Arlington community mourns mother killed in hit-and-run crash


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 Spanish-speaking parents at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington.

Before the delivery came, she saw Oxlaj Pérez riding an old gray bicycle through the rain towards the school. She was not wearing a rain jacket and her dress was soaked from the rain. But she smiled and presented her delivery – cans of pineapple juice dangling from her handlebars and a box of tamales strapped to the back. She had heard about the order on a parent’s group chat and wanted to bring some food herself.

“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, who became known as “the lady on the bike” for donations like them, died after being hit by a driver on Monday night as she crossed the street on foot 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 bringing help, joy and tamales to Arlington’s schools and streets. She was 52.

A 62-year-old Arlington man identified by police as the driver, Julio Villazon, was taken into custody and charged with driving under the influence, involuntary manslaughter, hit-and-run and other offenses. Court records show the Arlington Public Defender’s Office is representing Villazon. The public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

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

“I am 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 when someone needed help.”

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Those who knew her described Oxlaj Pérez who moved to the United States from Guatemala, as cheerful and kind, with the quiet strength needed to provide for six children and haul food and drinks, such as her homemade tamales, around the neighborhood by bicycle to sell.

Eventually she earned enough to trade in her bicycle for a new tricycle with a large bed for rear cargo. It was on trips around Columbia Pike, her small figure overshadowed by the tricycle’s baby blue frame and coolers of food and drinks usually stocked behind her, that Oxlaj Pérez earned her 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 schools across Arlington and always called Oxlaj Pérez, who never accepted payment for his tamales.

It was not uncommon, Sandra Lopez Oxlaj said – Oxlaj Pérez regularly gave people food for free if they were short of cash. Sometimes she asked Lopez for extra clothes to donate to customers in need. Oxlaj Pérez withdrew from Lopez’s concerns as she worried that her mother was not making enough money.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sandra Lopez Oxlaj remembers her mother replying. “People like my food, so I have to do it.”

Oxlaj Pérez was crossing the intersection of South Old Glebe Road and 2nd Street South on foot near the Thomas Jefferson Community Center and Middle School when she was fatally struck. Her family said she had made charamuscas, a popular Latin American frozen snack, to sell at the soccer field that night, and she went to buy ice cream from a nearby 7-Eleven to keep them cold.

Oxlaj Pérez was transported to a hospital where she died from her injuries, police said.

Arlington County Board member Takis Karantonis said people raised concerns on social media about the safety of crossings on 2nd Street South after news of the crash, Arlington’s first pedestrian fatality this year. The intersection where Oxlaj Pérez was struck is in a school zone, on the southernmost corner of Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and is often crossed by pedestrians to reach the school and community center. Karantonis said the county would consider installing speed cameras on the road.

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

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

Teo Armus and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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