Orlando Gamarra: BUILDING A LASTING SAN MIGUEL COMMITTEE

INTERVIEWER: Sandra MacDonald Davis

Q: So let’s start. This is Sandy Davis, and I’m interviewing Orlando this morning about Arlington’s Sister Cities. Orlando, please tell us where you were born and where you grew up, then how you came to Arlington and how you got to be involved in this great organization – the Arlington Sister Cities Association.

OG: OK, thank you for this opportunity. I was born in Lima, Peru a long time ago, in 1946 and then I became a lawyer in Peru. I studied English so I could receive English-speaking clients in my office in Peru. So I had a very, very sad experience not being able to speak English and a client from the United States. I promised myself that this would never happen again. Immediately, after I finished with that client in Peru, I enrolled in Georgetown University, came to the United States for a few months. Then everything started happening, you know, the way everyone would expect and America opened the door for me. So, after finishing school for one year at Georgetown University, I went to American University and then I received an offer for employment from a law office in Washington D.C.; and I started working for that firm. Then after that I got my lawful permanent residency card, which is what everybody wants. Later on I got my citizenship. I was working hard to pass the bar exam. Finally I passed the bar exam after so many sacrifices, so many tries, and expenses. I set up my practice, and now I’m working in my office.

My relation to my involvement in the Arlington San Miguel committee is that I always participated in my community, the Peruvian community, for many years. I had a chance to be a member of the Board of Directors in Virginia Commerce Bank that was trying to reach the Hispanic community. So I was one of the advisor for the Virginia Commerce Bank, in their efforts to reach the Hispanic community. Then I got involved with the American-Peruvian Chamber of Commerce. I was with the Chamber of Commerce for 4-5 years, and at the end I was the president. Also, I was involved with the Peruvian Consulate in Washington D.C. That is, what we call a board of consultants; an entity founded by Peruvians in the area to help the consulate to solve the problems of the Peruvian community. I was two times president of the Board of Advisors to the consulate in Washington D.C. One of the dates, I was trying to expand my services not only to the Peruvian community, but the community in general, I attended a meeting that Walter Tejada organized in Arlington. I was really impressed with the work that the Arlington County was doing for the community and the outreach program. So I asked myself, I have worked with my community and most of my clients are from Central America, why don’t I get involved socially in other programs?

So the next meeting I saw in the programs was a meeting for the mayor, Will Salgado, was coming to town. That was my opportunity to meet the mayor, know more about the country, and the city of San Miguel. That is when I really fell in love with this program, and that’s when I committed my services. I’m receiving a lot of these clients, and that’s my way of giving back to the Central American community. That’s when I got really involved. I’ve had the pleasure of going to El Salvador seven times to participate in the program that would develop with the Arlington San Miguel Sister City Association. It’s really amazing what we have done. We have done a lot for the community; I think they also teach us a lot about how we have to appreciate what we have in America. Sometimes we just don’t pay attention to how those people are struggling in many aspects, on a daily basis, and how we can make a difference in their life. So far I think we have done a tremendous job.

It seems to me, the only way for us to do something, and to impact the life of those people living in San Miguel is basically to cover financial necessities. So we concentrate in the schools. We started raising money, electing a new Miss Sister City. That was the way to raise money. Just to give an idea, in every selection of a new Miss Sister City competition we raise between $10,000 and $24,000 per year. So, even though we have to cover the expenses, we are very careful in spending the money on the real needs of the community.

The first time we went to El Salvador, in San Miguel, we visited some schools and we saw how much the schools were short in basic needs for the school—computers, books, pencils, you name it, they need everything. So we try to cover those expenses in the schools. That was the main concentration. I remember one time we provided one school with seven computers. So actually we set up the computer center for that school. And those kids were so grateful, and those teachers were so grateful, because now they saw another opportunity for an educational service to prepare them for the future—because this is a technology driven time. Those who have technology knowledge will excel in the future. So they were very appreciative of what we were doing.

Also, we were visiting other institutions in the area, like the San Antonio orphanage. We had a chance to see how many kids were picked up from the streets or were abandoned by their parents. So we provided some toys, clothing, and money so they could have a better life. The orphanages are run by institutions from the Catholic Church, but still they are very short on resources.

Another place we also assisted was the home for retired people. Old people who had been abandoned by their families in San Miguel . It is run by the city, but still it has a lot of needs. We provided food for a certain period of time. We provided funds for transportation because those people have to go the hospitals, to the clinics, and they did not have the means for a transportion. So we set up a petty cash fund so they could use that money to cover the transportation expenses. We have done that for the last 4 or 5 five years.

I think the most important program for which I’m so happy and grateful is a permanent program – the summer English program. At one point, we had 3 or 4 teachers who went to San Miguel for one month, in July, and they had the chance to teach English to 128 children. They were so eager to learn English. I think that the reason is that they believe that at some point they will be able to come to the United States. So, if they ever cross the border, if they have family over here—and many have family in the United States, with or without immigration papers, they always have hope that one day they will come to the United States. We let them know how important it is to learn English. If the family petitions for them or maybe they have a chance to cross the border, we know they will be better prepared to face the hardship of coming to another country. They will be able to speak the language. They were so eager to learn English. They attended classes and they participated. In the end, we had to reward some of the best students. We set up another program, it was the scholarship program for these kids. I’m the one behind this program, and I am making sure that even if the Sister City Association doesn’t have the money, I will procure the money. Because it’s not like fishing for them, it’s training these kids how to fish. How to speak English; how to support themselves in the future. Even if they don’t come to the United States, there are more and more businesses all over the country. They might be better prepared to work for foreign businesses, get better salaries, and a better future.

So, now we have six students that we pay the tuition at the Academia Europea. Those kids go to that school after they have regular school. They attend over the full year, not only in the summer. And there I know they are doing great. Some of the kids came to the United States and they had experiences here in the public school. They had the opportunity to attend classes and reinforce their English knowledge. They had the opportunity to talk to the teachers, to talk to the students, American kids, Central American kids, foreign kids – kids from many different countries. They were so happy and told the other kids at home about their experiences in the US; encouraging their friends to also study English.

So those are basically the programs that I think we should continue. I had the opportunity to discuss these programs a couple of times with our current treasurer, Karl VanNewkirk, and he basically agreed with me that whatever we do, the most important things that we do for these kids is the education. So he is always willing to see how he will get the money from ASCA funds.  He is helpful not only for this program but for everything we have done so far. He is always available and I commend him for his dedication to this program. I know that he has more time than I have because I still work, but when I retire I will work on this more closely because I think there is a lot more to do. Also in San Miguel, we have the opportunity to see what the city mayor Will Salgado is trying to do for other people, especially for women. We saw a program that is working perfectly;  seminars or workshops for women who cannot get a job right now. We saw one workshop for a bakery, for a beauty parlor, and for making suits and clothing. Another one for computers. We saw at least six or seven workshops; all of them in one building with small offices. They receive the mothers who cannot get a job so that they are better prepared for the future. Once they finish, whatever workshop they attended, they will be ready to start looking for a job in their specialty. Also, the city provides childcare while the mothers are attending the workshops. I think it was well-organized and has given fruits. I know many women who have gone through the program now are getting work.

Q: Just bringing it back to the Arlington community.  This is a wonderful program that is bringing a lot to Arlington, not only via the Salvadoran community but other countries. You are from Peru, Karl Vannewkirk has travelled there. What would you consider to be the broader impact in Arlington?

OG: Arlington is doing through us a tremendous job, as you said, because people from other nationalities are really involved. I had the opportunity to see when you were president, and at other times, that members of ASCA went over there; Mr. Zimmerman and his wife, Karl and his wife, you and others had the chance to experience firsthand the culture. The food, the drink, the music, how we were received over there. It seems to me that it helps a lot when you go overseas. You have a better understanding of other communities; as a person you improve your relationships. I think you get out many biases and ideas that we might have about other people. So I think Arlington is playing a role in making a community that welcomes other communities. This is the program that basically prepares citizens to be more open-minded and understand other communities; and not be biased or have prejudiced because every culture has its own richness, and of course, errors.  But Arlington is doing a tremendous job. I’m aware that we have other programs in Germany, France, Ukraine, Mexico and lately in Bolivia. You know… so it’s very interesting how we can integrate, how we can live in America, how we can understand other cultures and be better prepared to welcome other nationalities who come to the US and make the US their own country.