The Center for Humanities Research (CHR) was awarded a Virginia Humanities Planning Grant in 2022 totaling $10,000 to launch a public humanities project, “Alienation and Belonging: Shifting Cultural Landscapes in Northern Virginia.” This project represents CHR’s first step in what it hopes will be a continued engagement with the wider public through public humanities outreach and scholarship.
Team Members: Muna Al Taweel (Graduate Researcher), Teri Edwards-Hewitt (Principal Investigator), Katharina Hering (Oral History Coordinator), Janine Hubai (Graduate Researcher), Alison Landsberg (Principal Investigator; Project Director), John Legg (Graduate Researcher), Catherine Olien (Project Manager), Aparna Shastri (Graduate Researcher) Kristofer Stinson (Graduate Researcher), Gabrielle Tayac (Principal Investigator)
Lead Organization: Center for Humanities Research, George Mason University
Funding Partner: Virginia Humanities
Community Partners: Barrios Unidos (BU), Tenants and Workers United (TWU), and the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA)
Northern Virginia is a more complex region than its popular image suggests. Many think of it as a place without history, an anyplace of generic suburban homes, corporate high-rises, and strip malls. Indeed, even those who live here are only dimply aware of the histories of violence, dispossession, and transplantation that shape the present. The very designation “Northern Virginia” works to distinguish the region from the rest of the state, erasing its connection to the US South and to America’s troubled racial past. Yet despite multiple attempts at erasure, vestiges of this troubled and layered past remain, making the area of Northern Virginia a veritable palimpsest. But certain aspects of the present remain illegible, too. The region has long been the destination of migrants and migrant communities, and yet the formative and critical role these communities have played in every aspect of life in the region is also largely missing from the image of, or narrative about, contemporary Northern Virginia.
To revise this narrative, and to begin to understand the complex history and present of this region, we reached out to local community organizations created and run by immigrant and indigenous community members. We knew that this would necessarily be a community engaged project: in order to learn about the region in the way we wanted to, we would need to work collaboratively with indigenous and Latinx communities, to listen to their historical fight for home and belonging in NOVA. Toward this end, a research team under the Center for Humanities Research (CHR) at George Mason University partnered with Barrios Unidos (BU), Tenants and Workers United (TWU), and the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA). As we listened and learned from these organizations, we were struck by the extent to which their extensive community work and advocacy has been ignored in the local media of the region. Just as local organizations like TWU strive to make the communities it serves visible, this public humanities project highlights the work being done by local organizations and communities who are committed to building lives for immigrants in Northern Virginia, many of whom have been cut off from their homelands by warfare and dispossession, severed from home, family, and resources. Working collaboratively with these community partners, the CHR research team seeks to foreground their lives and actions, to make visible their stories, in hopes of building a more complex and inclusive picture of the region.
This project aims to promote community voices, many of which have been excluded from the story Northern Virginia tells about itself, to re-narrate the story of this complex region. Through oral histories and community-based archival research, carried out collaboratively with community partners, this project weaves together a new narrative about Northern Virginia, one that includes the many voices of those who live here, and who have —in different ways, and at different moments— stirred and challenged the historic forces of alienation, dispossession, and displacement.
Part of the project of helping to make immigrant and indigenous stories of NOVA more visible entails coming to terms with a long history of alienation, dispossession, and violence. There is perhaps no better starting place for the deep history of alienation and belonging than with the region’s ancestral indigenous people, the Doeg, who suffered violent colonial encounters which alienated them from their homeland in the seventeenth century - eventually annihilating the tribe as a collective.
Janine Hubai, a research assistant at George Mason University, traced the Doeg’s dispossession and actions in several formats. The first was by following the life of one boy. This boy, a Doeg child, saw his family murdered by George Mason I and Giles Brent, Jr. Tracing his trajectory leads us through time and space to understand more clearly how the Doeg navigated almost impossible choices in war and peacetime in early colonial Virginia. Similarly, Janine created a timeline that seeks to bring together the various aspects of the Doeg’s story onto a single timeline to better contextualize their life in the area. Beginning in 1608, the timeline traces developments in colonial Virginia and Maryland alongside the Doeg up through the mid-18th century to show the ways they were eventually alienated from their home by foreign colonists who imposed their own sense of “belonging.”
While the Doeg were eventually expelled from their former homeland, and though little work has been done to recapture their story, physical markers remain to remind us of the foundational forces of alienation and belonging. Near the city of Alexandria, in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, just off State Highway 235, there stands a historical marker. This marker (E-67) has as its title “Doeg Indians,” and stands across the street from the Gristmill of George Washington which, today, marks the outer edges of the first president’s plantation. Both the location and description on the plaque speak to the deep history of alienation and dispossession that has been an enduring and formative force in the area. “A group of Virginia Indians referred to as the Doeg,” the marker reads, “occupied villages and settlements along the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers by 1607,” a reference to the general area in which the marker and its readers are standing. This was their home, the place that they had come to “belong.” But, as the marker explains, “The English forced many of the Doeg out of this region by the late 17th century.” In other words, the Doeg had moved from belonging to alienation. What was once home was now contested space. And yet, like a true palimpsest, traces of their past here can still be seen today. “Nearby Dogue Creek is named for them,” the marker concludes.
While the Doeg represent a historical example of a community’s dispossession in this region, immigrant communities in the late 20th and early 21st century have found themselves facing similar challenges and circumstances. Our team partnered with two community organizations, Barrios Unidos and Tenants and Workers United. Barrios Unidos, a self-determined movement to heal violence and create peace, originated in Southern California. In the early 1990s, Barrios Unidos established a chapter in Northern Virginia, organizing youth to seek peace within themselves and in the community through indigenous healing traditions and creating family. Their ethic, “la cultura cura,” culture heals, instilled self-worth, pride, honor, and profound belonging in circles to stop violence, uplift hope, and implement advocacy for youth rights. TWU has historically organized migrant communities by conducting civic education and leadership development to build power and push for changes that advance social justice throughout the region. In the course of this partnership, several prominent themes emerged that continue to define the nature of alienation and belonging into the 21st century.
Dispossession has continued to impact and mark the lives of the communities who have only recently come to call NOVA home. Indeed, in the case of Barrios Unidos, most of the immigrant communities that the organization serves and works with have come to NOVA after fleeing violence and warfare in Central and South America that, as our researcher John Legg explained, has robbed them of their original homeland and place of belonging. Violently upended and alienated from their homes and often separated from their extended families and community networks, they have by necessity sought belonging elsewhere. Organizations such as TWU have assisted these communities in struggles against modern forces of alienation and displacement. TWU has its origins in fighting evictions that, both historically and presently, are a result of venture-capitalists and big businesses' efforts to physically and demographically remake whole regions. As TWU knows well, these efforts disproportionally impact immigrant, minority, and marginalized communities and often result in erasing those communities’ historic and present claims to belonging. Yet these communities have not been passive in the face of attempts to alienate them.
Conscious and intentional – self-determination has marked community response to dispossession. Members of immigrant and indigenous communities have repeatedly sought proactive and systematic ways to resist alienation through community organizing, political activism, and by constructing networks of belonging. Each of the communities we worked with built highly organized structures to respond to social problems that are often caused by alienation, be it the evictions that TWU combated, or the alcohol and drug abuse services developed by Barrios Unidos, services that were often doubly needed in such communities, which might otherwise be cut off from local systems of healthcare and health services. By responding to these community obstacles, we glimpse how these growing organizations have tangible, practical roots in the communities they serve and represent. As they have done so, they have built networks of belonging to counteract the forces of alienation. Alongside efforts to organize, these networks have been a pervasive and lasting way individuals and communities have sought to foster a sense of belonging within NOVA.
Culture has proved to be a fundamentally powerful way communities have fostered a sense of belonging. Culture encompasses practices and knowledge systems. Cultural practices are mobile, in that they were brought with immigrants who have been displaced from Central and South America, and enduring, in that indigenous communities still rely on them to cultivate and transfer identity. Communities also innovate culture with elements derived from countries of origin yet transforming in relationship to Northern Virginia. As researchers Muna Al Taweel, PI Teri Edwards-Hewitt, and Aparna Shastri sat down with our community partners, they were introduced to the various ways in which culture works to establish and grow belonging. Many of our interviewees alluded to the rapid increase of cultural festivals in Northern Virginia that have not only become hugely popular but serve as a reminder of who lives and belongs in NOVA, reclaiming space both geographically and, when these festivals become annual events, on the calendar. These festivals are a tangible representation of the presence of alienated communities from elsewhere intentionally building community – rituals of belonging in a new space.
Expressive culture, including food, music, song, dance, and festival, fosters belonging, welcome, and home. As our PI Gabrielle Tayac reminded us, music and dance “can lift something in us,” even when they’re from a culture to which we don’t “belong.” In other words, these aspects of culture not only resonate with something intrinsic to us, but connect us with people beyond our immediate and familiar groups. It expands traditional ideas such as indigeneity into more mobile, less constrained concepts. In doing so, they represented a movement to self-identity using the broader category of “Latino” instead of exclusively using their particular country of origin.
Food has long been a potent part of culture, symbolizing who belongs in a certain region or space and who does not. This was illustrated in another conversation with a member of Barrios Unidos in a way that brings together the ideas of culture, family, intergenerationally, and belonging. Gabi went to visit one of our partners and shared a meal that included chuño, a type of potato from the Andes. Our partner told us how chuño , and many other recipes, had come from their family in South America and had been brought with them when they came to Northern Virginia. Foods like chuño were not only from another place, but the act of preparing that particular food dish connected our partner to their family and original place of belonging. Yet something about preparing the dish was also a reminder of alienation in that chuño, for many years, was not sold yet in grocery stores in NOVA. Indeed, our interviewee shared with us that it only recently became easier to prepare as it is starting to be sold in Virginia. The inability to purchase food such as chuño is perhaps a sign that larger industries like grocers don’t expect certain communities to be part of their imagined consumers in a particular area. Additionally and conversely, the slow transition to chuño being offered in grocery stores in NOVA signals an awareness, even acceptance, that there is both a community and a demand for this cultural staple.
Spirituality has similarly shaped immigrant communities in ways that link them to indigenous practices. In this case, ceremony is distinct from festival, which is really a more public, secular celebration. For organizations like Barrios Unidos, the circulo, or the sitting in a circle amidst purifying traditional medicines such as sage and copal, is an indigenous anchor in spirituality that stems from their founder’s interaction with indigenous movements reclaiming traditional religious rights across the United States. Indeed, this rooting in indigenous spirituality accounts for the ways in which Barrios Unidos, which serves large portions of the immigrant community in NOVA, overlaps and intersects with local and national indigenous peoples as it forms it recognizable, spiritual essence that many are not only familiar with but find deep meaning in. In turn, this familiarity and meaning, fostered amidst the circulo, contribute to Barrios Unidos’ sense of community and becomes a method for making belonging.
Family, has been one of the most powerful tools for organizing in these communities, which often have an expansive vision of family, one that extends beyond biological kinship. Many who arrived here were forced to flee their homelands because of violence and war. With the loss of home and family, immigrants sought to replicate familial networks in their new homes in various ways. For instance, members of both TWU and Barrios Unidos spoke of the presence of gangs as a surprising and complex force of belonging. Barrios Unidos partners spoke of how, in the face of alienation and rupture of migration, gangs held an appeal because they relied on and reinforced alternate forms of familial bonds. Yet many who joined gangs for a sense of community – and at times to have physical needs met due to poverty – found that violence, death, and incarceration further ruptured their lives. Barrios Unidos has played a key role in bringing youth and families into healthy, life-affirming spaces where they could heal and advocate for justice. For its part, TWU has created programs for middle and high school students in order to help foster community, socialization, leadership skills, civic engagement, and more.
Intergenerational connection was another way in which family has been replicated in new places. Through mentoring programs or relationships that arose naturally between older and younger individuals, members of migrant and indigenous communities sought to reconstruct the networks that constituted “home” and “family.” In our discussions with our partners, we heard stories of youth working with youth, especially mentors in their 20s working with teens. Some parents who had come up through TWU or Barrios Unidos gave back to those organizations by having their children join and become the organizations’ next generation of leaders. Indeed, the current Executive Director of TWU, Evelin Urrutia, was herself a part of TWU’s youth program before going on to lead the organization. Overall, these stories are not just about how family is remade in new places, but about how important intergenerational bonds are in these communities, as they are the means by which organizations reproduce themselves.
Ultimately, the powerful self-determined combination of spirituality, culture, and family overcomes alienation to forge belonging and community building to form a place called “Northern Virginia.”
At CHR, we take a human-centered approach, asking questions that allow us to both imagine and actively build a more interconnected Northern Virginia, affording greater understanding of cultural differences and complicated histories and their legacies. In an age of increased division and alienation, this project stands poised to foster respect and appreciation for communities that have played significant roles in improving the quality of life in our region for the most vulnerable among us.