A Slice of Guatemala in the Suburbs

I work in a mostly Latino “commercial area” (that’s what Wikipedia calls it) that lies between Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners. I don’t know the specific demographics but I would guess the neighborhood is at least 75% Latino, consisting mostly of Guatemalans of Native American descent. According to the Census Bureau, there are about 9,000 Guatemalans in Fairfax County and my guess is that a majority of these are concentrated in the Culmore area. A lot of the community is “Latino-ized” but when I go down to the WO&D Trail about a mile away to walk or ride my bike, I’ve actually heard families speaking to each other in ancient Mayan languages, Mam being the most popular. There are less than 500,000 people in the world who speak Mam, and some of them are here. It’s pretty neat to see women in traditional Mayan dress speaking a traditional Mayan language having a picnic by the WO&D Trail in Arlington with her children alongside upper-middle class WASP-y families. In all likelihood, the children of these immigrants will lose or forget whatever ties they have to their native communities in a generation or two. I think I read somewhere that Latinos assimilate to American culture (whatever that may mean) within three generations, so it seems all the more amazing that I am able to catch a glimpse of a culture that takes up such a tiny space within the global context.

When I was growing up in Centreville and was one of maybe 10 “multicultural” kids at Cub Run elementary, this would have seemed impossible, but here I am, speaking Spanish all day and hearing obscure ancient languages every once in a while. Immigration patterns fascinate me. I always thought large ethnic concentrations were a thing for cities like Los Angeles, L.A or Miami and I would never have imagined that the suburbs of Washington D.C would become an enclave for so many people from all over the world. But when I walk around my work neighborhood, I see panaderias, Latin American travel agencies and book stores, Central American restaurants, Latin American hair salons and more. Why is there a large concentration of Guatemalans in the Bailey’s Crossroads area? Why are there so many Bolivians and Peruvians in South Arlington? When did El Salvadorans and people from India decide on the Herndon-Sterling corridor? What brought Hondurans and Vietnamese to Springfield? What about the Koreans in Centreville? I guess a lot of it has to do with seeking a sense of community and belonging in a foreign place, plus the fact that most of the immigrant groups that call Fairfax home come from cultures that value strong family ties. It probably feels easier to get your start in America if you are surrounded by people from your city, town or village and family. Whether this is true or not, I’m not sure.

There is a Guatemalan Bank!

There is a Guatemalan Bank!

Community Members can go to AA in Spanish.

Community Members can go to AA in Spanish.

Latin American Grocery Store.

Latin American Grocery Store.

Corrientazos.

Corrientazos.

Latin Bakery.

Latin Bakery.



Categories: Suburbs, The Urban Anthropologist Files, Virginia

Tags: , , ,

6 replies

  1. That’s very cool about Mam. I sometimes hear my patients at the hospital speaking indigenous languages. I’ll ask them about it, so I know I’ve helped native speakers of Mixteco (Mexico), Quechua (Ecuador), the two Guatemalan languages that start with a k, and I think some El Salvadorean languages as well. And who knows how many that I don’t even know about. So, you speak Spanish all day at your job??? How was I not aware of this? What do you do, again?

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