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Arlington community mourns mother killed in hit-and-run

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Janeth Valenzuela will always remember the first time she met Viviana Oxlaj Pérez. Six years ago, on a rainy Thursday night at the start of the school year, Valenzuela ordered pupusas for a meeting of Hispanic parents at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington.

Before the delivery arrived, she saw Oxlaj Pérez riding an old gray bike in the rain towards school. She wasn’t wearing a rain jacket and her dress was soaked from the downpour. But she smiled and presented her delivery – cans of pineapple juice hanging from her handlebars and a box of tamales strapped to the back. She had heard about the order on a parent group chat and wanted to bring her own food.

“We offered to pay her,” said Valenzuela, a community activist. “And she refused. She said, ‘No, I want to help the school, I want to help the parents.’ »

Oxlaj Pérez, known as the ‘bike lady’ for donations like these, died after being hit by a driver on Monday night while walking across the street at the intersection of South Old Glebe Road and 2nd Street South, leaving a community to mourn the devoted mother and grandmother who spent much of her time providing aid, joy and tamales in the schools and streets of Arlington. She was 52 years old.

A 62-year-old Arlington man identified by police as the driver, Julio Villazon, was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, manslaughter, hit-and-run and other offences. Court records indicate that the Arlington Public Defender’s Office represents Villazon. The chief public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

“My mother was a hard worker,” said Hilary Lopez Oxlaj, one of The daughters of Oxlaj Pérez, said in a brief telephone interview on Wednesday. “A person who would do anything to help those in need, and also help his family move forward.”

“I’m so proud of my mother,” said Sandra Lopez Oxlaj, another of Oxlaj Pérez’s daughters. “She tried to be a good mother, she tried to be a good grandmother, she tried to be a good person whenever someone needed help.”

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Those who knew her described Oxlaj Pérez, who moved in the United States from Guatemala, as happy and kind, with the quiet strength to support six children and transport food and drinks, like her homemade tamales, around the neighborhood on her bike to sell.

Eventually she earned enough to trade in her bike for a new tricycle with a large bed for rear loading. It was on rides around Columbia Pike, her diminutive figure dwarfed by the trike’s baby blue chassis and the usually laden food and drink coolers behind her, that Oxlaj Pérez earned his endearing reputation in the neighborhood.

“The tricycle was like a Mercedes-Benz to her,” Valenzuela said.

Several days a week, Oxlaj Pérez brought soft drinks to sell on the football field at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington Heights. Valenzuela organized catering for Teacher Appreciation Weeks at Arlington schools and always called on Oxlaj Pérez, who never accepted payment for his tamales.

It was not uncommon, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said — Oxlaj Pérez regularly gave people free food if they ran out of money. Sometimes she would ask Lopez for spare clothes that she could donate to customers in need. Oxlaj Pérez ignored Lopez’s anxieties when she feared her mother wasn’t making enough money.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sandra Lopez Oxlaj recalled her mother’s response. “People like my food, so I have to.”

Oxlaj Pérez was walking across the intersection of South Old Glebe Road and 2nd Street South near the Community Center and Thomas Jefferson College when she was fatally struck. Her family said they made charamuscas, a popular frozen snack in Latin America, to sell at the soccer field that night, and walked to buy ice cream at a nearby 7-Eleven for keep them cool.

Oxlaj Pérez was taken to hospital, where she died of her injuries, police said.

Arlington County Board Member Takis Karantonis said people took to social media to raise their concerns about railroad crossing safety on South 2nd Street after news broke of the crash. , the first pedestrian fatality in Arlington this year. The intersection where Oxlaj Pérez was struck is in a school zone, at the southernmost corner of Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and is frequently crossed by pedestrians to reach the school and community center. Karantonis said the county consider installing speed cameras on the road.

Oxlaj Pérez had planned to return home to Guatemala with her husband, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said. His his family plans to send his body home and is raising funds to do so. As of Friday, the family’s GoFundMe page had raised more than $30,000 in donations – a sign, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said, how much in the community Oxlaj Pérez and his tricycle had reached.

“She was one of us,” said Karantonis, who saw her frequently at community events he hosted. “She fits into this mosaic of hard-working, extremely colorful and diverse people that we are.”

Teo Armus and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.