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Langley Park: 'Maryland's International Corridor'

By Carolyn Feola
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 6, 2002; Page H01

Sit down at the McDonald's near the intersection of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park, and you might overhear a conversation in French while you eat your fries. You might hear Spanish jokes from the table behind you, and there might be Indian women dressed in glittering saris in the booth in front of you.

At any time, there are countless immigrants at the intersection that is called Takoma/Langley Crossroads. This is where Montgomery County ends and Prince George's County begins. This is where the affluent and ever-visible city of Takoma Park meets humble, low-profile Langley Park. And this is where people from all over the world cross paths to make a go of life in America. It is a singular community created from a multitude of cultures, languages and stories of hope.

Yaneek Wilson is a 19-year-old arrival from Cote d'Ivoire and an undergraduate at Howard University. Like many French-speaking West Africans in the area, Wilson has made Langley Park his adopted home. And like any American dreamer, he has grand visions for his future.

"I had a chance to come here to increase my English language skills and to learn how to change society. I would like to try to go back home and help my country," he said.

Wilson has finished his English studies and this fall will begin a course of study in business administration. He has come halfway around the globe to follow in the footsteps of his father, a businessman involved in trade goods. His parents send him the rent money for his apartment, which is in a complex off University Boulevard. He has an uncle nearby and an aunt in the District, but Wilson lives by himself -- a change from African life, he says.

Africa is "not like here, where it's just your brother, your sister in your family," he said. "African families are big. It's cousins, aunties, uncles, everyone."

Langley Park is different. "Here there are lots of people from Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone -- the native English-speaking countries [in Africa]. But there are mostly Spanish people in my neighborhood, from South America," he said.

The 2000 Census figures reflect Wilson's experience.

Bill Hanna, a professor with the University of Maryland's Urban Studies and Planning department, said that according to the Census, there are about 17,000 people in Langley Park, and about half of them are from El Salvador. Because of the ethnic variety along University Boulevard, Hanna refers to it as "Maryland's international corridor."

Head east through the corridor and you will pass a bounty of authentic international restaurants -- Indian, Caribbean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian. But in Langley Park, with its thousands of Salvadorans, the staple food is the pupusa, the signature dish of El Salvador.

Pupusas are small grilled flat breads stuffed with cheese or pork, smoky with flavor and just starchy enough to be classic comfort food.

Pupusas are also big business. There is no passing through Langley Park without spotting a lunch truck selling them or day laborers sitting on a curb eating them. Some of the success stories in the neighborhood are about women who began selling pupusas to neighbors and eventually became restaurant owners.

Irene Cuvas is one of those success stories. Born in Honduras, Cuvas came to the United States 32 years ago and found work as a housekeeper. She learned to make pupusas from her then-husband, a Salvadoran, and began bringing her homemade hot food to weekend soccer games. Demand grew, along with her personal responsibilities -- by 1985, she was raising five daughters and two sons on her own.

"When you have children, when you are a single mother, you have to do something," she said.

Cuvas bought a lunch truck in 1985 and began serving pupusas and carne asada (grilled steak) starting at 4 p.m. each Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She would prepare huge batches of curtido, the vinegary slaw served alongside pupusas, and cook over the truck's large, hot grill long into the night. She worked two jobs until 1996, when she quit housekeeping, sold the truck and opened Irene's Pupusas in a storefront on University Boulevard.

In 1998, a fire devastated her carryout, and Irene's Pupusas was gone from Langley Park for 1 1/2 years.

But Cuvas saw it as a blessing. "God knows what he is doing. He said, 'Irene, you need a rest.' "

Cuvas reopened the store in 2001, this time in a bigger location with more tables for sit-down diners. The space is simple but vibrant, with homestyle cooking, Spanish chatter and images of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Cuvas is there seven days a week, working alongside her eldest daughter, Ruth.

"I think I will work as long as I can," she says. "I have to be here, because people say, 'Where is Irene?' I have to be here talking to the people."

Hanna is one of Cuvas's regulars, often coming by for a meal and to check in on her and the business. He has had a self-proclaimed love affair with Langley Park since choosing the area as a graduate studio topic for the spring 1995 semester. In the course of his research, he contacted two planners with Prince George's County, who told him, "If you start focusing on the area, we'll have to pay attention."

Hanna brought graduate students to Langley Park for an in-depth needs assessment, which revealed the serious issues faced by residents: immigration law worries, inadequate health care, domestic violence, crime, transportation shortfalls, pedestrian safety and day laborer issues.

Although he never anticipated that the studio project would extend past the semester, his fondness for the neighborhood and its people grew. In 1997 he began publishing "Barrio de Langley Park," a bimonthly newsletter, and in 1998 he founded Action Langley Park, a nonprofit organization.

"I did it because there was no voice for the neighborhood," he said. "It's not a municipality; it has no government. And because it's so transient, people don't invest in the neighborhood. I started the newspaper and stuff to say, 'This area counts.' "

Action Langley Park is a volunteer group that serves as an advocate for residents and provides social services.

"We have arranged for an immigration lawyer to give free advice; every couple of weeks we have people come in and ask any health questions they want," Hanna said.

Thanks to Action Langley Park, the neighborhood recently received a $750,000 grant for a technological center at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary.

"We have 30 state-of-the-art computers, and we have a technician available to help anyone who needs it," he said.

Hanna often works with the Central American Solidarity Association of Maryland, another local nonprofit. CASA, founded in 1985 by Gustavo Torres and Steve Smithson, began as an ecclesiastical interfaith organization supporting Latino immigrants but has since expanded its scope.

"We're confident that we can serve low-income residents of P.G. County, regardless of resident status," said Alex Escudero, CASA's housing organizer. "We serve all residents."

CASA offers training in self-confidence and classes in English and Spanish for speakers of other languages. It also provides employment services. Clients can register with CASA for job opportunities and receive a photo ID to present to employers.

"It's something," Escudero said. "CASA has a solid reputation, so registration with us is something to put on a résumé."

Residents also seek out CASA for legal help. Lawyers Smithson and Kim Propeack are tackling a long waiting list of people who have complaints of abuse by employers or landlords, or who need immigration assistance. In between cases, they perform advocacy work on behalf of low-income people.

One client of Propeack's is the Pupusa Vendors of Prince George's County, a business association with 19 members seeking to change the county laws to make their lunch trucks legal. At present, the county doesn't license the trucks, so police issue tickets to vendors.

"They get ticketed under a variety of provisions -- sometimes they get parking tickets, sometimes they get zoning tickets. They don't get trouble from the health department, though. They all have taken classes and they comply with health code. These people are astoundingly savvy," Propeack said. "They used to own stores in their country, and they have lots of business experience -- two to 10 years in operating these lunch trucks."

Propeack lives in the District but has become friends with Langley Park residents such as Lucila Espinal, whom she ran into at the recent Langley Park Day festival. Propeack said that Espinal bought a home in Glen Burnie after renting for 10 years in Langley Park, but her children are unhappy in their new house, so after less than a year, the Espinal family has decided to return.

"They're smart, accomplished kids, but they felt isolated," Propeack said. "Now she says she is moving back. I think that's indicative of the neighborhood -- it's really vibrant. Kids love to go to school here. [Teachers] really make an effort to understand their culture. At the end of the day, what Langley Park is about is the children. People who live here are really committed to their kids."

Propeack said she was drawn to her position because she "was interested in working at an organization that believed in empowering neighborhoods to make change."

One recent CASA victory is a new state law that requires Maryland agencies and programs to translate vital documents into the languages of non-fluent speakers of English who represent 3 percent or more of the population in certain geographic areas.

"I think CASA can take credit for that bill; we lobbied long and hard for that," Escudero said.

There are other signs of change for Langley Park. More mass transit could be coming, with the proposed inner route of the Purple Line, an east-west addition to the Metrorail system that would connect Langley Park with College Park, Silver Spring, Bethesda and possibly Northern Virginia.

There is debate over the potential location for the long-discussed line, with some advocating an outer route through central Montgomery County. On a visit to Takoma/Langley Crossroads last October, Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening (D) stated his support for the inner route.

And in March, Glendening approved the creation of a permanent panel of representatives from the state and Montgomery and Prince George's counties to address the pressing issues of Takoma/Langley Crossroads, including transportation, day laborers and pedestrian safety. The panel got a significant boost from the involvement of Takoma Park, which has its own city council and has a recognized voice in local politics.

Hanna appreciates the character of Langley Park's higher-profile neighbor, but don't expect him to shift his energies or his affections there.

"I like Takoma Park," he said. "But it can't hold a candle to Langley Park's ethnic richness."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company