Meet the Latino Urban Ministry That is Transforming Lives

You won’t find Chirilagua anywhere on a map of the Washington, D.C. metro area, but for decades it has been a refuge to thousands of Central American immigrants that call the place home.

Affectionately named after the small southeastern El Salvadoran village where some of the earliest immigrants came from fleeing their country’s bloody civil war back in the 1980s, Chirilagua is officially in Arlandria, sitting in between the D.C. suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria.

These cities are among the costliest to live in the entire country, and are made up mostly of well-educated professionals that live in spacious condominiums, town houses and multi-million dollar homes.

The dichotomy is nothing new for the working class immigrant community living in the small apartments with extended families living in Chirilagua. The situation has been like this for years. The real fear is the deportation concerns in the minds of many. That’s because while the first wave of El Salvadoran immigrants were granted political asylum, subsequent waves of immigrants have not been as fortunate. As a result, most live in the shadows trying to eek out a living while maintaining a low profile.

In addition to these stresses, gang violence and crime are constants, as evidenced recently when the lifeless body of a young man was found in the morning hours in a playground right in the heart of Chirilagua. The discovery sent shockwaves across the tightknit community, but it is also not unheard of. Tragedy has struck the community before, and tragedy will strike again. The only real question is when.

This uncertainty and hopelessness is what drove three young recent college graduates to act by moving into the community to love the community and learn more about the struggles and challenges facing working class immigrants in Northern Virginia. There was a natural curiosity by the locals confused as to why a group of white college graduates would choose to live in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, but they were eventually welcomed into the community as one of their own.

casa chirilagua

Casa Chirilagua provides tutoring and extra curricular activities for the community’s students, helping them feel confident when times are tough. | Photo: Casa Chirilagua Facebook

In time, the three young professionals would begin their long and difficult journey to starting a non-profit to minister to the families and children of the Chirilagua neighborhood. Calling it Casa Chirilagua — Chirilagua House — the faith-based organization has been providing after-school activities and tutoring services for the community’s children. But at it’s simplest, Casa Chirilagua is providing the basic, yet incredibly important, service of being a refuge for school children to finish their homework and stay away from the streets while their working class parents put in long days.

As a faith-based organization, the group doesn’t shy away from its decidedly Christian outlook. But by also focusing on tutoring and non-religiously oriented activities, Casa Chirilagua has been able to receive the support from many outside Northern Virginia’s faith community. As a result, what started with ten children being cared for has grown into over a hundred of children every year.

To make this work, the small-budget Casa Chirilagua relies on dozens of volunteers that take time from their busy and demanding schedules to read and play with the young children of the Chirilagua neighborhood. Ruth Marin is one of these volunteers, who told Opportunity Lives that she decided to get involved as a way of giving back to her community and also as a way of “making memories together.”

As someone that grew up in the neighborhood, Ruth said that she can relate to the worries and troubles that plague the children she tutors. “We live in a community that can be difficult, but I also know that you can make it here.”

Among the students Ruth tutors is Paola, a fifth grader living in Chirilagua who has been translating for her working class parents while helping them navigate life as undocumented immigrants for as long as she can remember. This is typical for the hundreds of children that live in Chirilagua. Living like this at such a young age can be confusing. One minute you are living the seemingly careless life of a kid, and the next you are assuming responsibilities and confronting challenging normally confined to adults.

Ruth said that she has gone through the ups and downs with Paola, including seeing some of her closest family members and friends incarcerated, deported and lured into gang life. But through it all, Ruth has been impressed with Paola’s maturity and determination to stay focused in order to help her family while pursuing a good education. “I see big potential for Paola; she has a great head on her shoulders,” said Marin.

Paola’s involvement in Casa Chirilagua is what caused her father to become a believer in the organization and get involved in the ministry. Even with his busy schedule working nearly seven days a week, Paola’s father is volunteering his time and services to make a difference.

This kind of commitment and sacrifice, according to Jim VandeHai, a former board member and the co-founder of Politico, is the secret to Casa Chirilagua’s success.

“Casa is a big believer in meeting the needs of the whole person, whether that is spiritual, physical and emotional,” said VandeHei.

VandeHai said that he was able to see this first hand when taking a tour of the community and meeting with people that have been impacted by the nonprofit’s work. “Seeing entire families transformed was incredibly inspiring,” VandeHei said.

Soon Casa Chirilagua will have an opportunity to work with even more families as it moves into a new community center that it recently leased from the city of Alexandria, thanks to the generosity of its many supporters. When completed, the center will be in the heart of the Chirilagua neighborhood providing the community what it has been for nearly ten years: a safe and loving place.

Dawnielle Miller, the executive director and one of the co-founders of Casa Chirilagua, also envisions the center to host family dinners and holiday gatherings while providing English language lessons and financial literacy classes for adults — all things that will become far easier to plan, rather than having to rely on the generosity and availability of partnering churches.

But perhaps the biggest contribution of the center will be the intangible. That’s because for a community that is accustomed to change and anonymity, the physical structure will bear the name of a place special to the heart of many that call the place home. And it will provide permanency and hope when it’s often in short order.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.