Hispanic wave splashes across suburbs of D.C.

HYATTSVILLE — HYATTSVILLE -- Odir Arias was 14 and playing soccer in his native Intipuca, El Salvador, when soldiers surrounded the field to "recruit" Odir and his teammates.

Odir was later freed because of his tender age, but the next year he had an even closer call. He was again almost forced into the Salvadoran army while dancing at a party. It was then that Odir's father, supporting the family by working menial jobs in Los Angeles, decided to pay a "coyote" to smuggle his son into the United States.


Now when 18-year-old Odir plays soccer, the field is in Prince George's County, far from Salvadoran soldiers. But his team is still from Intipuca, a town whose young men have been transplanted nearly intact from El Salvador to Maryland's Washington suburbs.

A wave of Hispanic immigrants is imparting a Latin flavor to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which are now home to two-thirds of Maryland's 125,000 Hispanics.


The Hispanic population of the two suburban counties has more than doubled in the past decade -- providing a vast crew of workers for the local economy, straining the resources of county schools and establishing a vibrant Spanish-language subculture from Gaithersburg to Bladensburg.

Visit Heurich Park in Hyattsville on a Sunday and you might be in Latin America. Half the park is Mexico: A baseball game pits Veracruz vs. Puebla.

The other half is El Salvador: Los Estudiantes de la Plata face Gaithersburg on the soccer field. A handful of vendors sell beef tacos seasoned with cilantro, onion and chili to both crowds.

Unlike earlier immigrants, the newly arrived Latin Americans -- largely Salvadorans, disproportionately young men -- no longer necessarily check in first at big-city ethnic enclaves before moving to the suburbs. Many, like Odir Arias, follow family or friends directly to a room in Mount Rainier, a high-rise apartment in Langley Park or a split-level rental in Wheaton.

But suburban life for Latinos often resembles "The Children of Sanchez" more than "The Simpsons." Central American and Mexican immigrants work long hours at low-paying jobs to scrape up dollars to send to families left behind; they live tripled up in sparely furnished apartments or basements; they forgo medical care for lack of health insurance; they confront constant language and cultural barriers, and often fear deportation. Their only recreation may be the Sunday soccer game or a six-pack of beer.

"It's a whole underclass having a very difficult time existing," said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Salvadoran-born Montgomery County school board member. "We have a potential of more Mount Pleasant situations arising in our counties," she said, referring to Hispanic rioting in Washington in May.

Henry Melendez, a 33-year-old Salvadoran, waits for work daily at a Silver Spring 7-Eleven whose parking lot has become the unofficial hiring hall for young Hispanic workers.

"Sometimes I get one day of work a week, sometimes I don't get any," he said.


"Because we're in the United States, people at home think we have money. That's a lie. The situation here is too bad."

"It seems that we're back in Mexico," said Fortunata Bravo, 75, selling tacos one Sunday at Heurich Park. "There is no work, and everything is very expensive."

Her son, Alberto F. Vargas, 43, brought his family to Hyattsville after years picking cucumbers out West, driving a cab in New York and finishing concrete in Maryland.

"Economically, Mexico is bad," Mr. Vargas said. "Here, sometimes we're all right economically, but spiritually we're bad off because people look down at us.

"I'm tempted to go back to Mexico," he said, "but I want to be in a strong economic position, my children were born here. . . . As the Mexican song says, 'You're going and you're going and you're never gone.' "

Carlos Morales, a 35-year-old Nicaraguan accountant, works 72 hours a week running a Latin American grocery in Wheaton. He left Nicaragua seven years ago when the Sandinista government was at the height of its power. He fully intended to return someday.


"Now the government has changed, but I don't want to go," Mr. Morales said.

"If you work hard, if you are honest, you can have success here."

However, few new immigrants are well-educated, like Mr. Morales, and fewer still come from their countries' elite, like Mrs. Gutierrez, an aerospace systems engineer from Chevy Chase whose father was a Harvard-educated diplomat. Adult newcomers are often illiterate in their native Spanish; children from war-scarred countries may never have gone to school. Few of the children, even those born to immigrant parents in the United States,knows any English at first.

As a result, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs have mushroomed. ESOL enrollment has roughly doubled in the past five years in the Montgomery and Prince George's public schools. Of nearly 10,000 ESOL students last year, about half were Hispanic.

Adult education ESOL is booming, too. Enrollment neared 17,000 last year in Montgomery County alone, almost double the 1986 total, and more than half the students were Hispanic. Many centers must turn away immigrants who want to learn English, educators say.

The demand for health care is also great. The Hispanic Catholic Center's free medical clinic in Langley Park opened as a two-day-a-week operation with one nurse in 1985. Now three nurses and 13 volunteer doctors, who minister only to those without Medicaid or private health insurance, see 6,000 patients a year. Common ills are intestinal parasites, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Sister Martha Gardiner, clinic coordinator.


The Catholic Center, the Spanish-Speaking Community of Maryland Inc. in Silver Spring and other agencies offer help in Spanish with immigration, jobs and housing. A new Catholic Center branch opened five months ago in Gaithersburg and has already served nearly 500 families.

Immigration worries have eased temporarily for Salvadorans, many of whom now qualify for U.S. work permits under "temporary protective status" (TPS), and for Guatemalans, who now may work after applying for political asylum. About 10,000 Salvadorans in Maryland have registered for TPS, which expires next July, according to immigration officials in Baltimore. Guatemalans began applying for asylum July 1.

"Some people ask me why [Hispanic immigrants] don't stay in their own countries," said Sister Carmen Vanegas, a Spanish nun who has worked with immigrants here since 1980.

"I say, because they think what your ancestors thought. Because of that, they are here."

Only one Maryland census tract, part of Langley Park in Prince George's, has a Hispanic majority. A handful of other neighborhoods, mainly in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area, are at least one-quarter Hispanic. But significant numbers of Hispanics live in dozens of areas and, in Montgomery particularly, ethnic diversity has spread well beyond the Capital Beltway.

Clearly, Montgomery County has outgrown its stereotype as the wealthy province of brie-eating white liberals. No longer are the only dark-skinned faces those of diplomats and their families. Children from 112 countries speaking 83 languages populate the Montgomery County schools; many have fled turmoil in Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere.


At Highland Elementary School, in a neat Wheaton neighborhood of single-family houses, ESOL teacher Jody Leleck begins her day by instructing new arrivals from countries such as El Salvador, Mexico and Bolivia in the ABCs, the days of the week and other basics.

Later, she teaches old-timers like Priscilla Vargas of Bolivia and Maria Aguirre of El Salvador, 11-year-olds with less than two years in the United States. The girls chat away in English as they collaborate on an assignment. Asked to name their favorite food, they respond in chorus like Ninja Turtles: "Pizza!"

"I am absolutely amazed," Mrs. Leleck said, at how the children adapt despite the horrors they have often left behind in their native countries and the poverty they endure in their adopted land. "As much as I see things that are really heart-breaking and hear things I couldn't imagine in my worst nightmares, I find them very inspiring."

As the Hispanic population has spread, so has the Latin American entrepreneurial spirit. According to the Spanish-Speaking Community of Maryland Inc., a non-profit service organization, Montgomery County alone lists 23 Hispanic-owned restaurants, 19 construction companies, 21 real estate agents, 10 travel agencies, 10 cleaning services and several enterprises that transport U.S. dollars from immigrants here to their families in Central America.

Hispanic-owned small businesses are so numerous that a firm in Northern Virginia has published 60,000 copies of Las Paginas Amarillas, the Hispanic yellow pages for the Washington area. Half a dozen Spanish-language weeklies, a couple of radio stations and Spanish-language cable television hawk wares for Hispanics.

At the Americana Grocery in Silver Spring, the soft-drink machine stocks coconut, watermelon, pineapple and yerba mate sodas as well as the ever-popular Inca Kola. A dozen other Latin groceries sell an array of tortillas, tropical fruits and exotic meats.


Vandals recently spray-painted a swastika on a wall of El Compadre Spanish Grocery in Hyattsville, where Odir Arias works.

Store owner Carlos Lizanne, a Salvadoran immigrant who has lived in Hyattsville for 16 years, said: "They target someone like me. It's not like Lotto. They hit a black church, my store and the house of a Hispanic."

Still, Mr. Lizanne is undaunted. He will stay and work 14-hour days to prosper in the United States, he said. His employee, Odir, is likely to do the same, trusting in the American dream.

"Few go back," Sister Carmen said. "The phrase is, 'A ver que dice Dios,' let's see what God says. These are people full of hope."