Walter Tejada: THE ELUSIVE PURSUIT OF UTOPIA
WHEN: 22 March 2014
WHERE: Arlington, VA
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Let’s start by talking about you, your origins, your family.
WT: I was born and raised in El Salvador. My family is from two parts of that country. El Salvador is divided into 14 states or departments. One department is called La Paz—The Peace in English. My family is from a small town way out in the boonies of La Paz called San Luis Talpa, which is near the Comalapa International Airport. My family also has roots in San Salvador in the Barrio San Jacinto. When I was growing up, my mother immigrated to the United States to work really hard, sending remittances to the three children she left at home—my older brother, my younger sister, and me—who were living with our cousins, aunts and grandmother. We had a tough time, economically. We really didn’t have any money. In the States, my mother worked cleaning houses and in factories.
Q: Did she do that here in Arlington?
WT: Her first stop was Tucson, Arizona, and later in New York City. While I was still in El Salvador, my grandmother used to take me to her spot in the central market, where she would sell second-hand clothes and shoes. You would just grab any available spot, placing your wares down to sell. No formalities, no vendor’s certificates. Somehow I realized that our financial situation was not great, so I decided to start my own business. It was a shoe-shine business at 5-cents a shine. Sometimes 10-cents. Occasionally, a person would be kind enough to give me an extraordinary tip of 25 cents. The dollar exchange-rate at that time was about 250 colones, so you can imagine how much that was worth. One time I got 50 cents…but that turned out to be my uncle. So, of necessity, you grew up quickly in that setting. You needed to find a way to help.
At the age of 13, my mother returned to El Salvador to take us with her to the United States. All of the sudden, I found myself in Brooklyn, New York City in the Bedford Stuyvesant section, a tough neighborhood. It was crime-ridden and it was cold. I had never seen snow prior to that, so it was a complete shock. I brought a heavy sweater with me, but you needed a heavy coat. I didn’t speak the language. I went through the craziness that that entails. I did know how to say “no,” as it was the same in Spanish. People laughed at me in school at times, because I couldn’t speak English. I liked the ladies and wanted to talk to them. I remember one time in junior high there was one young lady I liked. At the same time, I had a friend named Antonio, a Puerto Rican who spoke Spanish. The lady in question would laugh, smile and point to me and giggle with her friends. I asked Antonio what she was saying. He told me she thought I was the worst thing she ever saw in her life. (laughter) And I thought she liked me! Looking back to a moment like that, you realize what you miss when you don’t know the language. So, it was a culture shock.
We lived in a high-crime area, because that’s what she could afford. We stayed in school, and I benefitted from my hobby, soccer, which motivated me. From it, I drew strength and discipline because I didn’t want to sit on the bench; I wanted to be a starter. I thought that if I smoked or engaged in other things, that would prevent me from being a good athlete. I rose to be captain of my team and then played on an all-city all-star team.
Our mom, with three teenagers in Brooklyn, decided the situation was unbearable. So, she decided to move out, in my senior year, a heart-breaker for me.
Q: So, you were in a PS. Do you remember which one?
WT: Yes. It was Mark Hopkins Junior High #33. Eventually, we attended Eastern District High School. That is where I was excelling in soccer as captain of the team, when in the middle of my senior year my mom chose to move to Trenton, New Jersey. Much changed from that point. I attended Keystone College, a liberal arts institution in La Plume, Pennsylvania, near Scranton, because many of my friends from Eastern District High School were going there. At first I wasn’t thinking about college; I was angry at the world because of our family relocation, but this idea changed my mind. The thought was that we were going to give that little town the best soccer team it ever had. And we did it! We had a record of 17 wins against one loss – a heart breaker, it came in the first playoff game! I moved back to Trenton after that season and attended Mercer College.
Q: What happened next?
WT: While in Trenton, I started dating a Jersey girl who later moved to Arlington for graduate school. The decision was: do I stay single in Trenton, or marry and move to the Washington metropolitan region? You can imagine the outcome. (laughter) We moved to DC in 1987, and in 1988, Robin and I were married. In 1992 we moved to Arlington and bought a house. We had been coming to Arlington all the time because Robin was a teacher in the Arlington public school system. We have been in Arlington ever since.
Q: A great story. We share something, insofar as my ancestors ended up in Scranton, drawn by employment in the coal mines, when they immigrated from Poland 120 years ago.
WT: La Plume is a few miles north-northwest of Scranton. Keystone had been a junior college then, but has since graduated to full college status.
Q: I mentioned to José Pineda, a key member of ASCA’s San Miguel committee, that I was about to interview you and he told me you two go back a long way. Was he one of your early soccer team-mates?
WT: Yes. I am very fortunate to have met many good people in my life, here in the Washington metropolitan region and in Arlington. José is one of them. We played soccer, many times pick-up games. He was a good player; so was I…but the years make you a little slower.
Q: How did you become involved in Arlington’s civic life?
WT: As I started to understand what was happening with the Latino community in the Washington metropolitan region, I became angry. First, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this region has the largest Salvadoran concentration among Latinos. And it has the third largest Salvadoran concentration in the world—the second is the Los Angeles suburbs and the first, of course, is San Salvador itself. Salvadorans are the largest Latino group in this region. I was happy to be in a place where I could find people who looked like me and I could find people who understood the traditions with which I was familiar.
I get along with everyone and anyone. I played in a Greek soccer team and one from Polonia in Green Point in New York City. I met and interacted with people from all around the world. I liked that. But here I discovered that Salvadorans and other Latinos were simply being taken advantage of—denied opportunities, paid very low wages, exploited with long hours at bare minimum salaries, despite the fact that many performed with excellence and deserved more. In many cases, families were denied decent housing. Others would be defrauded through exorbitant rates for translation or legal services. As I learned about this I grew upset by the discrimination.
So, I became engaged. Early on I volunteered as a “housing tester” in Maryland. Sure enough, when I walked in posing as an aspiring renter with my Latina “wife” to answer an ad for an apartment, dressed decently but humbly, there were no apartments available. But, in the next few months, we were told, one would be available at the back of the building overlooking the highway. An hour later, a striking blonde woman with her tall, white husband were sent to check out the same building. All of the sudden, an apartment was available on the top floor overlooking the very best front area with a spectacular view. Through that experience I realized that at least subtle discrimination existed. So began my civic activism.
In Arlington, now my home town, I wanted to fight for equality and inclusion to make sure that people could feel good about their community. So I got involved with an organization called LULAC—the League of United Latin American Citizens. It is a national organization with local chapters. Each chapter selects the areas to focus its advocacy work. Ours were citizenship, to encourage people to become citizens; voter-registration, to urge people to vote; and leadership development—we organized forums featuring people in leadership roles in Arlington who would be asked to speak about what they were doing for the Latino community. You know: what were their priorities? Were they including minorities? How? And if not, why not? This hadn’t happened previously. In this way we eventually succeeded in raising awareness, maybe making some people nervous. But there were welcoming people among Arlington’s progressives as well.
What I began to discover is that there are a lot of people in Arlington that have extensive experience as world travelers. That experience influences how people see our community. They have an external point of reference; they know what it is like somewhere else. Whether it is Africa, Asia, Latin America, or some tough neighborhoods in the United States, people have compared experiences here and there and have developed an appreciation for what we have in Arlington. There is a high appreciation for our home-town, Arlington County. This is where we live; these are our stomping grounds, where we go shopping, where we go to the movies, go to a restaurant, hang out, meet friends somewhere. On this basis I began challenging people to promote inclusion in the community. From then on, I was being asked to participate in a wide range of county commissions and committees—Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, Sports Commission, Bi-Centennial Celebration Task Force, Affordable Housing Task Force. I served on the United Way grants review committee, which distributed funds to non-profit organizations. In this way, I got to know the community quite well. That includes local politics. I would be approached: “Would you help me get elected by participating in my campaign as a volunteer?” “Well,” I would respond, “what is your Latino platform?” “Oh,” they might say, “I don’t have one yet. But can you help me put one together?” And I would say “Sure!” And my advice to Latinos was “get involved! Volunteer!” Often, that was difficult, as volunteerism is not in the Latino culture.
Q: Is that right?
WT: Up until recently, volunteerism has been a big part of culture of the United States. It certainly was not within the Latino community. Typically, when I asked someone to volunteer, they would respond with “how much does it pay?”
Q: What was your path to ASCA?
WT: It was through this activity that I began to meet people associated with Arlington’s effort to develop a sister city presence. I had a really good friend, now passed away, Abad Ramirez, who was active with ASCA. Abad was involved with the (now defunct) Arlington Symphony. His children are musicians. He and his wife, Connie Ramirez, were movers and shakers in Arlington County. A wonderful, progressive couple, who lived in north Arlington. I think it was Abad who invited me to a meeting of a committee on a developing relationship with Coyoacan, Mexico.
I came into contact with a wonderful man there who challenged me to get involved. His name was Eduardo Berton. He was of Argentinian descent. This was a man who profoundly affected my philosophy of life. Berton had been the coordinator of the Arlington Multicultural Institute (AMI). He would bring together people from different cultures and ethnicities with a view toward organizing events like festivals and folkloric presentations. Apparently, he saw something in me that appealed to him. He said he was going to train me to be a leader. He gave me many tips, challenging me to think critically about interpersonal dynamics. I had a style of posing tough questions. “That’s fine,” Eduardo said, “but how would you feel if someone asked that same question of you?” It made me pause; he affected my outlook. He made me realize that, believe it or not, we are not always right. Somebody else has another opinion and it might be better than yours.
Q: Let’s try to pin the timing down. Could that have been around 1996?
WT: Yes. Maybe even earlier. From about 1994, I was active with LULAC, and around then I started interacting with County Board members. I can remember Mary Margaret Whipple, who was pushing the new Aachen sister city relationship. I can remember an event held on a beautifully sunny spring day at Bon Air Park in 1996. There is an unusual bed of roses there and they were in bloom. Some sort of ceremony had been organized there; you could hear the stream gurgling in the background. It was lovely.
About that time, I met Karl VanNewkirk. Not long afterwards I was invited to play soccer with a team that was visiting from Aachen. I ended up performing as a substitute in one of the games and enjoyed it. The team was “The Good Old Boys.”
Q: Was Abad Ramirez a County employee?
WT: No. He was a county activist. Of Peruvian descent, Abad was an architect by trade and had done really well in Peru. I met him through LULAC. He served in a multitude of county advisory commissions. We kept in touch, informing each other about developments of mutual interest. My impression is that Abad was very involved in ASCA. He played a role in the formation of the Coyoacan relationship.
During this period I also met Leni Gonzalez, another mover and shaker. She and I, her husband and my wife, developed a great friendship. Leni refers to me as her “little brother” and I call her my sister. We were all very involved in civic activism. Because Leni is of Mexican descent, she was excited about the prospects for a relationship with Coyoacan. But many non-Mexicans were also involved. I remember attending a reception at Yorktown High School. A representative from Coyoacan had come. And at that time, around 1998, some concern had been articulated about the apparent lack of involvement of local citizens from the Coyoacan side and their absence in the visiting delegation. One concern was that if the government changed, the partnership might die. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened a few years later. That is a vivid memory for me, serving as a cautionary tale when groups petition us for new sister city relationships. It affected my disposition to the San Miguel organizing attempt when it was getting started. We needed to build up local participation there to ensure sustainability.
Q: Why has this concern emerged as a trope in ASCA history?
WT: It is easy to overlook the uniqueness of circumstances in the United States. Not many countries have a political culture conducive to citizen activism.
Q: You mentioned increased interaction with County Board members.
WT: Chris Zimmerman started inviting me to various events also. We struck up a good friendship. Here was this Gringo who somehow cared about Latinos. Suspicious at first, I found he had a genuinely good heart and is smart. He also had a harder edge, no hesitation in telling someone off, if need be. Some people didn’t like that, but he was often right.
Back to AMI (Arlington Multicultural Institute) for a moment, which drew people from different ethnicities to stage festivals and folkloric activities for cultural pride. This was a county-facilitated activity. The message being sent was “you are valued. Your culture is important to us. It’s okay to display cultural pride. We will help you do that.” Among the sources of my original discontent back then was that, despite thousands of Salvadorans in the DC region, there was no Salvadoran festival. I engaged on this issue with constructive criticism, a solution, and personal participation in the solution. So, all right, then, if there is not one, let’s do one together in Arlington. I asked a number of people to join me. They included Hugo Salinas, another mover and shaker here in Arlington, an artist who created festival floats. He possessed great imagination and drive for staging. We worked together with Hugo’s brother, Mauricio Javier Salinas, the director of the only Salvadoran folkloric group in the entire metropolitan region, El Pulgarcito. It is a nickname for El Salvador, and is a diminutive for your thumb, an allusion to the country’s size, the smallest in the Americas. Our festival organizing group, numbering eight or nine, put the festival together in six weeks. Another key member was Glenda Alvarez, a Parks & Recreation county employee who was familiar with county regulations, permitting and the like. Some were skeptical about generating interest, but in the end around 700 people showed up at Barcroft Park, chosen because it had the required infrastructure. As it turned out, people liked the festival, despite our decision to ban alcohol and tobacco sponsorships. We also promised to put the proceeds from ticket sales, after covering expenses, into a scholarship fund to benefit kids of Salvadoran descent who could not afford to go to college. People loved that idea—a volunteer effort to help the community.
Q: What year was that?
WT: It had to be 1994 or 1995. We did it for nine years, except in 2001, when we cancelled everything because of 9/11. When we did it the second year, thousands attended. In the third year attendance grew still more. Word had gotten out—a nice event, family atmosphere, people loved it. Congratulations poured in, even though there were some expressing reservations: it also caused a massive traffic jam around Barcroft Park.
Q: Managing success can be difficult…
WT: The police worried about crowd control. There were also some issues about gang activity at the time. That point deserves comment. I knew that some gang members would come to the festival. Some anxiety occurred among the organizers by reports that gang members were planning to fight it out there. As head of the festival organizing committee I decided to seek out likely gang members, approach them with a smile and extended hand and say “Welcome! We are so happy you are able to join us. Thank you for being with us today. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know if there is anything we can do to help you while you are here, because we appreciate you’re being here.” I would shake their hands; they would look at me sideways, chin up, but I think that was the right thing to do. As it turned out, we never had a problem, not once. Occasionally, police would take someone in for drinking and inebriation in the parking lot. But we never had a gang problem. The suspicions making the rounds in the community upset me, because what you need to do is reach out to people, to say “you are valued and we want you here.” And then, once present, challenge them to get involved. I would say something like “This box is heavy; can you help me move it?” The guy would say, “errr, all right.” That leads to a degree of familiarity. At the next encounter it’s “Hey, Walter!” I was hoping this would become contagious. In retrospect, that is one of the things that made me most proud. People began to know our organization, and begin to develop respect—not a fearful respect, but a warmth of acknowledgement. It was a matter of generating a sense of inclusion in the community.
Q: How did this affect your work?
WT: First off, organizing the festival helped people get to know me, because of media coverage and community contacts. Then the Salvadoran embassy took notice and wanted to be involved. At first, they did not like that we did the festival. They preferred that the embassy should lead the way and that everyone should follow them.
Q: I imagine that you promoted the festival beyond Arlington. Was the embassy involved?
WT: Right. It was the Salvadoran Festival of the Washington Metropolitan Region—that was the name we gave it. Some people didn’t like that. I was amazed. “How could people object to that,” I thought. Some expressed the view that I was somehow bidding for leadership of the Salvadoran community in the region. “This is not an exclusive event,” I said: “If you want to do something else as well, be my guest!” The ambassador was upset at first, since they wanted to organize a festival. I invited the ambassador to the festival to speak. Standing right in front of me, she said “Next year we will put on the festival and we hope you all will come to a real festival.” Immediately, you could see the strained reaction of the crowd: “what did she say?!” Some were really angry. I responded: “Madam ambassador, we’re glad you were able to join us. Thank you for being here. Have a nice day.” I then went on to introduce the next person and we went on to have another successful event. We went about our business and the festival just continued to grow and succeed.
Q: Was there an ASCA connection?
WT: As it happened, the mayor of San Miguel, El Salvador, by the name of Will Salgado, came to one of the latter festivals we organized. He had come to promote his own festival— the San Miguel Carnival—which is held in November. Our festival in Arlington was in September, usually around September 15, the date on which independence from Spain is celebrated in Central America. Will and I struck up a friendship. We came from different corners, politically. Our friendship emerged from mutual interests. He had a good heart and was trying to do good things for his people, especially low-income people, a priority we have in common. I wanted to help the least privileged in our community, partly because I came from that background. Out of the blue one day he told me “I hope that someday you are the mayor of Arlington.” We stayed in touch over the years. And in 2003, I decided to run for office. One of my early goals was to start an Arlington-San Miguel sister city committee. By then, I had already been involved in a number of ASCA activities—with Aachen, Reims, and Coyoacan. So, I put out a call to any interested parties and twenty-five responded. I wondered how many of those would come to the second meeting. The number did decrease, but we were left with good people. We had Oscar Amaya, owner of El Rancho Migueleno Restaurant, we had José Pineda, Orlando Gamarra, and others who were enthused with the idea, particularly Fausto Fonseca. Fausto was the nucleus. He tells you he is not the leader, yet he is always active behind the scenes—just a wonderful man, one of the warmest, good-hearted human beings I have ever met. He ran the American Soccer League for nearly 25 years.
Q: What happened next?
WT: Based on this, I called Mayor Will Salgado and asked him to begin asking local citizens to form a committee in San Miguel, but this was a difficult concept. Typically, the way things work in Latin American countries, everything is done through the mayor. The mayor leads and directs initiatives. If the mayor does not initiate, nothing gets done. Of course, I could not see things that way. We have a citizen-led society in the United States. As an elected official I am aware that power is given to me by the citizens. With that in mind, this is how we get things done in Arlington. But it was difficult to translate the idea into action in San Miguel. A committee was formed, but most of the participants were members of the city council, along with a couple of business people. So, it was difficult, but it did start there and we had a really good group here in Arlington.
Q: When was that?
WT: By the time the committee was up and running is was already 2004. It was an educative process to inform the community what it took to realize our aims. The question often arose: “When do we sign the agreement? Can we sign it now?” There was interest across the Washington metropolitan region. Salvadorans from Maryland, for instance, were closely following our efforts, as this concept had not been tried before, at least not in this area. People began to think of sister-cityships in their own areas, like Montgomery County, after we launched ours. We were first.
Q: Were there other initiatives?
WT: Oh yes. Montgomery County developed a relationship with Morazán, one of El Salvador’s departments.
Q: How has the partnership developed?
WT: It took several years to get the relationship with San Miguel going. We had exchanges, there were delegations we invited and received here. I asked our Arlington Economic Development (AED) staff to meet and consider what partnerships we might be able to have. We also looked into partnerships in sports and education. The San Miguel committee then came up with the idea to have a queen, a Miss Arlington-San Miguel.
Q: Tell us about the Queen program.
WT: That is a significant activity the committee continues to organize. They are conscious that there is some hesitance about the concept in American culture, but it is not about viewing women exclusively as beauty objects. The roots are in the festival, where we focused on education and college scholarships. As the queen program developed, the educational dimension was taken on as a central feature. The queen is elected through donations to the candidates with the proceeds after expenses going to school supplies in a needy town—either San Miguel itself, or one in the immediate vicinity. There is a huge need there. This program is all about the humanitarian effort for schools carefully selected by the committee in San Miguel, not for the privileged and well-connected. I specifically advised them not to select an Escuela Americana, a preparatory international school. They don’t need resources; they’ve got resources. We need to go where there are no resources. I have gone on some of the visits made annually, during Carnival, by the elected Miss Sister City queen. I have seen the difference it makes first-hand; I have seen the need, the kids, the families. It is a fabulous program and is an initiative of the Arlington Sister City Association.
Another component that has evolved involves teachers from Arlington public schools. My better half, that Jersey girl I mentioned before, Robin Liten-Tejada, was behind it. She took the lead in recruiting teachers from Arlington public schools who are bi-lingual, teaching English as a second language, to visit San Miguel during the summer vacation as volunteers to teach English in a special program.
Q: How long have they been doing that?
WT: The program was started five or six years ago. It is so exciting for the kids over there. When the teachers arrive the local TV coverage is incredible. They are treated like rock stars. Media covers them when they arrive, the receptions they attend. The hosts try to find them a nice place to stay, sometimes a challenge. Kids compete to be selected for this summer program. They have to present good grades, avoid getting into any kind of trouble, demonstrate effort to learn the language. It’s incredible. The potential for forging enduring friendships and relationships is great. It could help some of the students visit us here. Unlike European countries, getting a visa to visit the United States from El Salvador is a big deal. You know, that is probably another area where unequal treatment is apparent. There are some genuine concerns. We have made it clear that, if people come, they cannot stay. We go to great lengths to make sure that this is understood. The process is not perfect; it’s clumsy, but it continues. Programs like this distinguish San Miguel from other ASCA sister cities.
The same is true for the Miss Sister City queen visit in November during Carnival. San Miguel’s is the biggest such event in Central America. It is always an amazing experience. I can remember one delegation with Sandy MacDonald; Cindy Zavala was Miss Sister City that year; now she is graduating from American University—a terrific young lady. We went with a delegation of about 30. It was a blast. Wade and Ann Gregory were also on that trip. I have benefitted so much from their advice and from their strictness—they were strict, but in a good way, for instance, in ensuring that there was active citizen involvement in San Miguel, rather than government people. That is a difficult thing to do in Latin American countries, despite our continual efforts.
Q: We would love to see a greater presence of the San Miguel members at the ASCA board meetings. They are well-liked; we are fond of them and know they do great work; some of us attend events like the Miss Sister City elections, but we miss the leadership at our board meetings. We want them to participate. José Pineda nearly always comes.
WT: José gets it. I have encouraged him. One issue is language—the level of English needed for full participation—to understand the flow and follow the conversation makes some people hesitant. Having experienced that myself in my younger days—and reaching for words sometimes even nowadays—it can make you nervous. Sometimes, when they have attended the meetings, they may not have been able to fully follow the conversation.
Q: Let me say that of all people in Arlington, we on the board have great empathy for that situation. As you noted, we travel a lot and are ourselves often in the same situation having difficulty communicating. But the San Miguel colleagues are our amigos. They are among friends when they are with us.
WT: I can’t tell you how many times I have said exactly that to people. Fortunately, over the years I have gotten to know almost all the ASCA board members. Genuinely good people. Some of the leaders could on occasion be demanding, a contrast to some cultures. American culture is more definite about time: when is it going to start? When is it going to end? And how much does it cost? Let’s get to the bottom line. (laughter) We will continue to encourage people to attend. There is another issue: more often than not, San Miguel committee members work two jobs. Fausto, for instance, works his tail off. He is running a business. It is hard in some cases to go to a 7:30pm meeting. President Manfredo Mejia runs the Atlacatl Restaurant on Columbia Pike.
Q: We also very much want the San Miguel committee to participate in ASCA’s 20th anniversary event coming up on May 5th.
We have discussed San Miguel at length, but I know you have also been very much involved with the initiative to bring along a relationship with Cochabamba, Bolivia. Tell us about that.
WT: After the Salvadoran community in the metropolitan region, I think it’s fair to say that the Bolivians are the second largest Latino group. Certainly, that is true of Arlington. Bolivia has nine states. And the Bolivians—both in Bolivia and here—refer to a 10th state: it’s called Arlington. Many have moved further afield to find affordable housing—we are victims of our own success in that respect. But many have roots in this community going back two and even three generations at this point. I have come to know many of them. We formed important friendships around the time of the Arlington Multicultural Institute. The Bolivian festival was the biggest of them all. They know how to put a festival together. There’s an organization called Comité Pro Bolivia, an umbrella group with many folkloric affiliates. They all work together on the annual festival. One year it was at Barcroft Park, then they had to move to a bigger venue, to Wakefield High School. But even that became too small, because they like to have a parade in which everyone dances around a field. A jury judges the dancers. Very cool and exciting. Thousands of participants.
I knew there were some tensions in the area between Salvadorans and Bolivians. It was clear that we had to cooperate; there was a critical alliance we needed to fashion. The politics were clear: it was in our mutual interest that we show unity. So, if the Salvadorans and the Bolivians appeared to be united, it could set a good tone for all the groups: the Peruvian festival, the Colombian festival, the Nicaraguan festival, the Mexican festival, Panama, and so on. And it is not just Latin American—there were events for China and Cambodia, too. Our alliance was instinctual. No one had to articulate it. Sometimes there was a little jealousy of the Bolivians by other groups. But Bolivians have a good organizational capacity and succeed for that reason. The proper response is to organize and I enjoy working with them. I’m proud that many tell me I have the status of honorary Bolivian. I have tried to convince them to take advantage of their organizational capacity; it could be translated into political effectiveness, if they were to put their mind to it. Many of these groups have hundreds of members and they have families with kids – and it is all as volunteers!
Several years ago, I was asked by the U.S. Department of State to go to Bolivia and Ecuador to promote democracy, to talk about what we do in Arlington. They wanted me to speak about what it was like to become a naturalized U.S. citizen and becoming active in politics, running for and winning elective office, and becoming Chairman of the Arlington County Board. I informed my Bolivian friends that I was going to La Paz and to Cochabamba.
Q: When was that?
WT: It was four or five years ago—2009 or 2010. It was a most memorable trip for Robin and me. Before I left, I challenged the local Bolivian community with the prospect of a sister city. They are a large community, are effectively organized, and should be able to sustain a sister city relationship. I used the number 10: “Bring me 10 people.” They wanted me to lead it, but I told them “I am the government. It is you who must lead it. I will support you, I will help you by opening doors.” Sometimes the mentality is that the government has to lead. In fact, an informal committee was formed. They began to make attempts to set up an Arlington-Cochabamba sister city committee. Armando Morales was the first president. He was a reporter for a local paper here. He was savvy about communication technology and interacting with people. They were thrilled about the prospects of my visit and promised to arrange a welcome for me there. My message to them was that I wanted them to pass the word to acquaintances in Cochabamba that they needed to form a committee of private citizens that could partner with a similar group in Arlington. I told them “I don’t want anybody from the government involved in this. We don’t have to ask permission.” Around fifteen people formed a committee in Cochabamba. Armando went first and did the leg-work. I was accompanied by several others from the local community. Suddenly there was this Arlington-Cochabamba committee showing up in Bolivia, that had not yet been blessed by ASCA. It was a chicken-and-egg problem: do you wait for the full formal process by ASCA, or do we seize the opportunity that presented itself and inject some energy into the initiative?
Q: How did it turn out?
WT: It was a hit. There were several layers to the trip. First, there was seeing and being received by the embassy of the United States in another country. What an honor. We were made to feel important. Then there were the many speeches I gave, in which I described how Arlington operates, emphasizing the central role of active citizens, especially when my audience included government people. When addressing citizens, I also reverted to the strategy I spoke of earlier—identifying problems, pointing to solutions, and taking part in the solution.
In La Paz, Robin was affected by the altitude; for some reason, I was less so. We discovered the coca leaf that people chew or brew to deal with the effects of altitude. I confess to having been nervous: would we pass a blood test? (laughter)
Bolivia’s current president, who has been in office now for some time, does not have the best relationship with the United States. Signs abounded with slogans like “CIA OUT OF BOLIVIA”. Yet, when I interacted with private citizens, the tenor was positive. Another aspect of my visit concerned union organizers, whom I wanted to support. In meeting with them, I tried to give encouragement by referring to the power their organizing brought them. I shared with them the major role that unions have played in the history of the United States. Similarly with women: it is within reach to begin a new day. You have already developed leadership skills. These guys will be your partners in change. These were some of the highlights of that trip.
When we got to Cochabamba, an interesting thing happened. The committee of private citizens had arranged a number of activities, and they came from different walks of life. Two were involved with playing and coaching soccer professionally, another was an architect, another was a doctor, a couple of them were businessmen starting up a food festival. They were prominent people for Bolivian society, but I liked that they were private citizens. In the midst of this, word came that the mayor of Cochabamba wanted to see me. The local people were surprised: “The mayor never asks any of us to see him. We ask for meetings all the time, but are turned down.” “Gee,” I said, “I don’t have a souvenir for the mayor.” All I had with me were a pocket full of Arlington County lapel pins I had been passing out during my meetings. So I went to see him. This mayor is affiliated with an authoritarian political party that has a tight grip on civil society right now. President Evo Morales started his term with high expectations as a person from his country’s indigenous people—the first president ever to have native roots, an historic occurrence. But he is also an example of how extremes are not good. What he did is cut out the rich people and businesses and say “You have too much power; I am cutting you out. The low income people and natives are going to rule.” Well, you can’t cut out the big money people. You have to work with them. Investment is required. Their power can be moderated and you can find a better balance in the interest of higher standards of living. But it shouldn’t be a choice between one or the other.
So on to the mayor: he received me with warmth, handing me a big book filled with glossy pictures of Cochabamba. Without missing a beat, I reached into my pocket, pulled out an Arlington pin and stuck it into his lapel. (laughter) My wife still laughs about it: “You were so smooth.” Unfortunately, the Cochabamba committee did not follow up. The group in Arlington continued to try; some attended ASCA board meetings. It then began to fizzle out. In part, it was because Armando stayed behind in Cochabamba to attend to business interests. Fortunately, there is a man by the name of Edgar Gonzales, a good friend and great leader in the local community, active for many years, serving on the board of directors of the Bolivian soccer league, who is keeping things going. I specifically challenged them to get women involved as well, and some have stepped forward. Despite this, we are currently in a lull. They are eager for a signing ceremony, but there is little to support it. I told them I would be willing to help, but if I am to fly to Cochabamba, preparations must be made months in advance. It takes at least a day to fly in each direction, so it would be a major effort and it would be pointless to go unless there was a high likelihood that something would come out of it.
Q: Is it harder for the Cochabambans to self-activate because of the political environment there?
WT: It could be, but there is even less reason for me to lead the way, as an American with Salvadoran origins. It can only be done by the Bolivians. I think the initiative can be revived and flourish again; people have expressed an interest. We need to find the hook—a theme, an activity, a purpose. Perhaps a soccer exchange. They have talk about education, too.
Q: Let’s slowly move into the final phase of our conversation. I have seen you attend any number of ASCA events over the years. Why is that? Why do you keep on showing up?
WT: ASCA has put on a variety of really enjoyable events. The holiday party around Christmas is one example. It’s the kind of thing that brings everybody together. The trend is away from self-segregation and toward integrating with one another. I strongly encourage people to find ways to continue in this vein, so that Ivano-Frankivsk doesn’t sit in one corner and San Miguel people sit in another corner and so on. Another integrating moment is the picnic, a way to mingle with one another. Maybe you should consider doing some ice-breaker games that are designed to engineer interactions.
I value ASCA greatly. For me, ASCA stands for the concept of citizen ambassador. You have the responsibility to uphold the values of your home town, your community. I am biased, I admit it, but I think that Arlington is the best place in the world. Therefore, our standards should be high in challenging people to be inclusive and in advancing the cause of a harmonious society. We can break down cultural barriers. It makes us a stronger society when we work together, when we come together. And ASCA has the potential to do that.
That is why I was so excited about helping with the formation of a relationship with Ivano-Frankivsk. I saw what Chrystia Sonevytsky and company were trying to do. There were some critical voices—do we need another sister city? But, hey, they were doing the organizational work and getting results. When that happens, beyond getting out of the way, we should facilitate the process if possible. So, I thought it was really important to seize that enthusiasm. Sometimes, just one person can make the difference, can change the world, can make things better. Chrystia was that spark-plug. She had good people surrounding her as well. They had good hearts. They were organizing pot-luck dinners, discussing Ukraine with pride, showing movies about the Orange Revolution. “Ukraine,” I mused, “that’s something I never thought about.” I didn’t know anything about Ukraine. Now I know a lot. I asked about their plans. Chrystia told me that they included exchanges of school kids. That sounded good to me: Aachen does it all the time; Reims does it, too. Why shouldn’t we help them? Is it going to cost something to the county government? No. So, I derived a lot of pleasure in helping to establish the Ivano-Frankivsk relationship. It wasn’t easy, but it was made to happen. A couple of years ago there was a delegation from Arlington to Ivano-Frankivsk. Robin and I were part of it and had the time of our lives. We were treated very well. The mayor, Viktor Anushkevychus, was welcoming. We got to know many people there. We travelled to the Carpathian Mountains.
We also visited Lviv and experienced an especially intense moment of connection because of Robin’s Jewish background. We discovered that some of her roots are Ukrainian, in an area formerly under Russian control. Originally, she had thought her background was Russian. Before we made the trip we had seen a new film directed by Agnieska Holland, In Darkness, about people taking refuge in the Lviv sewer system during the Holocaust. We hired a tour guide to help us recapture some of that history, riding through the town on streetcars, that’s right, streetcars!—101 years young when we were there. For the streetcars alone, I am a fan of Lviv. I confess that a tear or two was shed on our tour. We learned a lot about the Jewish community and its trials and tribulations. We also had tours in Ivano-Frankivsk and inquired about the Jewish community there. Our guide there did not know much about that community. We wanted to visit the synagogue. Though tucked away, we found it and went in and talked to the rabbi. He shared history that our guide clearly did not know. He was astounded to learn of a whole history of his town unknown to him – and he was a guide, with a lot of knowledge about his town.
Now returning to our experience in Lviv, we went to a number of sites with Jewish landmarks. One of them was a menorah hidden away in a park at Babi Yar, a ditch where thousands of Jews were killed. Seeing that was a very poignant moment for us. We then moved from this emotional site to its opposite, flying to Kyiv, where the European soccer championship games were then being played. Statues were decked out in the shirts of national teams. A huge soccer ball sculpture posed on the Maidan in the central city, the epicenter of the recent protests. We were enthralled by Kyiv. It is a thriving city. Its metro subway is fast and the metro escalators are twice as fast as ours. Because we had a good look at Kyiv, we find ourselves particularly connected to the recent events. We had an experience with the language divisions there. We got used to everyone speaking Ukrainian in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv, and were surprised to hear mostly Russian in Kyiv. While in Kyiv, I bought a Ukrainian national team soccer shirt and wear it with pride today in pick-up games in Arlington. Why shouldn’t we here in Arlington support a sister city relationship that gives us a point of reference in Ukraine?
Q: A question I pose in every interview for this project concerns the continuing relevance of the sister city idea. After all, it was launched in the 1950s, before the advent of instantaneous worldwide communication technology and leisure travel opportunities dramatically increased. Are sister cities still relevant in the era of globalization?
WT: Absolutely! It is very relevant today. Despite our intention to be a diverse, inclusive community, we need to do more. This is part of Arlington’s mission statement. Maybe those of us who came to this country from elsewhere appreciate this more than others born here. We must make efforts to interact with each other to reduce barriers. The citizen-ambassador provides the framework for making progress. As corny as it might sound, this is an attempt to make the world a better place—the elusive pursuit of the utopia we will never get to. This is one important component of it.
Q: As we slowly draw to a close, let’s address the changing situation in Arlington itself. One of our key sister cities is San Miguel. But the demographics of Arlington County have been changing. I wonder if the Latino community here is as densely represented now as it was a generation ago. I have the sense that people may be moving out because housing is becoming more expensive. Is that a concern?
WT: Yes. And no, it is not the same. The numbers are down. At one point the official census number was 18.6% of Arlington’s population was Latino, and I suspect the real number was somewhat larger than that, because some people just don’t want to be counted. I suspect the real number was more like 21%. The latest figure is 15.1%. What you do find is that many people have managed to stay in Arlington. Some have left, only to come back to Arlington. They know what it’s like to live somewhere else, like in Manassas. They are able to compare the quality of life, and we have a high quality of life here. People have told me: “I would rather stick it out in a very tight apartment in Arlington where I hardly have any space, but where there are so many other things that I like and don’t want to give up. I can live here without a car. I can take the bus. I can go to restaurants. And I have never been a victim of crime in Arlington.” Casual statements like that are very significant. There is a generation of Latinos that have now established their roots here and are here to stay. We are talking now about two or even three generations. Now they are having kids, and they are staying in Arlington. Those that stay are happy. We do surveys that substantiate this. Latinos are notorious for expressing satisfaction in surveys, and are in the highest range, in the 80s, of satisfaction for that population.
In terms of politics, I have a four word slogan: I am “For All of Arlington.” In Spanish, it’s even shorter: “para todo Arlington.” I don’t just represent Latinos. I happen to be of Latino background, am very proud of that fact, and will bring a Latino agenda, no question about that. But I am here to look after the welfare of all the residents of Arlington. So, I will embrace smart growth policies and sound fiscal management principles that, according to Bloomberg, have led us to be one of the two best places to live in the United States.
Q: So, the sister city idea is not only about being citizen ambassadors abroad, but that it is also a key to Arlington’s success here, at home.
WT: When we have had a chance to travel and we are representing Arlington, we have a high responsibility and must live up to that. Even a first time traveler, say, on a high school exchange, brings something very special—the values of our home-town here in Arlington. We should be proud and humble in equal measure. We should strive to be ambassadors for a democratic society. For civility. For inclusion. So, yes—when we travel we become ambassadors and people will remember the way we act, the way we say things, the examples we use, how we comport ourselves, and how inviting we are to share what we have.
Q: I guess it is important that Arlington’s public institutions should support this orientation you describe—the school system, for example.
WT: Schools do play a major role. And it is a joy to see a student come from far away and sit in one of our classrooms or participate in a school activity. The schools should be more supportive. There is support in the schools, but there needs to be more. We need to give them a context to relate to. Maybe the superintendent ought to be invited to be part of an exchange. We on the County Board are proud supporters of the sister city concept.
Q: How would you like to sum up?
WT: I hope that the Arlington Sister City Association continues to be a welcoming organization. You help set the tone in our society. To cut to the chase: there are many influential people involved in ASCA and you have a leading role in Arlington and we appreciate it. When we purport to be a world-class community, where people unite to form a caring, sustainable, learning community, with secure, attractive residential and commercial neighborhoods in which each person is important, those are nice words, but somebody has to live up to them. There are organizations in our community for whom those words mean something. Each organization interprets this in its own spirit. Our role today—you as an organization and we, the government—is to be good stewards of the Arlington Way.
Let me end with a few reminders. Arlington distinguished itself in the Civil War era in deciding that we would not separate from the union, while the other 94 counties in Virginia did. We said, “No, we don’t believe slavery is a good idea. We will not join the Confederacy.” In the late 1950s, when it was not popular, Arlington said, “Yes, we are going to integrate our schools, whether you like it or not. And we will welcome African-American students to our schools.” In 2007, when it was fashionable to attack and persecute immigrants around the country and in places not far from here, Arlington said, “We value immigrants. We think they are positive for our community. We will not denigrate them. Instead, we want to remind you that every day they contribute in a positive way, not only economically, but to society as a whole. And that is the Arlington Way.”