November 4, 2010 | The Washington Post | Original Article

For Hispanics, the capital of opportunity

The Washington region, with the most affluent and one of the most highly educated Hispanic communities in the nation, has lots of people like Charles Vela.

A Salvadoran-born research engineer who runs his own consulting company, Expertech Solutions, Vela came Washington to work on a National Academy of Sciences brain-mapping project. He stayed to develop new ways for the IRS to handle tax returns, for the State Department to detect fraudulent visa applications and for NASA to operate its space telescope.

Now Vela earns a six-figure income, and he and his family live in Potomac, where he said he moved partly to give the children he mentors a taste of the affluence that a science career can bring.

"I want them to want to live in Potomac," he said.

The Washington area has been a magnet for educated Hispanics for decades. Now, new figures from the Census Bureau illustrate how exceptional they are. The region's 700,000 Hispanics have a median household income of nearly $61,000 - the highest in the country among Latinos. One in four Hispanic adults here has at least a four-year college degree, almost double the national rate for Latinos.

The statistics reflect both the unique characteristics of the region and of the Hispanics who are drawn here.

Many were part of an educated elite in their native countries when they immigrated here in the 1960s, '70s and '80s on the heels of political unrest and natural disasters. The nation's capital - with its embassies and its abundance of professional jobs in government, the law, international institutions and nonprofit organizations - was a natural fit.

"What attracts other highly educated folks here attracts highly educated Latinos," said Vela, who came to the United States from El Salvador as a child and has advanced degrees from California State University and the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It's opportunities."

To be sure, many Hispanics in the region do not share the opportunities. About 12 percent live below the poverty level. And the number of Hispanic adults who have less than a ninth-grade education is about the same as the number with college and advanced degrees.

Demographers and community leaders say the Hispanic community here is more diverse than in other cities.

According to census statistics, people from Central America or their descendants make up almost half the Hispanics in the region. The biggest share, about 230,000, comes from El Salvador. In addition, there are almost 100,000 who trace their heritage to Mexico, about 50,000 each from Puerto Rico and Guatemala, and more than 40,000 each from Peru and Bolivia.

"There's a big difference between Latinos who reside in Maryland from the rest of the Latino population in the U.S.," said Jessy Mejia of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "You have a higher percentage of Latinos in Maryland who are citizens or legal residents, who are studying here, getting not just bachelor's but master's degrees."

'Ticket to opportunity'

For some, living in the nation's capital is part of the allure.

"In Latino culture, the idea of traveling to the capital of the country is the ticket to opportunity," said J. Walter Tejada, an Arlington County Board member who moved to the United States from El Salvador at age 13. "Washington, D.C., is thought of in that regard by a lot of people."

The area offers a rich mix of professional jobs that attract well-educated people of all races and ethnicities. Overall, 47 percent of adults in the region who are 25 or older have college degrees. Among Hispanics, it's 23 percent. That compares with 60 percent of Asians, 57 percent of whites and 29 percent of blacks.

"Washington has been a meritocracy for minorities for a long time," said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. "The government sector has rules about making sure people are treated fairly. And government agencies, nonprofits and the private sector all want to reach out to Hispanics and other minorities."

The Hispanic Bar Association of D.C., for example, was founded 33 years ago with a handful of lawyers and now has 500 members.

"D.C. is an attractive market for lawyers, and Hispanics are no less the case," said William Rivera, president-elect of the association and a lawyer with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities brings hundreds of students to Washington every year to intern at federal agencies. About 40 percent end up pursuing a career in the government, said Maria Elena Vivas-House, director of the program.

More than half the Hispanics who live in and around Washington were born in another country, census figures show, and some question whether future generations will be as successful.

Emma Violand-Sanchez, a member of the Arlington County School Board, and her four sisters immigrated to Washington in the 1960s during a political crisis in her native Bolivia. Her father was exiled. She was 16. Eventually she earned a doctorate and now teaches linguistics at Georgetown University. Her children, and those of her sisters, all have attended elite universities.

"People say the American dream is a reality in my family, and I say yes," she said. "Does that translate to our newcomers? I don't know. We have a lot of Latino immigrants who were professionals in their own country, but here, due to the English barrier, they are doing jobs below their educational level."

Facing a nursing shortage, Montgomery County's Latino Health Initiative has enrolled 76 people in a program to help newly immigrated health professionals get the language skills and credentials they need to work here. They found experienced nurses working as food servers and nannies, said Sonia Mora, director of the program. In one case, a surgeon from Cuba was stacking boxes at UPS.

Those who complete the program can expect to see their income rise 150 percent, Mora said.

Defense contractors are another big draw for Hispanics, particularly those who were military officers. Hispanics make up about 12 percent of all enlisted personnel and 5 percent of all officers, according to David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

Rick Gonzalez might not be in Washington if he hadn't been a Marine. He first came to the area in 1983, fresh out of Bowling Green State University, to attend officer candidate school at Quantico. He learned computer systems in the military and returned to Washington 13 years later as an IT manager at a company started by a retired colonel he had worked with.

Today Gonzalez is chief information officer in the Alexandria offices of CTSC, a company that is given special government consideration because it is owned by Alaska natives. He lives with his wife and daughter in a four-bedroom, four-bath house in Stafford, with a living room, family room, game room, movie room and home gym. He has three cars and vacations at a timeshare in Myrtle Beach, S.C. His younger son attends Bowling Green.

He has the kind of life his parents, a foundry worker and a homemaker, could only dream of.

His father, Julio, grew up in a tin-roofed shack perched on rocks and stilts in rural Puerto Rico, but he moved his growing family to Lorain, Ohio, in the late 1950s to work in its mills and factories. As recently as the 1980s, the Puerto Ricans of Lorain were among the nation's wealthiest Hispanic communities because of the factory jobs.

While six of his 12 siblings also attended college, Gonzalez was the first to get a bachelor's degree. "They said they were going to make sure we got an education," Gonzalez said, recalling his parents' desire for him to become a lawyer and give back to the community.

He is 49 now, an age when he can see retirement on the horizon. He said he won't stick around here.

"I'm going to go back to Ohio and help kids," he said. "They need it back there more."