The Care and Education of Salvadoran Youth in Alexandria

In recent years, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors have joined the ranks of immigrants entering the United States from Central America. The majority of these children are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.[1] This wave of minors began in 2012, prompted by issues in Central America and the common belief among Central American families that children sent to the United States would be allowed to stay.[2] In the case of El Salvador, many minors left their home country to escape poverty and gang violence.[3] Many young people and their families feel as if they have no future in El Salvador, and believe that the Salvadoran government cannot help them.[4]When these children arrive in the United States unaccompanied, they are placed with sponsors, usually family members, while their deportation cases are pending.[5]

Northern Virginia is one of the most common destinations for unaccompanied minors. 5,563 unaccompanied children arrived in the region between October 2013 and September 2015.[6] This high rate can be attributed to the Salvadoran migration patterns that we studied in class. Many Salvadorans have come to the D.C. area following a chain migration that began in the 1960s, seeking jobs such as construction and child care in the growing city.[7] Adult immigrants in the region are now sponsoring their young relatives and bringing them to the United States from El Salvador.[8]

As a result of this surge, the City of Alexandria now has to address the task of educating and supporting children who have arrived from El Salvador and other Central American countries with limited English skills. Two responses to this need are the International Academies at T.C. Williams High School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School. T.C. Williams opened its International Academy in September 2012.[9] Its counterpart at Francis C. Hammond launched at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year.[10] Both programs are part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, an alternative to the traditional education model for English Language Learners. In the INPS model, English Language Learners are grouped together, regardless of grade level, with the idea that older students with more English skills will be able to help the new arrivals find their footing.[11] This educational model is centered around five principles that include collaboration, experiential learning, and autonomy.[12] The International Academy at T.C. Williams has a particularly high Salvadoran population, reflecting the large number of Salvadoran minors in the D.C. area[13] Students enrolled in the T.C. Williams program have generally been in the United States for less than three years and have tested as having “intermediate to no English proficiency.”[14] The International Academy aims to help newly arrived young immigrants find their academic footing.

Image 1: Students of the International Academy at T.C. Williams High School (Courtesy of ACPS)

In addition to academics, the INPS model emphasizes counseling services and other forms of aid given to immigrant students to ease their transition. School counselors help the students cope with emotional traumas and provide financial assistance through nonprofits and churches, all with the goal of keeping the students in school.[15] The INPS website boasts that ELL students in INPS New York City schools have a 4-year graduation rate of 64%, compared to a 37% rate amongst ELL students in New York City’s public schools. The new International Academy at Francis C. Hammond hopes to support younger students and prepare them for high school, further reducing the dropout rate.[16] The recent increase in unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, as well as other Central American countries, has created a demand in Alexandria for both ELL education and out-of-school support. The INPS model is growing in popularity and may prove successful in its attempts to better the lives of young immigrants.



[1] Haeyoun Park, “Children at the Border,” New York Times, October 21, 2014, accessed November 11, 2015, .

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Kennedy, “No Childhood Here,” No Childhood Here,” American Immigration Council, July 1, 2014, accessed November 19, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Antonio Olivio, “Md., Va., D.C. High on List of Places Taking in Youths Who’ve Crossed the Mexican Border,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2014, accessed November 11, 2015, .

[6] Office of Refugee Resettlement, Unaccompanied Minors Released to Sponsors by State, accessed November 11, 2015,

[7] Terry Repak, Waiting on Washington (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995)10.

[8] Moni Basu, “Daniel’s Journey: How Thousands of Children are Creating a Crisis in America,” CNN, June 19, 2014, accessed November 12, 2015.

[9] International Academy T.C. Williams High School, About Us, accessed November 12, 2015,

[10] Chris Teale, “International Academy at Francis C. Hammond Takes Root,” Alexandria Times, November 12, 2015, accessed November 12, 2015,

[11] Pamela Constable, “An Experiment in Immigrant Education,” The Washington Post, November 2, 2014.

[12] Internationals Network For Public Schools, Internationals’ Approach, accessed November 12, 2015.

[13] International Academy T.C. Williams High School, Frequently Asked Questions, accessed November 19, 2015,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Constable, “An Experiment in Immigrant Education.”

[16] Teale, “International Academy at Francis C. Hammond.”

Only the Good Die Young

I grew up in Northern Virginia, in a town right next to Alexandria and gang violence was always in the newspaper, on the evening news broadcast, or talked about in schools. That is why this article, “Simmering Gang Feud Erupted in Va. Teen’s Slaying,” hit home for me. Starting in the early 1990s, gang violence among Salvadoran refugees in Alexandria became an increasing problem, ultimately leading to Kelvin Alvarez’s death. In this Washington Post article, the fight was said to be between two different Salvadoran groups, one from Alexandria and one from Washington, DC.[1] Alvarez’s father left El Salvador because of the political situation, bringing his family with him.[2] Alexandria was a hot spot for immigrants coming from El Salvador because of the job market, affordable housing, and pre-1980 arrivals. Many immigrant men found work in the food industry, just like Alvarez’s father, and many women found work in house cleaning, like Alvarez’s mother.

I find this article especially interesting because of our class discussion on Wednesday about gang violence and the connection to immigrants. When people, especially young boys, feel like outsiders and need a group to fit in, it is easy to turn to a gang. They feel like they have friends and are a part of something bigger than themselves, a feeling that being a sports team gives people. Our discussion on Wednesday explored how the language barrier also plays a role, both in alienating teens and giving them a sense of community.

In Alexandria, there were attempts at giving Salvadorans–and other marginalized youths–a sense of belonging and accomplishment.  Another article I just have to comment on is Where Hope Floats. It is not only for Salvadorans, but the program and idea is top notch. Where Hope Floats is a program where kids in Alexandria can build boats, while learning math, reading, writing, and English language skills.[3] This program is made possible by the non-profit organization Alexandria Seaport Foundation.[4] This foundation works to put troubled youth, who do not fit into the traditional high school system.[5] Upon graduation, they finish high school and gain marketable skills.

For young Salvadoran immigrant men, especially those who are drawn to gangs, Where Hope Floats program is a great alternative.

[1] “Simmering Gang Feud Erupted in Va. Teen’s Slaying,” The Washington Post, February 5, 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Alexandria Seaport Foundation,” Alexandria Seaport Foundation, accessed November 13, 2015,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Arlandria Chirilagua Co-op

A 2003 article on housing troubles for Salvadorans in the Arlandria area, also known as Chirilagua, noted a cooperative, the Arlandria Chirilagua Housing Cooperative, as one of the leaders in a movement to stop the problem of rising rents in the area.[1] I decided to check on the housing co-op to see how things were going, and if it was still viewed as an aid in housing for low-income families. Jon Liss was President at the time of Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee, now Tenants and Workers United, and this committee helped set up the co-op.[2] Interestingly, an Alexandria Times article notes that, in 2006, Tenants and Workers United dropped its advisory support, noting a unhappiness with the governing body at Arlandria Chirilagua Housing Cooperative.[3]

Apparently, after a 2005 board election, co-op residents started noticing changes. Maintenance of the building declined, while rents and utilities increased. In other words, the co-op became exactly what it was supposed to oppose. Residents who were interviewed pointed to Kathleen Henry, a member of the board whom reenters believed was illegitimately elected. The same article notes that–while an election had occurred–Henry’s position and management of money was questionable.  The co-op was struggling with it finances.[4]

A 2008 article in Washington City Paper notes these struggles as well, specifically reporting on a protest held by many residents because of rising rents and evictions.[5] Mesfun Berhane explained residents’ issues with the board. At issue for residents were rising rents combined with an inability to vote for board members if they did not pay their rent. Three families accused the board as “running the coop like a dictatorship.”[6] Apparently, one tactic employed by the board was to cut off hot water to certain apartments.

A decade later, the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative was not what it was when it was first envisioned in 1995. Both of these articles indicate a change of power within its management, but it has been difficult to find any news on how things are going currently in the co-op. I will take no news as good news for the residents of Arlandria-Chiriliagua Housing Cooperative. I was able to visit the co-op last weekend. Foolishly, the photo below was the only one I took.


[1]- Chris Jenkins, “A Cooperative Effort to Make Homes Cheaper; Arlandria-Chirilagua Complex Offers Solution to Growing Crisis in Housing,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2003.

[2]- Ibid.

[3]- “The Rebirth of Real Cooperation,” Alexandria Times,  December 3, 2009,, accessed 11/19/2015.

[4]- Ibid.

[5]- Sarah Godfrey, “Tenants of Alexandria Co-op Protest Rent Increase, Cold Water Baths,” Washington City Paper, May 15, 2008,

[6]- Ibid.

Endless Cycle of Violence in Alexandria

The "devil's head" hand sign is used by members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, to identify their affiliation with the gang.

Courtesy of: The Washington Post The “devil’s head” hand sign is used by members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, to identify their affiliation with the gang.


The untimely death of Kevin Alvarez was not the first in Alexandria to be blamed on gang violence. Alvarez, age 17, was killed in a drive-by shooting on January 29, 1990 as he was entering his apartment building on Trent Court in Alexandria.[1] Described by friends and family as a good kid who volunteered to help a clerk at Francis C. Hammond Junior High when he was younger, Alvarez supposedly got involved with the wrong crowd who called themselves “la mara de Chirilagua.”[2] Police say they were not a violent group but simply hung out together and protected one another.[3] It’s hard to see how somebody who was “a best friend to anyone” ended up being the one of the best street fighters and a rival to “la mara de Washington.”[4]

Alvarez was one of the thousands of young boys who came to the Washington, DC area, particularly Arlandria, in the 1980s with their families to escape the Salvadoran Civil War. As Salvadoran immigrants, these boys and their families were denied the status of “refugee” by the federal government, thus denying them access to federal aid and resources. The lack of resources left Salvadoran families, like the Alvarez’s, feeling they only had themselves and other Salvadorans to rely on as they struggled to get by. The feeling of being outsiders or “not good enough” added with normal teenage development lelt numerous Salvadoran youths vulnerable to either form a “mara” or be recruited to gangs such as MS-13 (aka Mara Salvatrucha) or youth gangs like Los Bravos or Little Latin Homies. While MS-13 may not have been in the DC area until 1993, gang violence was still very much present especially among Salvadoran and other Latino youths.[5] Alvarez’s group’s rivalry with the more violent “la mara de Washington” due to turf wars, girls, and street fighting lead to the unfortunate death of a boy who had his whole life ahead of him, but his death would not be the first or last Alexandria and more specifically Arlandria death blamed on gang violence.

The arrival of MS-13 brought more violence and death to the area as young Salvadoran youths were recruited into the business for the money, protection, and pride that the United States refused them with the denial of ‘refugee’ status. As older Salvadoran teens and young men were initiated into the group through a process called “jumped in,” younger Salvadoran children similarly formed their own gangs or maras. The initiation, “jumped in,” furthered the violent tendencies of members with new recruits only joining after being beaten for 13 seconds by MS-13 members.[6] Boys, younger than Kevin Alvarez, were caught up in the life of brotherhood, protection, and dignity that such groups offered. The devastating effects of gang rivalries was made clear in 1996 outside of a George Washington Middle School in Alexandria when a fight  left 16 year old Romulo Eric Ardila dead with witnesses claiming none of those involved looked older than 16.[7] For young boys like Alvarez and Ardila, gangs meant friends, safety, and money because they knew that as members they would be protected.

“La mara de Chirilagua” and other youth gangs were not built on the premise of violence, but MS-13 was. Formed in Los Angeles in 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants, MS-13 quickly spread across cities in the United States with the local ‘clique’ forming in Alexandria in 1993.[8] The gang’s focus on violence within their gang and the killing of rival gang members created a dangerous atmosphere in Alexandria. Consequences of violating the gang’s rules include a “calenton”- a 13 second beating- or a “green light”- death.[9] The only punishment for cooperating with police was a “green light;” this punishment meant that MS-13 members and community residents were made to fear talking to the police about gang activity.[10] The deportation of gang members back to El Salvador, which was overrun with gangs, did not help matters in El Salvador or Alexandria. When the Salvadoran government created tougher anti-gang laws that advocated strict sentences for gang members caused members to flee to the US prompted an endless cycle of gang violence in Alexandria and El Salvador.[11] Unfortunately, MS-13 and rival gangs are still active in the DC/ Alexandria area with several gruesome murders and other crimes being linked to the organizations, particularly MS-13.

[1] Dana Priest, “Simmering Gang Feud Erupted in Va. Teen’s Slaying,” The Washington Post, February 5, 1990, D1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carlos Baldimir Montoya v. United States of America, No. 1:09CR247, (United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, February 19, 2013).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Charles W. Hall and Steve Bates, “Teenager Slain During Fight Outside School, Youth Gangs Involved, Alexandria Police Say,” The Washington Post, July 4, 1996, A01.

[8] Carlos Baldimir Montoya v. United States of America, (February 19, 2013).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kevin Sullivan, “Spreading Gang Violence Alarms Central Americans,” The Washington Post, December 1, 2003, A01.

Kelvin Alvarez: Death of a Salvadoran Teen

One of the articles that we looked at, “Simmering Gang Feud Erupted in Va. Teen’s Slaying,” got my attention, because it not only alludes to issues of gang violence, but also criminal activity and city resources.

The article reports on the murder of Salvadoran teen, Kelvin Alvarez, who was shot outside his residence in late January 1990. Alvarez arrived in the United States in 1979 from San Miguel at the age of 8 years old, and he quickly made friends at school and learned English by hanging out out with his new friends.[1] Kelvin, like other immigrant children, was the “intermediary” for his parents and helped them adapt to American cultural norms.[2]

By the time he got to high school at T.C. Williams, Alvarez had become the “undisputed best fighter” of the group, “La Mara de Chirilagua.”[3] “La Mara” was Salvadoran slang for “the group,” and Alvarez was probably drawn to the group not only because it was based close to where he lived but also it consisted of people close to his age who fled the Civil War in El Salvador that began in 1979. However, “La Mara de Chirilagua” was not a gang in the traditional sense (one that often gets involved in criminal activities). Instead, “La Mara de Chirilagua” was a group of Salvadoran youths from the Arlandria area who came from the same city, and the group’s main function was to “hang around together and stick up for each other.”[4] While Alvarez did not originate from Chirilagua in El Salvador, he must have identified with the other teens.

Alvarez’s death in late January 1990 struck a chord with the T.C. Williams High School community. School officials at T.C. Williams described Alvarez as a “solid student with no history of serious disciplinary problems.” [5] History teacher, Marshall Cook, recalled that Alvarez was on track for a “regular, normal, average-citizen-type life” and who knew how to get along with people from various ethnic backgrounds.  He also thought that Alvarez was “street-smart,” but in a “good way.” [6] This comment is interesting in a couple of ways. First of all, describing Alvarez as “street-smart” potentially associates him with gangs like La Mara de Chirilagua. The phrase, “in a good way,” speaks to Alvarez’s ability to adapt to American cultural norms while maintaining his own ethnic identity.

Fig 1. Excerpt from Kent Jenkins Jr. “Youth, 17, Is Shot to Death; Father Wounded in Alexandria” January 31, 1990, B7.

Fig 1. Excerpt from Kent Jenkins Jr.’s “Youth, 17, Is Shot to Death from The Washington Post (January 31, 1990).

An interesting feature of the Alvarez case was that the investigation itself was challenging for police because of “language barriers and bad information.” [7] These challenges point to the struggles that the City of Alexandria as a whole had to deal with as its demographics shifted. Another interesting feature about the Alvarez case was that police in Alexandria misled reporters about the case’s progress, saying that there were no developments in the case. However, a twenty-one year old man, Jaime Ernesto Mira-Lopez, and another sixteen year old were arrested about a week after Alvarez died and were charged with murder.[8] The media criticized the police for withholding information, as papers documenting Lopez’s arrest were discovered by a reporter covering the case. [9]

Alvarez’s death highlights the realities that some refugee children unfortunately face. While they may adapt to their adopted country’s cultural norms, they are not immune to socioeconomic conditions that drive some to get involved in gang violence, drugs, or other activities. Even if refugee children are able to perform well within the American educational system, they still have to face language and other cultural barriers.



[1] Dana Priest, “Simmering Gang Feud Erupted in Va. Teen’s Slaying” The Washington Post, February 5, 1990, Metro, D1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kent Jenkins Jr., ““Youth, 17, Is Shot to Death; Father Wounded in Alexandria” The Washington Post, January 31, 1990, B7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kent Jenkins Jr., “2 Held in Reputed Gang Feud Blamed in Alexandria Slaying: City to Probe Withholding of Facts by Police.” The Washington Post, February 9, 1990, Capital Edition, C6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


Housing Problems for Salvadoran Immigrants in Alexandria

When Salvadoran immigrants began to enter the United States, many decided to make Alexandria, Virginia their new home.  Salvadorans were able to find low income apartments within the city that were close to their places of employment.[1]  This was very important because many Salvadorans did not have cars and relied on public transportation. With the increase of young white professionals moving into the area in the early 2000’s, the prices throughout the city began to rise.  Soon the rents for cheap and affordable apartments Salvadoran immigrants lived increased.[2]  Due to this increase in rent, many immigrants were forced to find other places to live in cheaper areas or live on the streets.  Salvadoran immigrants who were forced to find cheaper apartments had to move outside of Alexandria, which caused a problem if they did not have a car.[3]  This was the case for Ada Ramirez, who was unable to afford her apartment after the landlord continually raised the price of rent each year.  A Washington Post article noted:

Like hundreds of Alexandrians each year, Ramirez found herself on the brink of being forced to move to the outer suburbs- Woodbridge or possibly farther- she said, where housing is often cheaper. But with no car, it would have been difficult to keep her job as a maintenance worker at an office building just down the street from the cramped apartment where she had lived for two years[4]

While there were apartments such as the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative, which offered cheaper rent options, there were few spaces available.  With so few apartments like the Arlandria-Chirilagua complex, it made it difficult for Salvadoran immigrants to find other options.  The majority of apartments in this area had their rents controlled by landlords who could charge their tenants whatever they decided. This problem caused the city to search for a solution to the rent problem many low income people were facing.[5]
Image 1: Arlandria-Chirilagua Apartment Complex,

One of these people was Jon Liss, president of the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee, who began fighting to freeze rents for lower income families in the early 2000’s.[6]  By doing so, more Salvadoran immigrants would be able to stay in the city without fear of their rent increasing so much they could no longer afford to live there.  Numerous other people joined the cause to find a solution for Salvadoran families in Alexandria.  While not every low income Salvadoran immigrant was able to get rent controlled apartments, Liss and other activists were able to put a dent into the problem.[7]  Liss was able to establish a resident-owned housing cooperative.  Liss is quoted as saying, “I spoke my smattering of Spanish, the residents responded, and together we prevented the mass evictions of low income tenants.”[8]


Image 2: Jon Liss, James Cullum Collection.

[1] Terry A. Repak, Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 163.

[2] Ibid, 164.

[3] Ibid, 164.

[4] Chris L. Jenkins, “A Cooperative Effort to Make Homes Cheaper,” Washington Post, April 24, 2003.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chris L. Jenkins, “A Cooperative Effort to Make Homes Cheaper,” Washington Post, April 24, 2003.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sarah Becker, “Jon Liss: Democrat with a Small d” Living Legends of Alexandria, accessed November 10, 2015,

Salvadorans and Education in Alexandria

Illustration 1: The International Academy, T.C. Williams High School (retrieved from


While reading about refugees from El Salvador and their lives in the D.C. Metropolitan area, one of the things that really stuck out to me was the efforts made by Alexandria City Public Schools to educate these recent arrivals. While school systems all over the country face challenges in educating a population that is continuously becoming more and more diverse, Alexandria and a few schools in New York and California have come up with a unique and effective solution called the International Academy.

The International Academy is the product of an organization known as the Internationals Network for Public Schools. This organization has established “locations in 17 high schools and academies, located in New York City, California’s Bay Area, and Alexandria, Virginia” and serves “over 5,000 students from 119 countries and speaking 93 languages.”[1] Alexandria’s branch of the International Academy was established in 2012 as a part of T.C. Williams High School and has grown in size to its current enrollment of “142 students, speaking 21 different languages.”[2] Each International Academy serves a distinct student population, depending upon the predominant immigrant group within the school district, but all International Academy’s are “built on a five-principal model emphasizing heterogeneity and collaboration, experiential learning, language and content integration, localized autonomy and responsibility, and one learning model for all.”[3] The push to establish such a program in Alexandria stemmed largely from the dramatic influx of Salvadorans, especially the “nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors” who have recently arrived in the area.[4] At T.C. Williams, the population of the International Academy is about 75 percent Hispanic, with the remainder made up of students from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.[5] The Internationals Network for Public Schools has emphasized the ability of students who are English Language Learners to work within these five principals and succeed at high levels. The International Academy itself focuses heavily on peer mentoring and encourages students to teach each other when they are able, which serves the double purpose of helping their fellow classmates while furthering and deepening their own understanding.[6]

While the full scope of how academically successful students in this program will be is still left to be determined, officials from the International Network for Public Schools claim that “their students complete 12th grade at two times the rate of similar new immigrants at regular public schools.”[7] The academic record withstanding, the International Academy established at T.C. Williams is already making a positive difference in the lives of immigrants and in the community at large. One specific example from Alexandria is “Derlin Castillo, 20, a junior from El Salvador” who excels in math, “speaks excellent English and works evenings in a restaurant”.[8] In an effort to help students give back to the community in which they live, the International Academy held a “Community Stewardship Day” in April 2014 in which “approximately 370 9th- and 10th-grade students participated in various environmental and community service learning activities, including native tree planting, aquatic plant restoration, water quality testing, litter clean-up, and invasive plant removal at various parks around Alexandria and along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.”[9]

As Alexandria City Public Schools continue to try to provide the best education for their students, a key recent action taken by administrators has been the establishment of an International Academy at Francis C. Hammond Middle School. Established at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, this International Academy is “the first middle school to be set up by the International Network for Public Schools.”[10] Already this year, this branch of the International Academy has landed itself on the list of the “41 most innovative schools in the United States.”[11] What started with an effort to better serve students from El Salvador and other Central American countries has expanded into one that helps almost every major immigrant group in the D.C. metropolitan area.  Hopefully, the branch at Francis C. Hammond and the one at T.C. Williams High School can continue to live up to these high standards and serve the ever changing population of Alexandria to the best of their abilities for many years to come.

[1] Patrick Ensslin, “International Academy,” Theogony, November 7, 2013, retrieved from

[2] “New International Academy Opens at Francis C. Hammond Middle School,” ACPS Express, October 1, 2015, retrieved from

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pamela Constable, “An Experiment in Immigrant Education,” Washington Post, November 2, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “International Academy Students Hold First Community Stewardship Day,” Alexandria City Public Schools, May 2, 2014, retrieved from

    [10] “New International Academy Opens at Francis C. Hammond Middle School,” ACPS Express, October 1, 2015, retrieved from

[11] “Francis C. Hammond International Academy Named Among Most Innovative Schools in U.S.,” ACPS Express, October 20, 2015, retrieved from

Vietnamese Food

What struck me the most about our discussion of Vietnamese refugees in Alexandria, Virginia was the appearance of Vietnamese restaurants and the ways in which restaurant reviews from the Washington Post described them. Starting in the mid-to-late 1970s, the Washington Post published restaurant reviews for a increasing variety of cuisines. This phenomenon made me wonder not only about how these businesses were becoming quite successful, but also about how Americans were becoming interested in “ethnic” food and seeking some sort of authority on what fit their palate.[1]

Unlike early 20th century immigrant groups who worked in the food service industry, Vietnamese refugees who opened restaurants were actually serving Vietnamese food. One of the earlier pieces written on Vietnamese restaurants in Alexandra was a review of the East Wind restaurant, located at 809 King Street. In this 1981 review, the author, Phyllis Richman gave mixed criticism on the whole but harps on the high prices as well as the interior of the restaurant, which did match what Americans considered traditional oriental décor. [2] Richman did not give you the sense if she enjoyed the meal or not, mixing in both positive and negative comments on the food.

Richman on The East Wind restaurant- 1981

Illustration 1: Phyllis Richman, “East Wind”,  The Washington Post, April 9, 1981.

The second Vietnamese restaurant to be reviewed in Alexandria, also by Richman, was Nam’s River in 1988.  Unlike her first review, Richman went into much more detail about the restaurant and really focused on the atmosphere and the experience of dining at Nam’s River. She began her review talking about her experiences eating at the first Vietnamese restaurant in the region. She then talked about the essential mix of European and traditional Vietnamese cooking (what we would consider today as fusion food) available at Nam’s River. She continued her review highlighting various dishes that showcased this “fusion technique,” such as the mussels in coconut milk.


Illustration 2: Phyllis Richman, “Nam’s River”, The Washington Post, April 24, 1988.


The newest of the three Vietnamese restaurants was reviewed in 1989–the Ambrosia Café. In this review, the author, Joan Horwitt went into much more detail about the life and the education of the owners, Dat Lu and Hanh Phun. She highlighted that both of them were classically trained in Saigon and that they were possibly of mixed French-Vietnamese descent.[3] Although Horwitt seemed interested in the owners and their story, there was a condescending tone throughout the review. She pointed out various dishes that would fit many palates, mentioning not only Vietnamese dishes but also French and American ones available at the restaurant. While reading this review, the thoughts of Andrew Friedman’s Covert Capital and his discussion of the racial politics of the initial evacuations came to mind. In that book, he touches on “the white faces in the crowd” meaning that those Vietnamese who were “appeared white” were more likely to get out of Vietnam and more likely to be embraced by the white, American public.[4]

With the rise of interest in ethnic food in the 1970s, the American population deemed it necessary to have authorities on the subject to help them navigate the newly available cuisines. This new trend in food required “experts” (who were not Vietnamese) share their opinions. These men and women were simply “foodies,” who were giving an opinion on a type of food with which they were unfamiliar. While these reviews did help guide non-Vietnamese living in Alexandria to explore Southeast Asian food, they were still from an American perspective. The result was that, the beauty of Vietnamese food, was lost in translation.


[1] Phyllis Richman, “Nam’s River”, The Washington Post, April 24, 1988.

[2] Phyllis Richman, “East Wind”,  The Washington Post, April 9, 1981.

[3] Joan Horwitt, “ The Ambrosia Café,”  The Washington Post, September 1989.

[4] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 172.

Thuc and Thanh Dinh: Working Hard So Their Children Did Not Have To

After the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese refugees, who were able to escape the Communists, were sent to camps in the United States. A large number of refugees ended up settling in Northern Virginia. These refugees’ lives were to be forever changed. For example, the last Chief of Naval Operations in the South Vietnamese Navy before the fall the Saigon was no longer a military officer, but now a trainee at a Mexican food store.¹ This example is one of the many stories of the refugees who were unable to find work that correlated to their careers in Vietnam. It does not seem that college or any type of higher education would be on the mind of newly arrived refugees, but there is always an exception to the rule. This exception is the Dinh family.

The Dinh parents, both of whom had college degrees, set a standard for their children.  They wanted all of their children to graduate college, which may explain why their children did. Thuc and Thanh Dinh worked tirelessly at low paying jobs, but were able to put all their children through college. When asked about their children going to college, Thanh Dinh said, “I never thought they wouldn’t go to college.”² This standard was created in Saigon, but also reinforced by American values and culture after the Dinhs came to the United States. Both Thuc and Thanh Dinh, who went to college in Vietnam, must have influenced their decision to send their kids to college too.³ American culture could have also played a role as well, because the Dinh parents would have wanted their children to not experience the same struggles they had to go through after coming to the United States. A college degree would help their children achieve that goal. This could explain why the Dinhs’ worked so hard, often taking double shifts. They may demand that their children go to college, but they also wanted their children to be able to climb the economic ladder unlike they were able to do.


  1. Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 178.
  2. Marylou Tousignant, “A Family Succeeds by Degrees; All Six Children of Vietnamese Immigrants Graduate From U-Va,” The Washington Post, May 17, 1996, A01.
  3. Ibid.



The Dinh Family

When reading the article about the Vietnamese family with 6 graduates from the University of Virginia in 1996, I became interested to see where they are now in comparison to then. Most of the information was easy to find thanks to the internet. However, their parents, Thuc and Thanh Dinh, have been much harder to track.

Thuy Dinh, the oldest sibling who graduated UVA in 1984, works as a lawyer for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, located in Washington, D.C. This Commission works for the government and must be the same one stated in the article as she has been there for some time.[1]

Elyse Dinh, UVA class of ‘88, received a Rhetoric and Communications degree and is now an actress and video producer. She is most known for her roles in Spider-Man 2, Fear Effect, and the Watchmen. Here is a link to her bio on IMDB.[2]

Katherine Dinh, class of ’93, received a degree in English and later a Masters from Harvard in International Education. At the moment, she is the Head of the Sierra School in the San Francisco Bay area of California. One fact I thought was interesting is that Katherine also taught English at a small girls’ boarding school, St. Margaret’s in Tappahannock, which a number of my friends from high school went to. Small world![3]

Thuy Dinh (the second Thuy in the family; the older Thuy is his sister), class of ‘96, double majored in Sociology and Rhetoric and Communications. He has worked in various positions, but is now a owner/partner for a group named the DC Collective. It is a production company that does commercials and ads of all sorts. Here is a link to their website. [4]

Unfortunately, it was hard to find anything on the last two siblings, David ‘86 and Thomas ‘92, that was not in the article. David apparently had been working at a company in Singapore at the time of the article, so it is quite possible I cannot find sources on him.[5] I’m still hoping to find Thomas and compare his success to that of his siblings.

In doing this bit of research, I’ve grown to have great respect for the Dinh family, each one of their children are clearly very smart by their degrees they hold and are also quite successful. Well done Thuc and Thunh!

[1]-, accessed November 5, 2015,

[2]- “Elyse Dinh,” accessed November 5, 2015,,

[3]- Katherine Dinh, accessed November 5, 2015,,

[4]- “Thuy Dinh,” accessed November 5, 2015,,

[5]- Marylou Tousignant, “A Family Succeeds by Degrees; All Six Children of Vietnamese Immigrants Graduate From U-Va,” Washington Post, May 17, 1996, final edition.