Community Resources

One of the greatest struggles Salvadoran migrants faced was access to community services provided by the government due to the refusal to classify them as refugees. The lack of government funds and other resources severely limited how the community could support itself in terms of housing, education, and employment. One agency that stepped in to help Salvadorans who lived in the northernmost sections of Alexandria (known as Arlandria), was Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington. The organization offered migrants assistance in English-language courses, finding jobs, applying for citizenship, and finding affordable housing.[1] Catholic Charities was not as large of an organization in the 1980s as they are today. Today ,they offer resettlement services to refugees and migrants, legal assistance, housing, counseling, home supplies, employment assistance, and numerous others services to immigrants in Alexandria, Arlington, Fredericksburg, and the greater Northern Virginia region.

Jon Liss (Courtesy of

Jon Liss (Courtesy of

One person who also helped Salvadorans a great deal in the 1980s was Jon Liss. In 1986, Liss was interested in building a community based organization that centered on racial and class issues that would help bring a political voice to those in the Alexandria who struggled to have their issues heard by local leaders.[2] Liss had no intention to build a project that focused on the struggles of Salvadorans in Arlandria. Founded in 1985, Liss’s organization, Tenants and Worker’s United (TWU), became precisely what Arlandria’s Salvadoran population needed. TWU’s official goal was to combat social and economic injustices in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood.[3] Liss describes the founding of TWU as an organization born as a political project to halt the mass eviction of this community.[4] TWU, under the leadership of Liss, changed the face of Arlandria by saving the Salvadoran population.

The 10 years that led to the creation of the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative provided and continues to provide immigrants with low-income housing through a system of having the tenants buy shares in the complex. The cooperative faced serious criticisms from the City of Alexandria, which wished to revitalize the entire neighborhood. The land–now that the flooding of Four Mile Run was under control–was worth a lot of money. It took years of lobbying by Liss, TWU, and Salvadoran community leaders to finally “convince the city that resident ownership was the cheapest option” in securing more low-income housing in the area.[5] TWU went as far as staging a sit-in at city hall in February 1987 to force city officials to address the needs of Salvadoran refugees seriously.[6] The final approval of the city council to allow the creation of a housing cooperative that provided 285 affordable housing units to the Arlandria residents marked a change in policy making in Alexandria. Liss remarked that “the cooperative gave people an opportunity to stay in their community and not be squeezed out.”[7] The cooperative is perhaps the greatest service Liss and TWU could have provided the Salvadoran community, as it was granting preciously what they needed–affordable housing.

Today, Liss is working full-time for his new organization Virginia New Majority as well as continuing to assist TWU. After being successful in assisting the Arlandria community, identifying local community leaders, and growing TWU to an organization that still fights for those without a political voice, Liss opted to expand his operation. He believes it only makes sense to expand the physical reach of political change and incorporate several different community groups. Thus, he founded Virginia New Majority in 2007.[8] Even without the government’s assistance, Salvadoran refugees found resources through organizations like Catholic Charities and TWU that recognized and vowed to fight for their rights to build a community in Arlandria.

Next: Bibliography

[1] “Programs and Services,” Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, accessed December 8, 2015,

[2] Jon Liss, telephone interview by Jenna Williams, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA, December 7, 2015.

[3] Sarah Becker, “Jon Liss,” Living Legends of Alexandria, last modified June 20, 2011, accessed December 8, 2015,

[4] Liss, interview.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Liss, interview.