In N.Va., a Latino Community Unravels

N.C. Aizenman, Washington Post, March 27, 2008

A vibrant Latino subculture built in Prince William County over more than a decade is starting to come undone in a matter of months.

With Latinos fleeing the combined effects of the construction downturn, the mortgage crisis and new local laws aimed at catching illegal immigrants, Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once-busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.

County officials who have campaigned for months to drive out illegal immigrants say they would be unhappy to see businesses suffer or legal immigrants forced out in the process.

“But I believe the benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks,” said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors and a leading advocate of the new policy allowing police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other violations. “And there will continue to be . . . a thriving Latino community in the county into the future.”

At least for the moment, however, to travel through Prince William’s Latino enclaves is to witness scene after scene of a community’s transformation.

It was just past noon, a time when dozens of Latino construction workers used to troop into Doris Sorto’s Dale City restaurant.

Yet on this recent weekday, the only occupied table was the one where Sorto, 54, sat with the restaurant’s disc jockey, sipping chicken soup as she worked up the nerve to tell him she would need to let him go. She had already laid off one cook and three waitresses.

A U.S. citizen, Sorto moved to Prince William from El Salvador in 1986, opening a mini-mart in 2001 when a construction boom and cheap housing were luring Latinos to the county. As their share of the population in Prince William grew from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent, so did Sorto’s ambitions.

In 2006, she opened the restaurant, naming it El Rinconcito Latino, or Little Latino Corner. By last March, Sorto was doing so well she decided to sign a 10-year, $18,000-a-month lease on a cavernous mall space where she hoped to open a Latin American-themed supermarket.

But since October, she said, business at the restaurant has dropped by 60 percent. Last month, after Sorto had spent more than $100,000 on cabinets for the new market, her banker informed her that he could no longer approve the $950,000 loan they had been finalizing.

{snip}

The choir at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Woodbridge broke into a final, spirited chorus signaling the conclusion of the Easter Sunday Spanish Mass. A 28-year-old Salvadoran woman named Nury Fuentes pulled a set of rosary beads from her purse and waved them at a woman a few pews back.

“To work!” Fuentes whispered with a grin.

{snip}

Until recently, Fuentes said, she could have counted on nearly 40 people to join her at the front of the church. Members of the group call each other “brother” and “sister” and rarely miss a meeting.

But since October, more than two dozen have moved away.

Now only four women and seven men trickled forward.

{snip}

Normally, Silda [a Guatemalan woman] would have spent a day like this walking around the mall, or chatting on the stoop with her Salvadoran friend next door while Cynthia played with the Mexican children across the street.

But those neighbors are gone now, their homes vacant like so many others in the subdivision. And Silda, who is in the United States illegally, is too nervous to venture out for casual strolls.

“What if a policeman were to stop me and ask for identification?” said Silda, who asked that her surname not be published.

{snip}

She checked the TV clock again. Time to walk to the bus stop, where her 5-year-old son, Denilson, would be dropped off from kindergarten. Silda and Cynthia stepped into the eerie quiet of the street. They walked past several small houses with “For Sale” signs in front. In the driveway of another, a pickup truck was piled with chairs and a grill.

“Looks like they’ll be the next to go,” Silda murmured.

A police car drove by, and Silda quickly pulled Cynthia toward her body.

At last, the bus arrived. When school started last fall, she said, a dozen Latino kids used to get off. On this afternoon, Denilson was the only one. Silda let him and Cynthia race back to the house. The more energy they expended, the less they would complain about spending the rest of the day inside.

{snip}

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