Virginia Latino Migration in the Contemporary Era
Until World War II, Virginia had been an area historically defined by black and white dichotomies, with no previous history of Latino settlement. International migration dates back to the 1950s, allowing for dramatic population growth over the last few decades. Around this time, the Latino presence emerged across northern Virginia, with international civil servants coming to work in post-Bretton Woods institutions in Washington, DC.1 These early arrivals would prove critical to the emergence of an informal, gendered labor-recruitment cycle that brought thousands of Central American women to the region to fill child care, cleaning, and other positions.
A few decades later, during the 1970s and 1980s, a more dramatic migrant influx arrived to the Washington and northern Virginia suburban area, as Central
and South American migration escalated because of political and economic turmoil across Latin America. Largely in response to U.S. direct involvement in protracted civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, Central Americans settled across the area en masse through the linkages and networks established by that involvement. Though most Salvadorans and Guatemalans were fleeing from persecution and violence amid the bloodshed of civil war, U.S. immigration policy did not recognize them as political refugees, because such recognition would have disclosed the dissonance of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, which included funding regimes that were grossly violating human rights.
Salvadorans by far the largest Latino population across the Washington metro area and northern Virginia suburbs trace their roots to their country’s rural towns and small cities in the eastern provinces of La Union, San Miguel, and Usulutan. The Intipuca-Washington metro area route is one of the oldest and most publicized Salvadoran transnational migrant circuits, linking that small town at the southern tip of La Union Department with migrant settlements in specific neighborhoods across suburban northern Virginia and Washington, DC. Over 20 percent of Salvadorans from Intipuca have resettled in the Washington metropolitan area, including the northern Virginia suburbs.2
By the 1990s, the foundation for a self-sustaining cycle of continuous migration had already been established, and migration to the region gained momentum. In fact, environmental disasters in several Central American countries fueled additional migration to the region. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch displaced thousands of Hondurans; earthquakes in El Salvador, in 2001, provided further incentives for migration to well-established Salvadoran communities across Virginia. Around this time, the greater Washington area officially became a new gateway city of migration, with boundaries between northern Virginia and the District of Columbia turning increasingly porous a permeability of jurisdictional boundaries that became further magnified as most migrants coming to the Washington metropolitan area settled in suburban localities, rather than in the nation’s capital.3
Yet, after 2000 census data became widely available, demographers noted that the rapid increase of Virginia Latinos exceeded the northern Virginia boundaries. Other parts of the commonwealth, including secluded rural towns and smaller communities in localities such as Winchester, Harrisonburg, and the city of Galax, were also experiencing dramatic Latino growth. Attracted first by seasonal agricultural jobs in the fruit processing industry, and later on by year-round employment in expanding poultry factories across the Shenandoah valley, countless Latinos (mostly Mexicans) have now settled across the state.