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As Baltimore’s Latino community grows, leaders push for better health care, internet access and a voice

They are a small but growing slice of Baltimore’s population: Between 2012 to 2018, U.S. census figures show, the city’s Hispanic and Latino population grew by about 20%. With Odette Ramos poised to take a seat on Baltimore’s City Council as the first Latina member, The Baltimore Sun asked five Latino activists about the forces affecting the community and the changes they want to see.

Lucía Islas, president of Comité Latino de Baltimore

Lucía Islas received help from local non-profit groups when she immigrated from Mexico. Now, she's helping others connect with resources through a group called Comité Latino de Baltimore.
Lucía Islas received help from local non-profit groups when she immigrated from Mexico. Now, she's helping others connect with resources through a group called Comité Latino de Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

As president of Comité Latino de Baltimore, Lucía Islas says her hobby is helping her community. The nonprofit was created to help single mothers and their children, and the group provides resources within the Hispanic community — regardless of one’s immigration status or ability to speak English.

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Before the pandemic, monthly meetings were held at Gallery Church in Highlandtown; now they are taking place on Zoom. The Comité Latino Facebook group connects more than 3,000 members with food drives, housing, free COVID-19 testing and more. On an average day, Islas receives 20 calls and requests for help from all over the region.

“Right now after the pandemic, Facebook, WhatsApp and meetings on Zoom, it’s the kind of life that we are having,” Islas said. “Facebook is our way to communicate with the community.”

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Her activism started 12 years ago with Mis Raíces, a Spanish-speaking mothers’ group at Patterson Park Public Charter School. Islas, who owns a cleaning company, has also been working since June at Centro SOL as a community outreach specialist. The center offers support, mentoring, health services and more for the Latino community.

She’s grateful to pay it forward to an organization that helped her as a single mother of four and to return to studying psychology — a degree she wasn’t able to finish in Mexico.

“Even though I had really hard times, I always was helped by all these organizations,” Islas said. “Now I work with them.”

Jesús Pérez, DACA recipient fighting for immigration reform and language access

Jesús Pérez works at Archbishop Borders School in Highlandtown, is involved with Nuestras Raíces, and is also a quinceañera dance choreographer.
Jesús Pérez works at Archbishop Borders School in Highlandtown, is involved with Nuestras Raíces, and is also a quinceañera dance choreographer. (Thalia Juarez)

Since 2008, Jesús Pérez and his activism have centered on immigration reform. He has called Baltimore home since emigrating with his family at five years old from Mexico, and he is a DACA recipient. Under this program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, children whose families brought them to the United States without legal authorization are allowed to live and work here.

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Pérez, 28, is involved with CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, and Nuestras Raíces Inc.— a 15-member nonprofit that aims to educate people on the diversity of Baltimore’s Latino community. Last September, Nuestras Raíces hosted a Parade of Latino Nations from Haven Street to Eastern Avenue that featured folk dances, marching bands, 50 rodeo horses and 30 local artists.

“We’re growing day by day,” Pérez said of the Latino community in Baltimore, where U.S. census figures show the number of people employed by Hispanic businesses doubled between 2012 and 2017 to roughly 2,500 people. “There’s a lot of Latino folks that are opening businesses all over the city, not just in the Highlandtown area, from restaurants to mechanic shops. There are many people from different places, from Central America, Mexico, a little sprinkle of Spain and Ecuador. It makes Baltimore more diverse; it brings in more joy and culture.”

Pérez works at Archbishop Borders School in Highlandtown and is a quinceañera dance choreographer. He is also a board member for Latino Providers Network, which coordinates more than 70 Baltimore organizations in providing services to the Latino community from health and education to business and employment. Pérez wants to see more language access in Baltimore for the Latino community.

“I just wish that we could have more services for the Latino community so they can be better informed and educated about so many city resources,” Pérez said. “Some of the city services don’t have bilingual staff. Sometimes, the school system may have bilingual staff, but not at full capacity.”

Angelo Solera, founder and executive director of Nuestras Raíces Inc.

Angelo Solera has been doing advocacy work for 27 years and believes the Latino community should have more of a voice in City Hall.
Angelo Solera has been doing advocacy work for 27 years and believes the Latino community should have more of a voice in City Hall.

Angelo Solera, 57, grew up in Salamanca, Spain, and immigrated to Baltimore at 17 years old. Solera has called Baltimore home for over 30 years, serving as a Hispanic community liaison for the city’s health department in the 1990s and running for City Council’s 1st District in 2003. He took an active role in supporting Odette Ramos during her campaign but doesn’t want the Latino representation in city government to stop there.

“Many of the issues that the Latino community experience are a consequence of lack of representation across the board,” Solera said. “Recently with the COVID-19 epidemic, there have been two very important things happening in the Latino community: food distribution and testing of COVID-19.”

Solera wanted to see more funding and coordination from the city, but he said helping the Latino community fell to local schools, churches and organizations. Solera helped put together an 18-member coalition, Latinos United for Change, who met this month with the Democratic nominee for mayor, Brandon Scott, to push for the creation of an office dedicated to Latino affairs in City Hall. The coalition hopes to follow the steps of the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, which has 10 staff members focused on community outreach, grants and language access.

“This conversation is not about wanting to have documents translated to Spanish or having people that speak Spanish,” Solera said. “It’s about having Latinos represented in city government and city agencies.”

Monica Guerrero Vázquez, executive director of Centro SOL

Monica Guerrero Vázquez is executive director of Centro SOL, a center for health and opportunity for the Latino community.
Monica Guerrero Vázquez is executive director of Centro SOL, a center for health and opportunity for the Latino community. (Monica G.V)

For two years, Monica Guerrero Vázquez, 37, has served as executive director of Centro SOL. The center partners with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to promote health and opportunity for Latinos. Amid the pandemic, the group is running virtual mental health services and three summer school programs. The organization also started a program called Juntos to provide clinical support for Latinos, as well as services for food insecurity and to help pregnant women who are diagnosed with COVID-19.

Guerrero Vázquez’s health advocacy is tied to her personal experience as an immigrant from Ecuador. She would like to see Baltimore follow the lead of New York City, where access to publicly run programs and free or lower cost healthcare services is provided regardless of immigration status. While Guerrero Vázquez notes that Baltimore “has been pushing to include migrants at the table,” she wants to see more action in addressing the barriers the community faces.

“The systematic exclusion of immigrant-speaking communities, which is not necessarily intentional, but I think it’s happening because our systems are not prepared for them,” said Guerrero Vázquez, noting that there is a lot of trauma, post-traumatic stress and depression in this community. “People don’t speak English well or at all. For a lot of [immigrants], Spanish is their second language already. There are economic hardships and a lack of employment stability.”

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In terms of change, Guerrero Vázquez is looking to the next generation.

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“I would like to have some of our youth leading efforts. I have been very happy to mentor a lot of the youth that I’ve seen graduate and going to college. Opening the doors and supporting people of color is super important to Baltimore, which historically is a city with a lot of disparities.”

Franca Muller Paz, public schoolteacher advocating for digital access

Franca Muller Paz is a Baltimore public school teacher who has advocated for equity in digital access. She is the Green Party candidate running for City Council in District 12.
Franca Muller Paz is a Baltimore public school teacher who has advocated for equity in digital access. She is the Green Party candidate running for City Council in District 12. (TOMAS ALEJO/Courtesy of Franca Muller Paz)

Franca Muller Paz, 32, has taught in public schools for 10 years and is a three-term elected building representative for the Baltimore Teachers Union. She has advocated for ESOL student equity in the city’s high school admissions process and fought to close the digital divide amid the pandemic.

While 73% of white Baltimoreans have access to the internet, nearly one in two Black and Latino households in Baltimore don’t. And that hurts children who must do distance learning, as well as adults, said Muller Paz, who emigrated as a child with her family from Peru and has lived in Baltimore since 2006.

“It affects their ability to do work online,” she said. “It affects their ability to go to the doctor right now during COVID and their ability to meet with other people in a way that is safe.”

Muller Paz is also co-founder of Pan y Rosas, a collective that organizes mass events centered on music, culinary arts and political struggle. Pan y Rosas events have brought over 300 people together with proceeds helping Sanctuary Streets and their bail fund for immigrant detention.

“There are hubs of Latinx culture being created,” Muller Paz said while referencing Artesanas — a Baltimore group of Latin American women that host community workshops on Mexican folk art and traditions. “This work clearly helps to also humanize our community. Having people recognize and get to experience our art and our music and our culture helps to really remind folks that we are whole people.”

Last month, Muller Paz announced her campaign to run as a Green Party candidate with a musical bike party around the 12th district, featuring a blend of cumbia and hip hop. She will be challenging Democratic Councilman Robert Stokes.

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.

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