Arundel's changing Hispanics Barriers increase for newer arrivals


Vincente Ortiz, then a linguist with Army intelligence at Fort Meade, bought a house in Odenton in 1965. He and his family were the first nonwhites on the block.

"I found out five years later that some of the neighbors got together and were trying to decide if they were going to let us move in," said the native Puerto Rican.

The neighbors did nothing, and the Ortiz family moved in without incident; integration simply involved their neighbors getting to know them.

Mr. Ortiz, 69, typifies Arundel's established Hispanic community. is a state employee with a college degree, speaks flawless English and lives in a solidly middle-class community -- where his minority status is noted only at census time.

"We don't have a block where all the Hispanics live," he says. "But with the new immigrants coming to Annapolis, you're beginning to see the blocks. And the reason is probably because the people don't know the English language. They look to each other, and they try to stay together."

Anne Arundel's established Hispanic community has for years been invisible, spread out. But that has started to change, due to a new breed of immigrants -- often the victims of violence in Central America or poverty in Mexico -- who are largely poorer, still struggling with English and less intent on assimilating into the surrounding culture.

Drawn together by national ties and the solidarity of their language, they tend to seek out affordable housing in apartment complexes such as Admiral Heights, Spa Cove and Allen Apartments, all in Annapolis. Another Hispanic pocket occupies apartments in Southgate.

Unlike Mr. Ortiz, many of these newer Hispanic residents say they experience prejudice from employers, and among neighbors with whom communication is difficult.

"We have a lot of discrimination here," said Luis Obregon, a native of Colombia who moved to Annapolis from New York eight months ago. An experienced carpenter who speaks English with an accent, he has not been able to find work in six months. "And every day I call four, five, six, 10 guys. But I never get an answer."

"On the job there is a lot of discrimination," agreed Mario Rivas, a Salvadoran resident of the Allen Apartments who speaks little English and works as a hotel maintenance man. "If you don't speak English, there is discrimination. If you don't speak English, you have many problems."

The community by numbers

Finding threads that bind together Anne Arundel's Hispanic community is not easy. Census figures from 1990 show a Hispanic population of just over 6,700, less than 2 percent of the county's population. They are young, with a median age of 26 (compared to 33.5 for whites and 29.4 for blacks and Asians). They are comparatively well-educated, with approximately 85 percent of Hispanic adults over 25 years old having at least a high school diploma -- better than any other census group.

They have a median income of $42,169 -- $4,175 higher than the statewide median for Hispanics, $10,399 higher than the county median for blacks and $4,752 lower than the Arundel median for whites.

But some say those numbers are skewed by the large population of Hispanics who have lived in Anne Arundel 25 years or more. Many, like Mr. Ortiz, are Army retirees who had been stationed at Fort Meade. Large numbers still live in the Fort Meade area or in Glen Burnie.

The Hispanic community includes professionals like Dr. Alcides Pinto, head of psychological services at Crownsville State Hospital, a native of Chile who was educated in Spain and arrived in the United States in 1963.

Some are successful businessmen like Richard J. Otero of Annapolis, who founded Lanham-based RJO Enterprises 13 years ago and built it into a communications and software firm that employs 550 people and recorded revenue of more than $52 million last year.

Newer arrivals, however, do not have some of the same advantages. And the influx of Central Americans into the county, especially into Annapolis, caught government officials flat-footed.

"In Anne Arundel County, as of two years ago, there was nothing for Hispanics," said Marianela Sargent, a paralegal who assists Hispanics with immigration. "And I saw that a lot of them were lost, really.

"So, I started knocking on doors, asking, 'Do you have Spanish-speaking people to help?' And a lot of [government agencies] closed the door on me."

But agencies eventually began to respond. In July 1991, Annapolis and county officials -- led by Adrian Wiseman of the county's Human Relations Commission and Emily Green of the city Office of Drug and Alcohol Prevention -- organized a meeting at Mount Olive Baptist Church to hear the needs of the newer arrivals, as well as to ease tensions between the Central Americans and their neighbors.

"There was a problem of a language barrier between the new residents and the older residents," Mr. Wiseman said, admitting that the meeting was "an eye-opener" for he and Ms. Green -- especially when they found communication possible only through interpreters.

The county Health and Social Services departments hired or transferred bilingual workers to offices serving Hispanic residents who did not speak English. Annapolis established the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Center at the Allen Apartments, off Forest Drive near Parole. Besides drug and alcohol education, the center offers English classes and tries to build a sense of community in the 99-unit complex.

It was through this outreach program that government officials gently attempted to correct behavior considered unacceptable in American society.

"Hispanic people are social people and they like to be outdoors. And they like to talk and they like their music," said Marie Casasco, who coordinates the Allen Apartments program.

The al fresco parties were often accompanied by alcohol. Neighbors complained. The police were called.

"It was just a matter of communicating and saying, 'Hey, let's address this before it gets out of hand,' " Ms. Green said. Other social infractions included using school fields for soccer games without first securing a permit and taking short cuts through private property.

Who will their children be?

For many Hispanic parents, as they settle here and pursue their American dream, a troubling question arises: Who will their children be? American or Hispanic?

The answer seems not to be either/or, but both -- Hispanic and American.

In many respects, the Hispanic children are very much like their classmates at Anne Arundel schools: They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same television shows.

But when they walk into their homes they enter a different culture. The cuisine is Cuban, or Mexican, or Salvadoran. Spanish may be spoken at the table. Traditions are maintained, maybe on a daily basis, perhaps just on holidays and special occasions.

Dr. Pinto, for instance, insisted that Spanish be spoken at home.

"I have four daughters who were born here," he said. "When they were younger, I insisted they speak Spanish at home. I was very militant.

"But they rejected my approach," he said. "They said, 'We don't want to be different. We want to fit in in school. We don't want to speak broken English, like you, Dad.' "

Later, Dr. Pinto's daughters sought out their Hispanic roots. Several studied in Spain.

"For them, now it's a pride to be bilingual," he said.

Often, it is in the third generation after immigration that a family starts to lose the native tongue. Manuel Padilla, a military retiree from Puerto Rico, has seen that happen with his granddaughters.

"My daughter kind of reversed and said, 'I want my children to learn English first,' " the Odenton resident said. "And I think that -- kind of backfired, because she has two children, one 11 and the other 14, and they really don't speak Spanish that well."

His wife tried to compensate as the grandchildren were growing up, teaching them songs in Spanish when they came to visit.

Teaching the songs and dances of their native countries is an important way to preserve culture and can give Hispanic children a sense of who they are, said Magaly E. Jarrad, a Glen Burnie dance instructor who was born and raised in Bolivia.

"I think they have to know in order to be proud of themselves," said Ms. Jarred, a classically trained dancer and choreographer who teaches dance on Saturday mornings at Glen Burnie High School.

"If you don't teach them the culture, they won't know. And one day it will be gone," she said. "And I don't think it's fair for the children."

The language barrier

"The main problem for them is the language," Mr. Ortiz said of the newcomers. "And throughout history, among immigrants, that has been the problem."

They also don't have the educational advantages the Hispanic community that preceded them here had. "It's sad to say, but many of the immigrants in Annapolis don't have schooling, very low education. And that makes it harder," said Mr. Ortiz.

That does not mean they do not have a desire to learn. The county schools report a sharp rise in the number of Spanish-speaking students in adult English and basic education classes.

"The influx of the Spanish-speaking people in the past year has been so great that we haven't' been able to keep track of them," said Jim Williams, the coordinator of the county's Adult Basic Education program.

While the majority of students in English language classes continue to be from Asian countries, Mr. Williams estimates that up to 15 percent of the students are Hispanic, with the percentage likely to rise as the influx continues.

Some members of the established Hispanic community fear the good name and image they have built could be sullied by poorer, less-educated recent immigrants.

"Some of the higher professionals don't want to mix with them," Dr. Pinto admitted.

Still, there are many examples of established Hispanics reaching out to help the newcomers.

Amanda "Maya" Gerry was born in Mexico City. Married to an American and living in Glen Burnie, she volunteers up to 20 hours a week assisting fellow Hispanics in finding jobs, getting driver's licenses and straightening out residency documents.

"If I see a Hispanic walking down the street, I stop the car," she said. She makes them get in, takes down their names and phone numbers so she can help find them jobs.

"I don't want anyone to see a Hispanic walking down the street doing nothing," she said.

However, she says she does not have to worry about the majority.

"They really come here to work," she said. "They don't take vacations. They work Saturday and Sunday. They work two jobs."

More serious than the language and cultural hurdles are the psychological obstacles many newcomers face in an unfamiliar society, on top of the traumas they faced in their native countries. Refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, endured years of civil war.

"Some of these people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, like in Vietnam," Dr. Pinto said.

Cristina Lopez-Chertudi, a Spanish intern working for Dr. Pinto, said she sees many Salvadoran women who suffer the psychological effects of having been raped by soldiers. Many of these mental problems require long-term counseling in Spanish, which is unavailable, she said.

A lingering question that faces newer Hispanic residents is whether they will make their permanent home here, or return eventually to their native countries.

For some, immigration difficulties will answer that question. Many have strong ties to their homeland and express a desire to return one day. But the uncertain political, economic and social climate that persists in many Central American countries will likely keep them here, permanently or for some time to come.

"My friends in Washington don't work; there are no jobs," said Roberto Alfaro, a native of El Salvador who has lived in Annapolis for three years and works with landscaping companies. "Here in Annapolis, there are many jobs."

"I'm never going to forget my country, no matter what happens," said his brother Antonio Alfaro, a construction worker from El Salvador. "Right now, my country's real bad. I've got to stick around a little more time."

"Far from home?" concludes tomorrow with a look at the role religion plays in the lives of Anne Arundel's Hispanic population.

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