The Mount Pleasant Riots: Salvadoran Transnational Migration, Marginalization, and Conflict in the Nation's Capital

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Rogers Park Room (Westin Chicago River North)
Adam Goodman, University of Pennsylvania
Around 7:30pm on May 5, 1991 Angela Jewell, a black female D.C. police officer, shot Salvadoran immigrant Daniel Enrique Gomez in the chest in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Three nights of rioting ensued and when the unrest finally subsided the physical and psychological damages to the community and the city were substantial. The mayor declared “a state of emergency” and imposed the first mandatory curfew since the 1972 Vietnam protests. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department described the unrest as the worst violence in the city since the 1968 riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; only this time, as one newspaper noted, “the tinderbox was Washington’s fast-growing Hispanic population.”

An analysis of the May 1991 Mount Pleasant riots provides important insights into how recent Salvadoran immigration reshaped the nation’s capital, affected black-Latino race relations in a majority black city, and revealed the connection between U.S. foreign and domestic policy and the marginalization and exploitation of Salvadoran immigrants (whose migration experiences and lives were shaped by the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador from 1979-1992). It also sheds light on the transnational ties that played a significant role in shaping Salvadoran immigrants’ lives as well as the communities in which they lived. Moreover, an examination of the riot’s aftermath reveals the tensions between the distinct experiences of Salvadoran immigrants on the one hand, and the formation of a pan-Latino identity and political consciousness on the other. This paper will examine these issues in addition to describing the May 1991 Mount Pleasant riots, its underlying causes and lasting effects, and the responses of various groups within the community.