LANGLEY PARK – It’s 10:30 a.m., and Felix is sitting on a rail in the parking lot of the Takoma/Langley Crossroads Center, eating the microwaveable spaghetti lunch he bought at the local 7-Eleven. He didn’t find work today.
Felix, 30, who declined to give his last name, joins hundreds of other Hispanic immigrants, many of them illegal aliens, who wait here every day from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. for a pickup truck to come and take them to jobs mowing lawns or painting homes.
It’s a good spot to find workers like Felix: This small section of Prince George’s County has the largest concentration of Hispanics in the state, according to the 2000 Census. Of 5,669 people counted by the census in western Langley Park, 80 percent are of Hispanic origin.
And those are just the ones who responded to the census.
“Oh, there are much more than that,” said Guadalupe Adams of Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income Latinos find work, apply for legal residency and learn English.
Many immigrants, like Felix, refused to respond to the census for fear of being deported, said Adams, herself a Salvadoran immigrant who doesn’t speak English.
“I would wager a dollar there are around 6,000 (Hispanics)” in the western part of Langley Park, said William J. Hanna, a University of Maryland professor of urban studies and planning. “Nine out of 10 conversations you’ll hear there are in Spanish.”
Census tract 8056.01 is a busy crossroads near the Montgomery County border, crowded with strip shopping centers and two- and three-story brick apartment buildings. The area is bounded by University Boulevard and Quebec Street, and New Hampshire Avenue and 15th Street.
A 1995 study that Hanna co-authored, “Langley Park: A Preliminary Needs Assessment,” found that unemployment in Langley Park increases to 50 percent in the winter, that fewer than half of the adults in speak English at home and only 7 percent of the residents vote.
More than 1,000 adults attend English classes every week at nearby Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School, said Principal Cheryl J. Logan. With a student body that is 70 percent Hispanic, Logan said she has to speak Spanish with a lot of parents.
It wasn’t always like that.
Langley Park was a predominantly white neighborhood in the 1950s, Hanna said. It became an African-American community in the 1970s after desegregation.
But since the 1980s, Central Americans, mostly from El Salvador, have taken over the area, after escaping their civil war-ravaged countries. It was the first Maryland suburb to have a large Hispanic community, he said.
There is no clear reason why they chose that area. In El Salvador, where many of the area’s new residents come from, Langley Park is dubbed the “15th province” of the small 14-province country, Hanna said. It’s known as a place where “you can make more money and have a more decent life.”
Not everybody is happy with the presence of groups of immigrants looking for work at the University Boulevard shopping center. Some storeowners are fed up with the crowds of men waiting for jobs, who they say scare customers away.
“We ourselves cannot find parking,” said Paul Singh, president of One Stop Cellular, a shop in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads Center. “It’s worst for the ladies because all the men start looking at them and use abusive language.”
But at International Food across the street, where Latin pop music blasts from the speakers, manager Andrew McDonald said most of the men crowding the parking lots don’t cause trouble.
“Most of them are looking for daily work,” said McDonald, a Caribbean immigrant himself.
Though a lot of them don’t find work every day, Hispanics flock to the area because they know others will help them settle in, said Adams, who assists the men who wait for work every morning at the corner of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue.
Seven to eight men often share bunk beds in the one-room apartments near the shopping center, she said. When a new immigrant moves into one of these apartments, the other men won’t ask for rent or money for food for one month.
Carlos Ortiz, building manager of Quebec Arms Apartments on 14th Street, said he didn’t know about such arrangements. But he agrees that about 85 percent of the tenants living in the 247-unit complex are Hispanic.
Solidarity defines this community, he said.
“I believe that’s the reason why people come to this area,” said Ortiz, who came to Langley Park from Guatemala 16 years ago. “People will help each other without hesitation.”