Saturday, December 4, 2021

Victoria Virasingh

Victoria Virasingh grew up in Arlington along Columbia Pike. Of  Thai/Punjabi Sikh/Ecuadorian heritage, she attended Stanford University on a full scholarship and graduated with a masters degree in international relations. A tech industry professional, she is running for Congress in Virginia’s 8th District.

My name is Victoria Isabelle Virasingh. I'm 29. I'm a first generation American. I grew up right here in Arlington, born and raised. My mom is from Ecuador, in South America. My grandparents are Punjabi Sikhs from India, refugees after the partition of 1947 who ended up settling in Bangkok, Thailand where my father and his siblings were born. Thai is his first language. He immigrated directly here to Arlington. 


My mom had a few nieces, including one who is the owner of the Le Touche salon on the Pike. My parents met in Ballston, before Ballston was cool and expensive like it is today. My mom was renting an apartment on Wilson Boulevard, and her roommate moved out. She was looking for another roommate and posted the opening in the newspaper. My dad circled it and came to check out the room. He ended up moving in and that's how they met. They found love very quickly. My mom had never had Indian or Thai food before she met my dad. They met and they found love here in Arlington.


Columbia Pike is really central to my life. My mom lived off the Pike when she first came here in some of the garden apartments around here. I know she moved around a lot. She was housing insecure, just trying to find the most affordable options, sometimes not having enough to pay, moving in with family, moving in with friends. My whole family has all grown up here around the Pike. My cousin she started the La Touche beauty salon. She's been here for more than twenty years. And really, this is like the central part of our family. All my family lives near here. Whenever we have baby showers or birthdays, it's here at the salon. 

I have early memories from growing up here. I remember walking down the Pike with my cousins going to get ice cream. I remember going to get tacos. Thai Square restaurant is a big favorite of ours because when my dad first moved here, he started going there. He’s known the owner for more than thirty years. He was one of the first customers that they had. Birthdays, anniversaries, we always would go there. We've also seen this area change so much. There are a lot of businesses that have been here for a long time, but there also are new businesses that have come. The Salsa Room was a big favorite of ours. But they've moved out. It's at Tyson's now.


I identify as biracial. I identify as Latina and as Indian. I am an American, but I'm also Latina and Indian and biracial. And I think that being biracial in Arlington is becoming a norm, there are more than one hundred languages spoken here. I think that there is a diversity of experiences that I grew up in that are unique to being in a mixed-race family. I grew up speaking Spanish and there were a lot of cultural elements to that. Growing up, watching telenovelas, listening to reggaeton, eating food, is so central. On both sides of my family the culture really revolves around family and food. and can be very heated, like lots of yelling and lots of heightened expressions. As you are trying to navigate your personality and who you are in this world, I’ve been informed by two very strong cultures and family histories. I think because both of my families have immigration and refugee experiences, I think it makes us very resilient. Growing up, there's so much of, just work hard, try hard. Luchar, it's a big theme for me and my campaign, because I grew up in that. It means struggle or grit. Luchar is the verb. And then la lucha is the noun. There's not a direct translation in English, but it basically means to overcome the odds stacked against you. You're an immigrant, you're a refugee, you're basically starting from nothing. And how do you do that? It's through struggle, it's through grit. And that's been a very prominent theme in both sides of my family.


My parents didn't go to college. My mom is a manicurist. My dad worked retail and held a number of different jobs. Sometimes he was out of work and we oftentimes relied on my mom's minimum wage salary. I think that at that time, growing up in Arlington, especially in south Arlington, it was possible. It was definitely a struggle, but you could make it on minimum wage. At that time, minimum wage was $5.50 an hour. And it's crazy to me is that minimum wage at the beginning of 2021 in Virginia was $7.25. It hasn't budged in 20 years or so. I saw how hard My mom worked for a $2 tip that, $2 plus $2 or $2, that eventually, at the end of the day, became dinner on the table. That became money for my books to go to school, for notebooks, for things that would allow me to be able to succeed. I saw a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the part of my parents. They wanted and worked for the American dream, they wanted their daughter, me, to have opportunities that they never had. They worked so that I could have these opportunities, so that I could reach levels and educational pursuits and dreams that I had. It really teaches you, one -hard work, the value of hard work, of putting in a day's work. Two -the value of a dollar. My mom has a saying, "People know how to write poor, poverty. They know how to read it. They know how to spell it. But a lot of people don't know what it's like to have a lived experience where you have 100 bucks and you have to make that last for two weeks."


We do. We do know what that's like. And I think because of that experience, that lived experience, policy to me is personal. I see things happening that affect the lives of working class people, that cuts deep into my core, because I grew up like that myself. What has changed is when I was growing up here, it was tough, but it was manageable. Today, it's impossible. It is impossible.


There have been lots of changes. This area has blossomed in a lot of really positive ways. A lot of people have moved in here. We've got tons of business, tons of restaurants, tons of things that you can do in the entertainment, leisure space. I think the consequence of that is it's really driven up housing and rent prices to the point where if you are working a minimum wage job, if you are working class, how do you afford to even pay your bills? I would say affordable housing has grown to be a real issue. Transportation has seen a big change also. My mom took Metro and buses to work. And today, to go to DC from here on Metro and bus can sometimes be up to $10, especially, unfortunately, if you're in South Arlington. Now there's a few more routes that are more accessible, but there aren't a lot of public transportation routes that you could take. I think those changes, which to me, signal rapid growth, which is great, but what are we doing on the infrastructure side and on ensuring that people can actually afford to live and work here?

I definitely wish to raise my family here. I want to be able to share the community that raised me, but for me it's tough. I went to college, I got my master's degree. I got a job. I saved every penny that I can, but I can't buy into this market. A lot of people my age are living at home with our parents, especially during this pandemic. We're looking for ways to plant our roots and start our own families here. But it's tough. It's tough if you're under the age of 40, the housing market here is out of reach unless you have generational wealth or you bought stocks early on and you made a killing. But for the average person, I think ... and a lot of the parents of my friends, I've also been talking to them, their house’s prices have appreciated. So they're sitting in a pretty good place, but they're wondering, what about my kids? Where are they going to go? That is a big question for those of us that want to stay here and that want to continue being a part of this community.

Growing up I had friends a lot within the Asian and Hispanic community. Here demographically, there's a lot of Central Americans. The Ecuadorian community is actually quite small here in Arlington. The Bolivian community is big. I grew up with friends from all over. I actually had a very good friend who is half Argentinian and we'd speak in Spanish and I adopted an Argentinian dialect; the accent's a little bit stronger. 


On the Asian side, there's a huge Vietnamese, Cambodian community here. The Thai community is smaller, but we were part of the Thai networks in the area. The Indian community especially the Punjabis, are a little bit more out in the Fairfax County. We would belong to all of these, and even in school, you got to experience all different types of foods and international days where people share their culture and their traditions. I went to St. Agnes School in North Arlington, and that was more homogeneous. I definitely stood out as being biracial. But whenever I was with my family in south Arlington, it was this huge soup of mixture.


I went to NOVA  [Northern Virginia Community College] for a while. I took a sign language class there, because I was driving and I saw the school and it was hearing and deaf kids, and it was so beautiful. They were just playing together and it was quieter than the normal. I thought to myself like, "Wow, the kids have this beautiful way of communicating with a wide group people. Why can't we as adults?" And then I ended up getting a scholarship, a full-ride scholarship that took me to Stanford University. At the time that I was applying, if you got in and your parents made less than $50,000, and they would cover everything. It was truly a gift. I remember the day that I got in, I was with one of my best friends from elementary school. I was driving on Lee Highway, which is now Langston Boulevard. I got an email notification on my phone and Gracie, my friend was sitting next to me. I had her open it up and she was like, "You got into Stanford!" And I was like, "Oh my God." We had a little moment in the car on Lee Highway. We did a little dance in the car. And then I came home and I told my parents and they were like, "Oh," they were like, "it's so far." The college process I really did alone. My parents were new to this country and navigating the college system was new to us all. The goal was to just go to college and find ways to be able to pay for it through scholarships and other kind of grants.


I worked through school. I had my first job when I was thirteen. I cannot honestly remember a time, where I have not had at least one job or two. I've worked as a babysitter. I worked on Capitol Hill, in the Office of Internships of Senator Diane Feinstein. I've worked as a yoga instructor. I've worked at a few other internships. I did an internship at the IRS criminal investigations unit. I worked at the Mintz Group in DC on an internship. I did a few research fellowships where you got money, went to South America, to Brazil, and worked being a research fellow. I worked at a tech company called Palantir, but I started doing a lot of pro bono work with them building out the public, private partnership. A lot of it was building relationships, finding ways to use technology to better the lives of others, to create opportunities so that everybody, blue collar worker, white collar worker, can incorporate technology into their job to help them in some operational way.


To be honest with you, I am nervous about what is happening on Columbia Pike because I'm looking at the development plans for the Pike and I'm seeing a lot of displacement. I'm seeing my own cousin in the salon; she has got to go because developers are coming in. We've been fighting it. We've been trying to find ways even to have her stay in Arlington, because it's gotten so expensive to run a small local business here. I was just talking to her and she was saying she wants to look elsewhere on the Pike and see if there's another place she can rent. But even on the western end of the Pike, she's probably got three or four years, because there are development plans to knock out all those businesses there, too. To me, that is really worrisome because the culture will be changed. Right now we are sitting in a hair and nail salon, but it's so much more than that. The salon culture, the culture on the Pike, it's familial. It is friendship. It is community. People come here. She has people that have loyally been coming here for more than two decades. It's family. When you take that out, you're taking out a nucleus that has been formed and has been nurtured over decades. And you're replacing it with things that are catering to a more ... I don't know, to a community that is not the one that I grew up in.

I know all the owners, business owners here because I grew up here and people are worried. They're worried that they don't know how long they have left on the Pike. I want to ensure that we have growth, but that we also preserve the culture and the communities that have made the Pike beautiful and what it is today.


My hope is, let's keep the Pike, let's keep the business owners who have been here for decades. Let's ensure that they have a place here. Let's find development projects that allow for new business, that will allow for new development without displacing the people that have been here. I think for me, When I’ve talked to the people here, they want to keep their homes and businesses, but the developers want to build apartments, condos. They want to keep the ground floor to be local businesses. That part is great. I'm thinking hair nail salons, everyone needs to get their hair cut. Most women and men alike  and non-binaries, if they want to get their nails done, pedicure. That should work, it's perfect. But the developers and promoters often say, "No, we want to put in another kind of a business.” That is not lifting communities up. That is displacement. My hope, if I had a magic wand, would be, let's encourage growth and keep the businesses that have been here. I love this idea of affordable housing, affordable renting for local and small businesses. That way we keep prices affordable, because if you increase the cost of rent, the businesses have to compensate by charging higher prices. And I am concerned about changing demographics. Look at the black community. Arlington used to be 30% black, and now I think it's at 11% in Arlington.


I've been noticing that people who have been working in this area for decades are worried, they are thinking “how do I afford it? How do I afford to raise my family here when I make minimum wage?” I think it is driving out a lot of the culture. I think that under the previous presidential administration unfortunately, there was a lot of stress on certain ethnic groups. I felt that personally, myself.

The night that Trump won, I was in New York for work and I was taking an Amtrak train down to Arlington. We all thought, Hillary [Clinton] was going to win, and I was at a Hillary win party. We started seeing the results but I had to go because I had a train to catch to Virginia. And so I'm in the taxi and it's looking like Trump's going to win this thing. And I remember I was looking out and I heard somebody yell, "You better go back to where you F***ing came from." It wasn't said directly to me. It was on the street and it was aimed at a woman wearing a hijab. That moment made it feel real to me. This was going to change things. Looking the way that I do, having the types of parents that I have? My family, my community? I felt scared. It's a fear of what they're going to do to your community. And then there's a personal safety threat. Because with the rise of Asian-American hate too, because I'm biracial, that too, was hard. I had friends jogging on MIT campus who were told, like, "Get the F out!" 

I grew up very much working class. The community that I grew up in were house cleaners, people who build houses, Some were undocumented. It was a community with many people on their path to citizenship, people working retail. I think that there's an intersection between class and race. What we experienced as low-income, working class family in Arlington, there were definitely moments throughout our life that we felt targeted. We were made to feel different. We were, I think, unjustly accused or accused of certain things. As I moved as an individual from working class and low income to college educated, having two degrees working the professional field, I noticed how the exterior world changed, how the way I was treated changed.

When Trump happened, it was like going back. It did not matter what you had achieved. It didn't matter where you worked, where you went to school; it mattered how you looked. That was a real awakening.  I remember a mentor of mine told me, that in Arlington, being biracial is not a bad thing. There are a lot of people who are biracial here, we have a huge mix of communities. It's a matter of civic pride. My family, we feel very much American. We celebrate all the American holidays. We have a big American flag outside of our town home. My mentor said, "When you go abroad, not every community is going to welcome that. Not every community that you're going to be in is going to see that as a good thing." I definitely experienced racism, prejudice, again, just because of how I look.


So I decided to run for Congress. When I came back to Arlington, Amazon had been here and using the experience that I had had working in the tech industry in Silicon valley, I was excited to share what I had learned there, because I did a lot of community-based work in the Bay area. I saw what happened when you had rapid growth. I started getting back involved in the community and started talking to folks, families, teachers, people who were working. I started hearing a lot of the challenges that people were facing. I sat down and thought, "What were the things that allowed my family to succeed here in Arlington?"

I thought of a minimum wage that was commensurate with the standard of living. I thought of affordable housing prices. My parents on a minimum wage put a down payment on a tiny town home in Cherrydale in north Arlington. And I thought of the fact that we were lucky we didn't have a healthcare crisis, but had we had had one, it would've been debilitating. It would've taken 50 to 60% of our income. I also reflected on the professional experience that I had had. I thought of the things that I had learned when I was working in the technology industry. When I looked at the federal level, we haven't had a major piece of legislation regulating the internet since 1996. The internet has changed in so many ways since 1996. 

The economy that we're in today is very different than the economy of past, even the ways that I've seen small businesses operate. Technology is changing a lot of that. I looked at the changes in our community here, and saw that they were not unique, because I had spent some time living in the Midwest. I’ve lived in California. And so I saw many communities actually that were experiencing what we are experiencing here.

And so the decision to run at the federal level, to run for Congress, was seeing the challenges and listening to community leaders and listening to the community here and realizing that something has to be done and that we cannot wait any longer. The things that we do today at the legislative level will have an impact for us for decades. I believe that in order to preserve the types of communities that we have to be giving people a fair shot. How can we go create policies? How can we have leadership that speaks to the issues that community members are facing every day and then do something about it? So that little boys and girls that grew up the way that I did have an opportunity to succeed.

It was definitely not in my life plan to do this at first. If you look at my career, I really invested in the tech industry. I'd really invested in international foreign policy. But my mom, my parents, couldn't afford childcare. It was too expensive. My mom would bring me into salon with her when she was working. I grew up basically at the salon. This how I learned that there was a wider world that was bigger than the one that I was living in, because the clients were doctors and lawyers and architects. It was the first time that I was like, whoa, there is a big world out there, and what was going to get me from here to there was education. And then also, having a family that could through minimum wage and through secure housing, help us get there. One day I saw a worker at a salon, a hairdresser, bring her daughter in to the salon. I realized that was me, my life, too. I thought if I was born today in Arlington, under the conditions that I grew up in, I don't know if my story would be possible. On my mom's one minimum wage job we would've been able to afford to be here in Arlington. I'm fortunate that I was born here because the resources and the opportunities that were available to me in Arlington really carved a path of opportunity. That, alongside what I believe are the federal policies and the way that the world was structured back then domestically, just allowed us to survive here. But I see a lot of those structures disappearing. I see that we are not creating opportunity for folks. Just the fact the minimum wage has literally gone up a little more than $2 over the past twenty plus years. And housing has exploded. A pencil is more expensive, a carton of milk. An apple costs a dollar. An apple. To me, it's about leveling the playing field. We have to do it. If we do not put a stake in the ground today and start to confront the issues that are facing our community and start to do something about it, I don't think we are going to have a community that thrives. I don't think we're going to create neighborhoods that are welcoming and consist of people from all sorts of backgrounds, professionally and ethnically. And I want to be that voice. I want to be that champion, that fighter, because I know what it's like. I know what it's like to struggle, but I also know what it's like to have opportunity.

When we invest in communities, the return on investment is threefold. You have more jobs. Think about the diversity of ideas and experiences. You create these thriving communities, which is one that I grew up in. I think that in going back to community and being biracial and having deep roots here in Arlington, I think that when you grow up and you are just trying to make it, to get enough money to pay your rent for that month. You're just trying to make it to the end of the year. Going out and doing this and running, it's not the path that I think a lot of us take, because it's risky. It's a lot of work, and a lot of this world is built on connections and money of which I have very little of, but I believe that it is important to have someone who's from the community who is home grown, who grew up on the streets of Columbia Pike to be representing this community. I believe that representation matters. When it comes from the community, there's a different sort of leadership. I hope that through this campaign, my hope is that we bring in more people into this process and we show that for the people who have felt that they have not been seen, that they have not been heard, I want to tell them, "I see you
 and I hear you." For the people that have lived their lives like my parents did in some moments in fear. And that I lived. myself I think it's time that there is a voice for the community.

Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.




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