police erupted into outright street violence, with burning of buildings and looting that lasted three days. A thousand riot police were dispatched to patrol the Latino neighborhoods, and the city imposed a curfew.
Although Gomez survived his injury, the shooting and ensuing uprising revealed a deeper fissure stemming from inequities and mistreatment of the growing refugee community at the hands of D.C. police. And it focused attention on the members of this community within a city that had largely ignored them.
Two years later, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings, subsequently issuing “The Mount Pleasant Report” in January 1993. In the report, the commission noted the systemic “inability or unwilling[ness]” of the district’s government “to meet the needs of the immigrants.” The commission concluded that the riot resulted from “unmet needs piling on top of needs unmet for decades.” Beyond the indictment of city government, the commission’s 189-page report was striking for its historical consideration of 1980s America that placed Central Americans at the center of larger political, economic and cultural forces. It included evidence from Central American community leaders in D.C., especially from leaders on the Latino Civil Rights Task Force that was formed after the disturbances, who informed the commission that mistreatment by police was just the tip of the iceberg of challenges Latinos faced.
At their root, these problems stemmed from the U.S. government’s denial of political and human rights, especially asylum, for immigrants whom it had a hand in displacing from El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries through its foreign policy. Activists had made strides during the 1980s as refugees traveled around the United States as part of a faith-based sanctuary movement, providing personal testimony to audiences about the trauma and terror they experienced at the hands of the military in their countries, which had U.S. backing. Many wore face coverings to avoid being identified and becoming targets of violence or kidnapping. Their testimonials helped create political pressure to reform asylum policies and grant these migrants legal status, which might have mitigated some of the problems facing neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant in dealing with police.
On the legal front, in 1985, more than 80 organizations filed a class-action lawsuit to fight this routine denial of asylum for refugees from Central America. This led to a landmark settlement in 1991 allowing certain groups of migrants to have their asylum claims reheard.
In 1990, Congress created temporary protected status (TPS), designating El Salvador as a country that was unsafe for migrants to return to and granting Salvadorans work permits and protection from deportation. By the time of the 1993 report, TPS had become critically important to the D.C. Latino community. Yet TPS did not afford people access to permanent residency or a path to citizenship.
This left D.C.’s Central American immigrants vulnerable to continued police abuse, as well as to discrimination in employment, housing and education, areas of equal concern to the commission in the aftermath of the riots. Because these temporary categories were subject to change, routinely expired and were applied differently depending on whether an applicant was from El Salvador, Guatemala or somewhere else, achieving a semblance of stability proved difficult. Throughout the 1990s, pro-immigration activists waged a renewed battle to preserve the rights of refugees and asylum seekers against an ascendant faction of immigration restrictionists in Congress.
Since then, the Central American communities in D.C. and the greater metro area have continued to fight at the federal level for TPS (local activists have been dubbed “Los Tepesianos,” a play on the acronym) and to push at the city level for police accountability and municipal resources to address an array of social service needs, including affordable housing and after-school programs. Since 1991, the Latino communities in Northwest Washington have made incremental gains through various agencies that work on housing, education and food access programs. An Office of Police Complaints opened in 2001 and is staffed by civilians. The D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs is an important interface for Latino residents seeking city resources.
Mount Pleasant remains home to many social service agencies aimed at working-class Latino immigrants, even as those immigrants encounter severe housing insecurity caused by gentrification. Wealthy professionals covet the neighborhood, creating a market for million-dollar rowhouses. Nevertheless, its cultural identity as a Latino area has made it a rallying point for immigration activists and community marches, and the memory of the 1991 uprising lives on.
Yet, even as the D.C. government has grown more responsive to Central American issues, the federal government has continued the policies fueling the problems. U.S. foreign policy continues to disrupt the lives of Salvadorans and others, and U.S. immigration policy has failed to integrate long-term members of the community, leaving migrants vulnerable. But building on the legacies of political organizing, the struggle continues.