- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Hispanic Americans, growing in numbers and financial clout, are going to transform American society over the next 10 years. With one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, Washington, D.C., probably won't have to wait that long. The nation's capital is now a bona fide "creative hub," thanks in no small part to its Latin American inhabitants.

In downtown and Southwest theaters, in a variety of Adams Morgan venues and with original TV productions and annual festivals, Hispanics are already making their distinctive cultural presence felt.

"We've been breaking the mold," says Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, 41, president of Maya Communications, an advertising company in downtown Washington. "It's not like we're L.A., home to six million Hispanics," he points out, "we're home to half-a-million."

Nationwide, according to 2000 census figures, the Hispanic population increased 58 percent from 22.4 million to 35.3 million during the 1990s, bringing Latin American numbers into the same league as blacks. By 2005, they will outpace the latter population and become the largest minority group in the country.

The economy, the education system, electoral politics, arts and entertainment trends each sector of our society will be hugely affected by this burgeoning ethnic community. As these changes are registered, Hispanics will continue to profoundly shape the Washington area's cultural landscape.

In the District and its Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs, according to census figures, the Hispanic population nearly doubled during the '90s, from 228,000 to approximately 500,000.

"Some 25 years ago, there was a little festival called Festival Latino," Mr. Vasquez-Ajmac recalls. It started in Mount Pleasant, with approximately 10,000 participants, "now it's half-a-million [people] on Pennsylvania Ave."

In a way, this story is nothing new; ethnic diversity in cities is not a recent phenomenon, and the District has long been a cosmopolitan town, attracting well-heeled diplomats, foreign students and enterprising young people from across the country. And, of course, D.C. culture has always been leavened by its black population the great Duke Ellington and the storied U Street jazz clubs being obvious examples.

But, unlike blacks, who were once cruelly segregated from the District's white population, Hispanics have had to fitfully make their way as immigrants: integrated, yes, but as often as not in low-skill jobs, where, from the perspective of their more fortunate and paler peers, they are a nameless army of service workers.

Richard Montoya worries about the thousands of Latin Americans who aren't as successful as Mr. Vasquez-Ajmac.

"I'm really more concerned about [young Latinos] than I am about Latino professionals," says Mr. Montoya, who, along with collaborator Ricardo Salinas, co-wrote and stars in "Anthems: Culture Clash in the District," a production finishing its run at Arena Stage in Southwest.

Mr. Montoya and Mr. Salinas, as well as Herbert Siguenza, are part of a Los Angeles-based theatrical group called Culture Clash. "Anthems" seamlessly blends together vignettes depicting the sometimes uneasy nature of the District's ethnic cocktail of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Middle and Far Easterners an uneasiness that was exacerbated by the September 11 terrorist attacks, a central theme of the play.

In particular, Mr. Montoya, 43, is concerned about the tension between black and Latin cultures. "[They] are not merging," he insists.

Younger Latinos, he continues, are assimilating aspects of black hip-hop culture for example, by wearing baggy pants, a look he traces back to the zoot-suiters of the 1940s in order to survive amid the city's tough street life. Their parents, however, are having trouble transitioning into the District's culture, Mr. Montoya says.

"In a sense, here in D.C. [Latinos] are an invisible community," Mr. Silanas, 41, adds.

Still, the influx of Latin American immigrants has clearly brought a unique flavor to the city: clubs like Adams Morgan's Latin Jazz Alley, where hundreds of people take salsa classes; a passel of South American and Mexican restaurants; and theaters, galleries and various other cultural resources.

In his book "The Rise of the Creative Class," a superb study of the rhythms and cycles of economic creativity and its connection to urban life, Richard Florida explored what's behind the growth of cities like the District, New York, Austin, Seattle and other knowledge-driven hubs.

Just as important as financial considerations such as average salaries, Mr. Florida found, were the factors that make a city "livable." He cited such things as good restaurants, a lively music scene and a thriving arts community. None of these quality-of-life assets is attainable, he wrote, without ethnic diversity and vibrant "street-level" culture.

In each of these areas, Hispanics have been making key contributions to the city's cultural and commercial life.

"Having a vibrant Hispanic community is an incredibly positive force," says Mr. Florida, professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, in a phone interview. "They like to do culture, not just watch it."

As Latin American culture has flourished in the District, Hispanic-driven entrepreneurship has shown signs of growth, too.

For his part, Mr. Florida isn't surprised.

"Immigrants by their nature are entrepreneurs," he says. And when enterprising Hispanics choose a destination, what city are they going to choose? "A city like Pittsburgh, where there aren't a lot of Hispanics?"

Obviously, Mr. Florida says, talented and educated Hispanics are going to pick cities like the District, where they can sample their own culture as well as that of other ethnic groups.

"What I've seen in Washington is what I saw in Texas," says Armando Almanza, 40, formerly of Austin and now the president of a District-based video production company called Ventana Productions.

"In the last 15 years, I've seen the community grow," Mr. Almanza notes, "I've seen more and more companies started by Hispanics."

Another thing he's noticed is more voluptuous models in magazines, a phenonomen he partly attributes to the popularity of Jennifer Lopez and other curvaceous stars.

Messrs. Vasquez-Ajmac and Almanza recently collaborated on a project called "Viva TV," an entertainment news show MTV meets "20/20" that targets young Hispanics. It debuts tonight on Channel 9.

As new, fast-paced projects like "Viva TV" emerge, the GALA Hispanic Theatre, located downtown on 7th Street Northwest, will continue to be one of the city's Latin American cultural flagships. Established in 1976, the theater produces plays, musicals and other performances in both Spanish and English.

Hugo Medrano, one of the GALA's founders, says the city was "very provincial in terms of theater and the arts" when he first came to Washington in 1971.

Five years later, the theater opened and "created an interest among the Anglo audience," Mr. Medrano, 58, says. "The Americans were very enthusiastic about what we were doing."

Before it focused on plays and musicals, the GALA was a generalist "cultural center" that attracted all manner of artists, from poets to painters to actors. "It was a very ebullient time," Mr. Medrano recalls.

In the late '70s, a number of South American political emigres many of them intellectuals with an interest in the arts were settling in the District. "We opened the doors for all of these people," he says, adding that today, GALA attracts just as many non-Latinos as it does Latinos.

What Mr. Medrano and the theater's co-founders accomplished in the world of Latin American theater, Maru Montero has done for the world of dance.

Mrs. Montero, 40, has lived in the District for 15 years and established the city's first Latin American dance company in 1992. Maru Montero Dance Company has appeared at the Kennedy Center and performs at more than 60 school assemblies a year.

"We're trying to create an awareness" of Latin Americans' "rich traditions," says Mrs. Montero, who began, and continues to help organize, the city's annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.

"We're trying to put a little grain out there," she says. The quality of the city's cultural life is "coming along," and Latin Americans will continue "trying to lift it up."

Mrs. Montero and a partner will dance a polka at the Washington Post Music and Dance Scholarship Awards (which benefits high school seniors) at the Warner Theatre on Oct. 19.

Another example of Latin cultural ferment in the District is the funky Alvear Studio, a design and import shop in a revitalized section of 8th Street Southeast near Eastern Market. It's chock-full of colorful Mexican folk art oil-on-canvas paintings, Oaxacan wood carvings, mirrors framed in tin and talavera tile, wrought iron candelabras, waterfall wall hangings. The studio also carries handmade leather accessories and provides design consultation services.

The opening scene in an independent short film called "Table for Two" was filmed in Alvear Studio earlier this week. It was also the site chosen by the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in June 2001.

"We're so 'un-Washington,' " says Chris Alvear, 29, co-owner of the shop, which began as a small space in Eastern Market's outdoor bazaar. "That's why we have been a very popular store with the community."

"People come in here and say, 'This reminds me of San Francisco, this reminds me of New York,'" says Mr. Alvear, a San Antonio, Tex., native. "It's hip, it has soul. We're definitely not a Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel."

Mr. Alvear or his business partner, Francisco Pliego, travel to Mexico four or five times a year, handpicking every piece sold in the studio.

What they bring back is an alternative to strip-mall and big-box department store wares, an alternative that Mr. Florida says is essential for a city to cut a distinct figure.

It's what he calls "multicultural capital" a vital ingredient to the future economic and cultural health of the District and other creative hubs that are soon going to look a lot browner.

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