At Latino Fest, fast-growing community takes stock

When Angelica Barrera moved to Baltimore in 1958 at age 11, she was the only Spanish-speaking student at the William Fell School in Fells Point, where she joined her many German and Polish classmates each morning for a one-hour English language class.

"There was no Spanish anything," she said of Baltimore back then. "It's changed."


As Barrera spoke Saturday in the shade of a large tree in Patterson Park, her 85-year-old mother, Angelica Vidal, danced nearby to Latino rhythms familiar from their native Puerto Rico. All around her, fellow Latino residents of Baltimore danced, sang, ate and celebrated.

"It makes them feel more at home," Barrera said of the city's annual Latino Fest, which is now in its 33rd year and is expected to draw about 20,000 people to the park this weekend. "It makes them feel wanted in the community."


In recent years, as the national debate around immigration has heated up and some jurisdictions have moved to halt it, city officials such as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, eager to attract more residents, have welcomed new Spanish-speaking families.

Last year, Rawlings-Blake issued an executive order prohibiting city employees from inquiring about a person's immigration status. Some criticized Baltimore as an amnesty city, but the immigrant community has hailed the decision as a boost to Baltimore's already expanding Latino community.

Between 2000 and 2010, when the city's overall population declined by more than 4 percent, the city's Latino community grew by nearly 135 percent, according to the Baltimore City Hispanic Commission. In some South Baltimore and Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods, the percentage of Hispanic and Latino residents went from under 5 percent to more than 20 percent.

On Saturday at the festival, organized by the nonprofit Education Based Latino Outreach, Amy Perez of Brooklyn Park said Rawlings-Blake's efforts have been noticed and "meant a lot."

Perez's husband, Luis, who is Mexican, received permanent legal residency on Friday, she said, despite having been here for 15 years. Much of his extended family is also in Baltimore, and they have no plans to leave.

Bill Villanueva, head of the Maryland Hispanic Business Conference, said the community's ability to contribute to the local economy is a strength it is flexing.

According to Villanueva, Hispanic-owned businesses in Maryland have increased in number from about 21,000 in 2010 to 40,000 today, and now represent "the fastest-growing business component" in the state.

"A city like Baltimore needs our tax base," he said.


Also important, visitors said, are cultural events like the Latino Fest — which featured music, dance, cultural crafts and foods, as well as information about local public agencies looking to hire and private companies doing outreach.

Barrera, who recently moved to Carroll County but often visits her mother in the city, said she has attended the event every year since it began in 1980 and wouldn't miss it.

"It brings out the good in the community," she said.