May 5 marks the 30th anniversary of an explosive uprising in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. Although the city’s history of racial conflict is often remembered in connection with events like the 1968 uprising after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this event broke out in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, focusing attention on the plight of its Latino residents.
The Mount Pleasant uprising was an important inflection point in the longer history of Central American disenfranchisement in the United States and a pivotal chapter in the Latino civil and human rights movement. The uprising brought the issue of police brutality against Latinos to the attention of the city, as community leaders pointed to the years-long neglect of Latinos by D.C. institutions, agencies and services. Central Americans were seen through one of two prisms: as a threat or as exploitable, but hardly ever as residents who were part of the fabric of the District. The uprising occurred alongside a longer struggle by immigration activists, residents and community leaders who called for local, national and international attention to the crisis experienced by Central American refugees who were escaping civil war in their homelands and simultaneously trying to survive the American city.
Mount Pleasant was a majority-White neighborhood until Black residents began settling there in the mid-20th century. White flight and suburbanization accelerated the trend. However, as early as the 1950s, a small number of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Latin Americans who came to work for the federal government found housing opportunities in the community between low-income Black residents to the east and well-to-do White residents to the west. Businesses serving a Spanish-speaking clientele emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua began arriving, transforming the neighborhood again. They settled there because the prior settlement of Latinos had helped turn Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan into D.C.’s unofficial barrio. The census showed that D.C.’s Latino population nearly doubled between 1980 and 1990, from 17,679 to 32,710.
The arrival of these Salvadorans and Guatemalans remade Mount Pleasant into a neighborhood of sanctuary, services and cultural affirmation, where one could live as an undocumented Spanish-speaking worker and be among a majority, not a minority. Many found jobs as domestic workers, cooks and service workers, living in overcrowded apartments and pooling their money to pay the rent. Despite these difficult conditions, Central Americans created a space of refuge in the nation’s capital.
Such a refuge was necessary because the Reagan administration made many of these Central Americans ineligible for asylum, thus politicizing their circumstances since they were fleeing authoritarian regimes supported by the United States because of Washington’s Cold War anti-communist aims. Yet their undocumented status left these refugees vulnerable as they contended with systemic racism and racialized policing. Living as undocumented immigrants, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were subjected to relentless deportation raids while working in restaurants, playing on soccer fields or resting at home. This association with illegality carried over to mistreatment by D.C. police, who often viewed Central Americans as less than citizens. Two D.C. journalists examined this sentiment presaging the 1991 uprising, by noting: “Latinos already felt that they were the victims of police harassment.”
This policing created a powder keg of resentment. And then, on May 5, 1991, it erupted.