Monday, February 28, 2022

Luz Argueta and Marcelo Valenzuela

 Luz Argueta, 18, and Marcelo Valenzuela, 20, are long-time residents of the Columbia Pike community. They both have served as volunteers helping families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Luz Argueta - "I live near Carlin Springs Elementary School. I came to that location when I was one-year-and-a-half. It’s been my home my entire life. I've lived there since my parents came from Mexico and El Salvador. I grew up speaking Spanish. It’s the only language we speak at home.
I went to Arlington Traditional School. That's where a lot of my identity part comes from because it was not very diverse 10 years ago. I was one of two Latinas there. There was a program for low income students and that's the only reason my brother and I got in. I really felt like I didn't know what to do because there were mostly just white folks there, maybe only ten minorities, two Latinas. It was hard for me, but as years passed, I started finding a little bit more about my voice, showing and demonstrating how proud I am to be a Latina working with my community and not trying to shy away from it. When I went to Kenmore Middle School, it was the first time I saw so much diversity. It was a mix of everything, every skin color, every shape, size, so I was so proud of that. I met my first Latina friend in sixth grade and we started working together. We started talking in Spanish with each other. I felt comfortable in Kenmore for the first time after being in elementary school. Now I'm in Washington-Liberty [formerly Washington-Lee High School] which is also pretty diverse. I'm taking IB and AP classes, which don't have a lot of minorities, but this time I've learned from past experiences. Instead of trying to be like other people, the majority of people around me, I try to be unique. I try to show off my features, my hair, show how proud I am to be Latina, and my work with my Latino community. 
My dad had to work when he was still a boy, so he couldn't put school as his top priority. He was one of twelve siblings, and one of the first males. Back then in El Salvador, the females stayed at home and the males went out to work to the fields. My dad tells me he had scars from the machete when he was just ten years old, stuff like that. So school was never a priority for him not because he didn't want to, but out necessity, to bring money to support the family. Here, my dad's a porter at a Mercedes-Benz dealership. When the cars are sold, he brings them out, polishes them up, gets them ready for the customers. For my mom, education wasn't that necessary. My grandma worked for a lady in Mexico as a stay-in housekeeper. My mom was babysitting the family's children because the husband was a diplomat and they needed a babysitter. The diplomat family was sent to Springfield, Virginia, and mom just tagged along. She had her visa. She was 21 at the time. My dad was 17 when he got here; he came with an uncle to DC. Nobody knew a single word of English. And now 23 years later in their marriage, one of their kids is graduated, and I'm hopefully going to UVA now. My mom does Avon, she has a small beauty consultant business. My parents did not go to college, but they wanted us to. They work hard. They've been able to get me and my brother to college. Thankfully, with a lot of help. There's a staff member at W & L called Mr. Sample. He works for equity and racial justice, that's part of his title. He’s helped a lot of the students. We can go to his room anytime, he's there for us. Because of the language barrier, some of the students don't know a lot about the college application process, but they always are informed by him. Students say "We could talk to this teacher. We could go together. We could schedule a meeting for all of us to be there." They have always been by my brother s side and by my side together.
Marcelo Valenzuela - I live in the Pike neighborhood, too. I was born here. My mom's South American, my dad, too. I went to Carlin Springs Elementary School And then I went to Kenmore Middle School and then to Washington-Lee. I followed my dad's footsteps from Kenmore to Washington-Lee. When I was growing up I knew kids from different backgrounds. My best friend Rudy told me so much about himself. His mom came from El Salvador. It's been really hard for them during the pandemic. So me and my mom started helping them. It was difficult for him because his mom didn't know English and he has no dad, too; she's a single mother.
Luz Argueta: We were both involved in a community project for COVID. Everyone was affected during this time from all scales, all incomes, but especially our Latino community. A lot of people were not essential workers, so a lot of people did not have jobs. We already had a strong presence with the group that Ms. Valenzuela [Marcelo’s mother, Janeth Valenzuela] created, which has over a hundred people in it. We were seeing that people are struggling. When it was safe enough, a few months after the very beginning of COVID, we started distributing basic necessities such as gift cards, diapers. We gave out dispensa, bags of Hispanic food basics, anything they needed. 
Marcelo Valenzuela: Prices for everything in the markets were going up and that's why we have to get the community food and diapers for the babies.
Luz Argueta: We all got together and started helping those who reached out to us, but also people that we knew. Some people got laid off from work so they did not have an income or as much income as before. So they texted or called Ms. Venezuela, "Hey, I'm in need of something." Most things we gave were in the food pantry; beans, rice, oil. We gave flour, maseca, things like that to just go day by day, to try our best to work. We helped around 110, 120 families every month.
We had leaders that were already in our group from Wednesday Moms, which is the Kenmore school parents group and the Washington-Liberty group. We had a system. It's broken down by neighborhood. We each have our own little list, our small groups to cover. For example, my mom and a lot of adult ladies had their small groups that they each contacted and hand-delivered goods to people's houses. We’d drive to their houses. Different moms distributed to different people, each had their list. We started here in an apartment conference room. We organized the bags and got them delivered to people twice a week.
Marcelo Valenzuela: Since my mom has some physical limitations problems due to an accident she had, I picked up the bags that she couldn't carry and  put them in the car, then I drove them around to the families in need. I’d unload the items and give them to the families. I’d be talking to them when I was there. I know a little bit Spanish; I tried.
Luz Argueta: Some people who volunteered I know from before the pandemic hit, we all met at the weekly meetings in school and other conversations. We saw how they were affected and they were very thankful all the time.
They had an open vaccination program in Arlington during COVID. We signed a lot of people up to get vaccinations. I wasn't that much involved, but we received calls, coordinated by three adult women who set up schedules for people. When their time came in chronological order, they got their appointments. Ms. Valenzuela sent me links and information about locations where they were vaccinating without appointments. So I shared it to everyone I knew, everyone who asked for it, sending information out about where to get your shot.
Marcelo Valenzuela: We worked with about ten other young people, it was like a team situation.
Luz Argueta: Now we're doing hot meals. We received weekly donations from a restaurant in Shirlington, Tacombi. This month we started distributing hot meals biweekly, Mondays and Wednesdays, four to five hot meals ready to go per family. The restaurant brings the food here and we distribute it. Now they want to offer 200 hot meals That would be 400 meals a week we get to the people. It’s a community effort.
I started volunteering years ago since the time my mom first met Ms. Valenzuela. I was little so I just attended the meetings with my mom in the sidelines at first. As I got older I started translating for parents, doing documents. I loved volunteering so much. Anytime we did fundraisers for Hispanic parents, for our community, I helped out. I started being involved with this amazing community, even before the pandemic hit. It was natural to keep going.
Marcelo Valenzuela: I also have been doing this kind of work since I was little. I grew into it with my mom's help.  I'm in college now, at NOVA  [Northern Virginia Community College]. I'm studying to become a veterinarian. I hope to go to veterinary school. There’s a program in vet tech at NOVA, it's basically mixed with science. I can transfer to George Mason University as well. I'm going to do ROTC for the Army at George Mason, but I'm still going to do veterinary after that. I just got accepted into the Animal Welfare League, down at Four Mile Run. While I was in high school, I went to the Career Center. I've always loved animals. I watch TV shows like Animal Planet, but mostly what got me into loving animals was watching Steve Irwin, the crocodile guy from Australia. So I got a degree in pet sitting and I started doing pet sittings here in the area for whenever family pet owners go on vacation. I'm an athlete, too. I play soccer. I used to play basketball in middle school and I'm still playing soccer for fun. I used to be on a travel team and was on the undefeated Kenmore team with coach Papa Dia. We were really pretty good. 
Luz Argueta: I'm a senior at Washington-Liberty right now. I just got accepted to one of my dream schools, UVA, the University of Virginia. I got accepted yesterday, thankfully. Thank God. It's a blessing. My dad's from a very rural area in Salvador; it's very, very underdeveloped. From that to having their second child, the first daughter, going to college is a big step. It's a huge opportunity we might have not had back home. I'm going to study psychology. Most people when they hear the word psychology, they associate it with therapists, talking and having patients. But they don't understand a lot of psychology has to do with how the brain works, with neurons, how we think, how we process information, how we make decisions. It has much to do with a cultural aspect of our brains and the psychology behind it. Even when we go to shop, there's a psychological aspect of what we put in front of the customers so they could shop more, what we put at the back of the store. Everything's tied into psychology. It's not just clinical work.
I'm not sure if I will stay in this area. I know for the next four years I'm definitely going to be coming back and forth between my college and right here in Columbia Pike. I really don't know where I’ll be in the longer run. I do love the community here, though. I especially like the diversity, I feel like even though it's kind of separated between north and south Arlington, I feel like there's a little bit of everything. I feel home here. I was born in Arlington. I grew up in this exact area. For me it's going to be hard adjusting to somewhere else. I like the middle ground where it's not too urbanized like New York or DC, where the traffic's crazy. I'm also a person that needs socialization and communication so I love how it's pretty suburban in a way. There's a mix, it's not too isolated, not rural, but that's what I like. I know definitely that my brother doesn't plan on staying in Arlington because of the high pricing that's going on. He’s thinking about moving to the West Coast, a big change.
I have friends from different cultures here. I have a lot of Latina friends plus I have friends from the Middle East, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
A lot of things went into me growing into my identity and awareness as a proud Latina. If I'm being honest, starting to volunteer. I started when I was technically in third grade, but I didn't really get that involved with the parents during the meetings until I was in middle school. I just loved how thankful they were. It was this sweet sensation that warms your heart, like giving your heart a hug when people were so thankful. I feel like one of my Latina my friends helped me, too, because for the most crucial part of my life, I did not have a Latina friend or any friend of a diverse background. She made me see a different perspective, a different viewpoint. She made me see that you should be proud, to see how far you've come. Even though you were born here, your parents came from a country where they were not given many opportunities and now you’re achieving, you're bilingual, you're doing so many things. 
I was so inspired that now I've transferred into an after-school club in Washington-Liberty called LASA, the Latin American Student Association. I'm the president of this club at the moment, and we have over thirty members, We have Bolivians, people from Columbia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, a few Salvadorians, Ecuador. We talk about our country, our experiences. We even have a few non-Latino people that are friends and join us after school. We do many fundraisers. What Ms. Valenzuela taught me during my childhood and my growth, I've now implemented to students. We are the future of this country. In this big school of 2,000 people, it's easy to lose your voice and to lose sight of what the things you're proud of. I'm still working on it by all means, but I want to make other people proud of who they are. We do activities as a community more than just to bond with each other. For Valentine's we're selling balloons to raise funds. We did tie-dyeing shirts. The beautiful thing is right now we have a big amount of money in our school bank account. We're going to give $300 scholarships to seniors who are in LASA, to help to get books and whatever they need.

Marcelo Valenzuela: I am also helping my mom in her work with housing, for renters, in the surrounding apartments. She's pushing so much for the County to basically do the right thing and to help the Hispanic communities, to treat them fairly. I want everyone here treated fairly. 
Luz Argueta: I am thinking about the next leaders of our community. We wish to have this great leader in Ms. Valenzuela for eternity, but sadly we're not. Columbia Pike in Arlington needs to keep this volunteer effort, to keep this warm community. We help a lot, but it helps to have someone to have your back. Right now we're working on molding and working with the next generation of volunteers such as myself. I grew up a lot from the example that Ms. Valenzuela set for me. Now I'm doing my part in my school. I hope that the next generation of volunteers keeps fighting for justice for the Latino community here.
The area is getting very gentrified at the moment. When they redrew the borders for the school districts, I feel the purpose was to create a distinction, a separation between minorities, low income. In North Arlington, you could tell there's a huge difference. I feel like the biggest example that opened my eyes was when they tore down the Food Star grocery and the shopping center where the new Harris Teeter is now. There were a lot of Hispanic minority businesses there before. I don't say we're getting kicked out, but they're definitely increasing prices, and other things that make it harder for minorities to keep living here. I feel we might not have such diversity if we can't keep up with the prices.
Marcelo Valenzuela: Just for me as a Hispanic American, my mom always tells me don't give up on helping people. You have to be strong. I’m going to be a vet. I think with my new job right now, I’m helping the community. It’s to do the same thing as my parents helping the Hispanic community, and for me it’s helping the pets and their owners, too. We're all a family, not just the north and the south Arlington, all of Arlington, we're all a family so we all help each other.
And I'm really proud of my mom for what she's doing. I'll never forget.
Luz Argueta: She's set an example for us. I want to help this hardworking community so much, but I feel like we have to work double sometimes. It’s not just the language barrier, but what people don't know. As a psychologist, the biggest thing for me is understanding the cultural concept, what's accepting and what's not accepting in cultures. To go from an underdeveloped country, for any Latino or any person from the Middle East or Africa, all around the world, and then coming to this new place where there's different cultural expectations of them, is a challenge. They have to work double to just make a living income. So we try to help them in whatever way possible. A lot of people in high school don't know there's many programs that their kids could do. There's so many applying to college programs, and AP, IB. Many immigrant parents don't know what AP, or IB is, and how it could help their kids in the college process later on. That's what I'm trying to do right now with LASA, to help the parents of the students, too, any way possible, 
I wouldn't be in the place that I am now if it wasn't for all the information and the Hispanic PTA that Ms. Valenzuela runs in Kenmore and Washington-Liberty. I learned a lot. I'm one of the examples of how far a person could come with the right information, with the right support. I feel like if there's one thing that we could learn about the minority community is how dedicated and how hardworking they are, how far they have come. I see so many parents, including my own, and I'm so proud of them. They don’t always know a lot, but they ask questions, they ask for interpreters, they go to the monthly meetings. I see people with their uniforms from work. These meetings are at 7:00. They may have left work at 5:00, they don't have dinner, but they're there at the monthly meeting, trying to help their children, trying to get them through high school. Trying to find the best thing and make their kids successful, to be there to support them even with the language barriers. Even if they don't have dinner, they sacrifice themselves for their kids to support them. That's makes me so proud to be a Latina. Before, I thought of having to live up to expectations as a burden, but I stopped seeing myself as a victim. I want to help others do the same as I'm doing. My parents are proud of me. They always said, "Please just get a bachelor's degree. Whatever you want to study." I don't feel like it's a burden. I feel like I'm making my parents proud, I'm doing it for them because I would have not gone to college if I was in Mexico. My cousins who live there, don't. It's a positive challenge rather than a burden. That keeps me going, motivated. My dad didn't have this opportunity. Like they say in the America phrase, I was handed a golden spoon of opportunities. Who am I to not take up this opportunity? I'll work hard. Thankfully; I appreciate everything.
Marcelo Valenzuela: I want to explore the world. I love history so I especially want to go to Spain, because I have a favorite soccer team there, Real Madrid. I've always loved that team since I was born, just wanted to go to that beautiful stadium. It's a dream for me. 
Luz Argueta: We say in our immigrant community that God did not put challenges for each individual person if we know we aren't going to conquer that, because we believe that every challenge that's put in front of us, we will learn from it. And we won't fail it because God knows that we can conquer. We have the strength enough to conquer and learn from it and be better."

Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.

CPDP presentation to the Glencarlyn Civic Association

CPDP's director, photographer Lloyd Wolf, will be presenting the ongoing work of the project to the Glencarlyn Civic Association on Monday, April 4, 2022.

Thanks to GCA President Julie Lee for this opportunity.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Francisca Swisher-Gomez

I first met Franci when she was 4-5 years old and then again, yesterday, when she came on a video call I was having with her father, Michael Swisher. I had reconnected with Michael a couple years ago and worked on a project with him. Franci was returning to college on Monday, Jan 24, 2022, and agreed to come over to the Studio for an interview. I kept a copy of the CPDP book Transitions ready for her to learn more about the Project. But she already knew. - Sushmita Mazumdar

Experience of Diversity

“Paula [Endo] used to be our downstairs neighbor. We used to water her plants. I grew up with her grandchild Aidan and I still get the occasional five-minute voicemail from her,” Franci said with a smile, as she thumbed the pages of the book.


“I’m graduating in Spring 2022 and thinking of plans for after that - where I want to live, what I want to do for work. I would like to move to a new city, I have a few in mind already. I have yet to visit most of them, but I’ve heard great things about them. These cities sound like they would be a great fit for me except for the fact that they are very white. Diversity is a big thing for me, and I don’t want to live somewhere that lacks it. 

I don’t think I appreciated the area I grew up around and the diversity I experienced here until I left for college. I spent my first year of college at Macalester College in the Twin Cities. It was a very white area, but there were still a few pockets nearby me where there was greater diversity. My friends and I could take the bus a few stops down the road and have access to diverse grocery stores. Although I am afraid I didn’t explore too much—it was far too cold to explore! I wanted to go to college far away from home and whatnot. Then I transferred to William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was when I experienced a real lack of diversity. I think it really hit me when I first tried to cook an Asian dish I had made before. I went to the grocery store to pick up sesame oil and I couldn’t find any! I went to probably three grocery stores in the area and still had no luck. I eventually looked up where the nearest Asian grocery store was, and it was a 30-40 minute drive away. I was shocked that I couldn’t find what I thought was a fairly common ingredient. Here the furthest I would have to drive to find more ‘diverse’ ingredients is probably 10 minutes at most. Usually, I can just walk down the street and find what I’m looking for. This was just one of the instances where I further came to appreciate the diversity I grew up around.

I like walking down the street here and hearing so many languages. Diversity teaches you about different perspectives, cultures, and keeps you open-minded. I think it’s easy to get into one rhythm and get into one way of thinking. I was born here in the U.S. but my mom, Sandra Gomez, is from Chile and my dad is white American. So I would call myself multi-cultural. I’m pretty proud of my heritage even though I am not super knowledgeable about it. Both of my parents are fluent in Spanish and when I was a toddler that was the primary language in our home. But over the years we started to speak less and less. This started when was in pre-school at Arlington Mill on the Pike and realized everyone there spoke English. Which, looking back on it, was a little odd because a lot of parents of my classmates didn’t speak English— my mom would often help as translator. But going home after learning everyone else primarily speaks English, I stopped wanting to speak Spanish. My parents would ask me things like, “How do you say this word in Spanish?” and I remember that I always knew the right answer in my head but would pretend that I had no idea what they were talking about. With my consistent refusal to speak Spanish, my parents found it harder and harder to speak back to me in a different language than I was speaking to them, so we ended up speaking mainly in English, and still do to this day.

Stories of Language

I went to Claremont Elementary School, which has a Spanish-immersion program, so we spoke Spanish for half of the school day. I enjoyed going to school there and I was able to keep up my Spanish pretty well. Despite it being an immersion school, my friends were mostly white and spoke English at home. So, I guess speaking English was the ‘cool’ thing and speaking Spanish felt more like a chore. When we would visit family in Chile, I often didn’t want to speak in Spanish. I knew some of the slang there, but not having native fluency produced a lot of anxiety and often kept me from speaking.


For middle school and high school, I attended HB Woodlawn. After leaving Claremont, I really wanted to learn French, but my mom insisted I take Spanish. She didn’t really give me a reason why. I remember being so frustrated and mad that I wasn’t allowed to take a French class. I didn’t realize why she did this until much later— probably during my senior year of high school or maybe even in college. Now I am extremely grateful my mom forced me to keep up with Spanish because I would have lost it otherwise. And I did finally take a French class my first semester at college and realized I did not enjoy it. So in the end, I guess it was best I didn’t take it back in sixth grade.


I’ve always found it comforting to hear different languages. I love walking down the street or shopping at MegaMart on The Pike and hearing people speak in Spanish. I guess it makes me feel like I’m in Chile. But in general, being around a variety of languages feels like home. 


On the Pike, I know there will be more gentrification with all these high-rises being built and the mom-and-pop shops closing. I regret not exploring all that before college. The regrets came after I moved away. I have driven up and down the Pike a million times. Even though I have not been inside many of the buildings, it’s the landscape where I grew up. But that landscape is changing every day and I worry that the uniqueness of the Pike will start to fade away. I am glad to see that the area of The Pike where I grew up has stayed mostly the same, but it has definitely become very gentrified down closer to Glebe Road. But with the real estate market in Arlington, I’m afraid that trend will trickle down the Pike.


If things continue the way they are going now, it will definitely be disappointing. We might lose diversity along The Pike as change will likely push out lower-income families, who are often the people who bring the diversity to our area. And it’s nice to see the local businesses, the mom-and-pops shops. If those close, I feel like we’ll lose some of the familial aspects of the Pike. And as for the people who will replace them, young white professionals come to mind. It would feel less homey. 


Craving Green Spaces 

I have been thinking about possibly moving to Portland or Seattle—I’ve never been but they seem like cities I would enjoy, kind of hipster-y and close to nature. I definitely want to be in a city environment because that’s how I grew up. But I also want to be close to nature. My one concern is I’ve heard those cities are very white. There is diversity there too but not like here, at least that’s what I have heard from friends who have travelled there and from what I’ve seen in the media. But I want to eventually travel there and see it for myself. My dad and I visited Madison, Wisconsin for a day last summer. I really enjoyed the city and how it was interconnected with nature, but it was extremely white. As my dad and I walked around we saw maybe two families of color the entire day, which didn’t feel right. I think I would have considered moving there too if the diversity was better.


I took a public health class this semester and we talked about green spaces and health - a lot of low-income neighborhoods have little to no green spaces and higher-income neighborhoods tend to have lots of green spaces. Learning that spending just five minutes in green spaces can improve physical and mental health made me think about the health inequities people face even just from the area in which they live. I would say Arlington in general is pretty green. But you can still see major differences in available green space in neighborhoods along the Pike. The wealthier areas tend to have more green and the lower income parts tend to have less. Even in my own neighborhood you can see it. The wealthier single-family homes and the middle-class condos back up onto the forest, and the affordable housing sits on the other side of the street.


Typically, when we visited Chile, we would spend a few days in the capital, Santiago, and then a few weeks with my grandmother and family in a rural area in the south. I love the landscapes there. The south is very green and lush. In Santiago, despite being a city, you can still see the Andes mountains no matter which neighborhood you’re in. Seeing the mountains on the horizon has always been very comforting for me. I remember every time we came back from Chile, I would look out the window driving back from the airport and miss the mountains. Maybe that’s why I want to move to the Pacific Northwest - to be closer to the mountains. I know we have them here in Virginia. I love the Shenandoah Mountains dearly and have lots of good memories there, but I think the mountains in the Pacific Northwest remind me more of the Andes.


Returning to my Neighborhood

When I was very young, I interacted quite a bit with people who lived on the Pike. For example, my first best friend lived in our condo. His family is from Ethiopia and his grandma made the best Ethiopian food I’ll probably ever eat. Unfortunately, they moved away when I was five years old. At that age, I played at Tyrol Hill most days of the week. I live literally a one-minute walk away from the park and I loved it there. Around that time, my dad worked with teens in our neighborhood. When he would take me to play at Tyrol Hill we often would run into them. Even though I was a toddler and at least ten years younger than them, they would still say hi and play with me. My dad also ran programs at Tyrol Hill during summer evenings - things like drum circles and crafts and whatnot. So I made quite a few friends at the park when I was a small kid. When I was four or five they decided they were going to rebuild Tyrol Hill with lots of fun new equipment. I remember handing out flyers with a family friend of ours and asking people what kinds of slides they wanted. I was super excited for the redesign, but they didn’t complete it until I had outgrown the playground. The next redesign happened after I left for college. My younger self would have had so much fun at the current version of Tyrol Hill.


By the time I was in elementary school I started to drift away from the Pike a bit. During middle to high school all my friends lived in North Arlington. In middle school, I was a bit ashamed of living in South Arlington and living in a condo. I didn’t talk about where in Arlington I was from and rarely invited people over to our home. Looking back on it I’m not sure why I was ashamed, but I think I have much more appreciation for where I grew up now. In elementary to high school, I became somewhat of a stranger to The Pike, I no longer knew anyone in my neighborhood. I regret that.


When COVID first started, I was home from college and my dad was pressuring me into getting a job. He had heard that Aspire! Afterschool Learning, a program for kids at the Arlington Mill Community Center, needed people for their summer program and suggested I apply. He knew some of the staff there because he’s worked with them on and off for the past 20 years. I decided to apply because I enjoy working with kids and ended up getting the position. So I worked there the summer of 2020, and then ended up staying on helping out with their online program so I could still work with them while I was away at college. I finished my contract in summer 2021. I really enjoyed working there. While working at Aspire, I got to reconnect with kids from my neighborhood. I felt a special connection with them because we could share some childhood experiences. I went to preschool at the old Arlington Mill building. I told some of my students this (as we were sitting in a classroom in the new Arlington Mill building) and they went “Whaaaat??” So I then told them that I used to play at Tyrol Hill. “Whaaaat??” I said, “I live there! I play there too!” That was pretty fun. It has now happened a few times where I run into kids I worked with while walking to my car parked on our street. Another student happens to live right across from me. It’s neat that I get to share this community with them.


I found out months after I started working at Aspire that my mom had worked there when she was pregnant with me! I then realized that when I was in 7th grade, I did a book drive for Aspire and donated the books to Aspire. And when I was in elementary school Aspire students would come to our condo pool every Wednesday in the summers, so I guess I played with Aspire kids then. As I connected the dots, I realized the program has been in my life throughout.

The Road Ahead

In college, I am studying psychology and public health. I grew up in a middle-class condo in a neighborhood where both high, middle, and low-income families live within a three-minute walk of each other. Even from a young age I found it extremely surprising that people could be neighbors yet have very different life experiences. I think it has influenced the fields of work I am thinking about going into. Public health. Maybe social work. Not sure. But after working at Aspire I’ve realized I want to work directly with individuals in diverse communities. More specifically, I think I want to work towards bringing access to healthcare and education to marginalized communities."

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar. Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

Rocky Barua

Rocky Barua is a PMP-certified business contractor. Originally from Bangladesh, he has lived along Columbia Pike for many years.

We moved here from Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2001 and the first place we lived was South 7th Street at my uncle's house, two, three blocks down. We actually didn't know anybody besides him. His wife is my mom's cousin, that's the only people we knew. Before we moved my mom called my uncle saying "We are moving to America and we don't know anybody." He told her "You can come and stay at our house for as long as you need." So we moved there and stayed them for about eight months. I went to TJ [Thomas Jefferson Middle School] at that time and then we moved to the Ballston area for two, three years, and then my parents bought this house just off the Pike.
I was twelve when I came here. We were part of the lottery system. America does this lottery thing in each country and you can fill out the application as a lottery. If you're lucky and get picked, then they give you the option to come here. They look at your background and see if you can actually survive here. After that you go through a whole interview process. You have to go to the embassy and talk to them and they check all your backgrounds. Then after everything works out, then they'll give you the visa.
I started sixth grade here. It was shocking at first because back home they barely teach you English. All they do is they make you read books and then memorize what you read. You don't understand the language, it's more memorization. writing on your exam; no conversation. It's all Bangla. So when you move here, you understand the words but you're not verbally able to communicate with anybody because you've never really spoken English. So sixth grade, seventh grade, it was just tough. Luckily I made one friend at that time, from Morocco, someone who spoke Arabic as his native language. We'd take the same bus and we were both in in the same HILT [High Intensity Language Training] class. He would call me every day and keep talking and talking and talking. He would put me on a three-way phone call with other classmates. At first I had no idea what' was going on, but they just kept talking and kept talking and then slowly, I guess I started talking back and then it just kind of picked up. We would talk about homework and stuff, but then I would just kind of do the homework but I couldn’t really say anything to him. He just kept calling and calling and I guess my mouth opened up finally.

I made friends pretty fast. We are all immigrants in the class, we were all taking HILT classes. So we were all kind of just the odd bunch. We had kids from Argentina, Morocco, El Salvador. There were only a few Asian kids, it was mostly Hispanic and a couple of Middle Eastern. There were only one or two other south Asians, They were also from Bangladesh. There was one Indian kid at that time. I did feel accepted there. I never felt like they don't want you here or to just go back or something. I never felt that way. 
I moved to Swanson Middle School for half of seventh and eighth grade and then went to Washington & Lee High School after that. Then I went to college, to VCU in Richmond where I studied Business Administration. Richmond was a culture shock after living in Arlington. I remember my first night there I heard gunshots. The college used to send out notifications saying "Stay under these perimeters, don't go out of that area." Sometimes we heard of kids getting robbed and all that. I lived in the dorm right by Monroe Park, and then after my first year, I was living in Chamberlayne Road, which was worse. But I used to drive, so I would just go to my house and just stay in my room and I would never come out except mostly when I had to go to class. But now when I go back to visit, oh my God the whole city changed. VCU bought out a lot of the areas and they just keep building and building and now it’s just became a college area. 
My parents didn’t get to go to college; I'm the first one to go to college in our family. There was a lot of pressure, because of culture, especially here, their whole idea is to go. Most of our parents, most of my cousin's parents, most of the community people that I know, their parents didn't go to college. So when they come here, the whole main focus is that you need to do something with your life. We brought you here. We are working hard to provide for you guys. So you need to go to college and make something out of your life. So, that pressure is always there. So for that, I had to go to college.

After college, I came back here to Arlington. In the beginning I didn't get any job. I was doing Uber most of the time because I shad student loans to pay off and after six months the payments kick in; there's no break. I was also doing food delivery jobs in Alexandria. One of my community friends, Shibly Shiraj, he had a delivery company called Express Entree. I needed a job so I was delivering for him. Then slowly I got a contracting job with a company, Grant Thornton, and that was the turning point in my life I was doing business requirement analysis for the FAA system. I got to learn all that stuff and slowly expended my knowledge. I also just became a PMP, a certified project manager. Now I work for NTT Data and I'm working for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It was good during Trump's time because he funded so much money for the border wall and everything. So the CBP decided to hire lots of people, contractors. After the Presidential change less money was given for CBP contracts. I run into a lot of South Asians in contracting; a lot of Indian and Pakistani people. I actually have not met one Bangladeshi person at work so far, which has been surprising.
Both of my parents work two jobs each to just survive. My mom works at the food court in Pentagon and my dad is the manager at the Exxon on Clarendon Boulevard. My dad also used to work at a Papa John's as a delivery man. That's a lot of work. They've been doing this since we got here. My mom doesn't even take days off, she works seven days a week.
It is not an easier situation for them than it was in Bangladesh. If they were back home right now, they would've just retired. I see a lot of my mom's friends back home that have buildings and they're landlords. They bought land way back in the day and the building they’re in lets them just live off the rent. Every time I go visit they're just all hanging out, going to places and enjoying their life.

Our family is Buddhist, but back home we're only 1%. Most of my friends, my parents’ friends, they're all Muslims or Christian or Hindus. Bangladesh is mostly Muslim. Here we have a temple in Alexandria, right by Fort Belvoir. It's not big, just a house that they made it into a temple for the time being. It's all Bangladeshi there. Right across the way, there's a Vietnamese temple. Sometimes we do see the Vietnamese group come in and they'll be on their temple and we Bangladeshi people are on our temple. So it's interesting. When you come here, people don't really care about religion as much. Back home it’s mostly religious. Even though we say we're a democratic country, religion plays a big role. Back home, if you were trying to find a job or anything, they know what religion you are mostly based on your last name. My name is Barua and all the Baruas in Bangladesh are Buddhist. So then you won't be able to find a job so easily or people doesn't really give you priorities about anything. But here, your last name could be anything, you could be any religion and nobody cares because there's nothing with the religion here. It's just, if you do the work, yeah, you're welcome.
 I’ve also been involved with Prio Bangla [Bangladeshi cultural and charitable organization]. The Bangladeshi community in this area is really small, so everybody knows each other. I used to dance with Shristee Nrittyangong School of Dance and that's how I got to know Pryalal [Karmakar, Prio Bangla’s director] and everybody in the circle. Pryalal said, "Okay, since you dance, you can perform in our functions. Then we became close friends and he asked me to help out managing and setting up at our events. Our biggest event is the Street Fair and it’s a whole day event with performances from different groups and cultures. It became a yearly thing where I volunteer to help out and set up everything for Prio Bangla. Since the Prio Bangla street fair is right near my house, sometimes they'll use our backyard to build all the frames and display booths or anything they need because they can just carry it right there. 

There have been a lot of changes since we moved to the Pike. The Food Star area used to be really busy with a lot of Hispanic people, Asian people, from all the apartments around here. They had the barber shop, a billiard place and we used to go shop there all the time. Now it's been torn down and if you go to Harris Teeter, you'll notice there are not as many cultural people anymore. It's mostly...I guess you can tell they're doing well in their life. Because if you look at the price difference, Harris Teeter has higher prices than if you go to Food Star or even Glebe Market. Food Star had a lot of cultural food. They had the Hispanic section, the Asian section and a lot of fruits and stuff that you can never find in Harris Teeter. I've never seen tamarind in Harris Teeter, but Food Star would have a bunch in packets. Then there's a lot of noodles that we eat from back home, one of our noodles called Maggi. It's a masala noodle, masala flavor. We eat ramen, but ramen is not the same as this. The seasoning is just different than ramen noodles would have, but then you won't find this in a Harris Teeter grocery store. Things like that, you miss. I know a lot of people are saying the area’s being gentrified, but I haven't fully seen the gentrification yet. A lot of these houses around here are still empty, it's condos and new apartments. I'm not sure who's going to afford to live there because even a one bedroom condo is three hundred, $400,000. I keep seeing these prices, so I'm not sure who is moving in. I guess when they do that's when life will change. Once Amazon comes in fully, I'm pretty sure all these places will fill up with a lot of people. I don't even own this house, my parents own this house and I get text messages all the time like, "Do you want to talk about selling your house?" I don't even own this house.” Right now I guess it's a seller's market, since all the house prices are high and the interest rate is low. All these new condos are being built but there needs to be affordable housing also. I'm not sure if that will help, because then everybody who is part of the affordable housing is moving in, but then you don't see the rich people moving in. So now it's unbalanced, but maybe when Amazon comes and COVID is over, they'll move in. 
I am also very comfortable with the fact that there are people from everywhere here. Growing up here I've met people of all different kinds. Here it's pretty mixed, but when I was living in the Ballston area in north Arlington it was mainly Hispanic, before they broke it down and built all those fancy new apartments there. A lot of my friends were living there, but then as soon as they broke all of that down and started building the new style apartments and the rent went up, everybody moved. If you go to Barcroft Apartments down the Pike, people are still staying here, but then for how long? We already see everything's broken down and new apartments are being built. The question is what is affordable? People can say, "Okay, well based on the market, $1,400 for one bedroom is affordable." But then people that live there will be like, "I'm not paying $1,400 for a one bedroom. I can move out a little bit further and get a two bedroom for $1,400, or one bedroom for $700.”
I see myself staying here. I can't move out of this area. It's home. I am going to try to stay here, big time. But the problem is I don't think I can even afford a house here. So maybe I’ll get an apartment because even little houses are six, $700,000 to buy, which is a lot of money.
I see possibilities for my future in this area. I'm pretty sure there'll be a lot of companies moving in here after Amazon. It's right next to the Pentagon, and if you take the number 16 bus, you'll be in D.C within half an hour. Bus 16 is always running. There's always four or five of them. When I had to go work before COVID I would always just take 16 and would be at work within 30 minutes. Columbia Pike is a prime spot, so I'm pretty sure a lot of people will move in. Even businesses might take some of those buildings and open up offices because it's right next to everything. in 10 years, hopefully, if I can afford it, I can buy a house here and still live here. But I know for sure I'm not moving out of Arlington or even this area right now, especially doing government jobs. I'm working from home right now, which is great. When I have to go into the office in the morning, I can't drive there, parking over there is ridiculous. So I always have to take the bus. And this for me right now is a prime spot because I just kind of run to the stop, not even a block away.
The Pike community is not D.C, but the way I always felt here is, when I was growing up, going clubbing and whatever, you go to D.C and you see the whole lifestyle over there; D.C is always like a rush, rush, rush. But then you come to Arlington it's kind of quiet. It's not dead, but it's quiet for peaceful living. And there's no crime, almost. The police or fire or ambulance they're always here within two, three minutes if you call them. So life here is just great. 

I haven't experienced much serious discrimination in this community, not the way people would think. Maybe once or twice and then it would be people that probably don’t even live here, because we know all our neighbors. There'll be some random people that will make a weird remark or something. And I think about them, “do you even live here?” Plus I feel that here, we actually don't even see that many white folks compared to all the other cultural people. I figure racism is mostly out the question because we are almost all immigrants here. I’ve never felt like people will verbally abuse you or anything. None of that. I feel safe, accepted. All the businesses over here are run by all immigrant people like us. My uncle owns the gas station right across the Pike, then the kabob place right here, Family Kabob, one of my middle school friends owns it now. And then the Chinese and Japanese restaurants, the Thai place, even the McDonald's, are all owned and worked by immigrant people. It's a really good thing.

Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

CPDP banners

We have received the four large display banners we created of our pictures. Beautifully designed by Xang Mimi Ho, they highlight some our team's most meaningful - and fun- work documenting Columbia Pike. 

Each banner is 33" wide x 81" tall.

These banners will be displayed at the Pike Farmers Market and other public community gatherings when the weather and pandemic restrictions allow, along with our books.

Enjoy... and stay tuned!

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Cup of Kindness portraits

Portraits of volunteers at a community charity event on a cold winter's day in Penrose.

The event was organized by Susan Thompson-Gaines's Kindness Activist project.

Photographs by Lloyd Wolf.