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Migrants Work To Hold Onto Latin Food History In Gentrifying D.C. Neighborhood


In Washington, D.C., there's a traditionally Latin neighborhood called Columbia Heights. And there, you can find a restaurant called El Rinconcito. It's long been a haven for immigrants from El Salvador, but the neighborhood is changing. The cafe's owners and the regulars find themselves in the midst of a rapid gentrification. NPR's Jessica Diaz-Hurtado has the story.

JESSICA DIAZ-HURTADO, BYLINE: El Rinconcito, in Spanish, means the small corner. The restaurant sits in the middle of a residential block in a brick rowhouse, the kind of house that holds history in D.C. From the outside, there's a small patio leading to a short stack of stairs. Walk down them, and you enter El Rinconcito, a kind of hole in the wall. Claudia Arias manages the place.

CLAUDIA ARIAS: It's changed. There's a lot of competition now. There's a few other restaurants around the area, and they were in there also. So it's tough.

DIAZ-HURTADO: She's the daughter of the owners, who migrated from a small rural town in El Salvador. Some weeks, she works up to 70 hours. And when money is short, she doesn't get paid. So why does she stay?

ARIAS: It's my parents. I guess I just have to continue their legacy.

DIAZ-HURTADO: And El Rinconcito has almost a 20-year legacy. Her parents have been living in the area for decades. When they first opened, Columbia Heights was a refuge for Central Americans fleeing from civil war and poverty. And food was a reminder of home.

JOCELYN ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

DIAZ-HURTADO: Jocelyn Romero (ph) is a cook at El Rinconcito, making pupusas, a Salvadorean staple food. Romero moved to Columbia Heights a couple of years ago to help out her family back in San Vicente, El Salvador. Immigrants like her are still moving here, but expensive new developments are bringing a different clientele to El Rincocito.

ARIAS: So I have a lot of American clienteles. We get a little bit of everything, regardless of the Latino community and the black community kind of moving out due to expensive rent and stuff.

DIAZ-HURTADO: So, like, what do you mean by American?

ARIAS: Americans - like, gringos, I guess you can say. Gringos, Americans - like, white, Caucasian.

RON KELLY: I've come here a lot, actually. I've lived in Columbia Heights for over seven years, getting close to eight years. The food's great.

YATES MAHR: I was kind of in the mood for nachos and looked it up on Yelp and just walked in.

DIAZ-HURTADO: That's Ron Kelly (ph) and Yates Mahr (ph), two customers waiting for their food.

JORGE MENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DIAZ-HURTADO: And Jorge Mendez (ph) is eating a large bowl of sopa de mariscos, seafood soup, with a whole crab. He says he's been coming here since 2002. These three customers are a testament of Columbia Heights and its new narrative. But what they don't know is that prices will rise at El Rinconcito. Rent is going up. And some of their new customers can now afford a pupusa that costs $2 more. But for the ones who can't, they may have to look someplace else.

Jessica Diaz-Hurtado, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.