Feeling ignored, Latinos pin hopes on next mayor; Fastest-growing ethnic group wants city's attention


Trickling into a Fells Point community center one night last week, more than a dozen Latino city residents shook hands, waved, hugged one another.

"Como estas?" said one smiling woman to another.

These were more than friendly greetings -- they also were nods to a common culture, one often overlooked in Baltimore's mainly black and white racial scene.

These business people, parents and activists said they feel overlooked, sometimes blatantly disregarded, in Baltimore. They said this is something they hope the city's next mayor will help change.

"Baltimore isn't aware of us," said Angelo Solera, a Fells Point resident and Latino community activist. "It's like we're in the city, but we're not part of it. The city doesn't look at us as citizens."

The mayor, he said, "must set a tone" that this is not acceptable.

As the city shrinks by 1,000 residents a month, Latinos are arriving in big numbers, making them the fastest-growing ethnic group in Baltimore. Up to 50,000 live in the city as of this summer, according to the Mayor's Office on Hispanic Affairs. The 1990 U.S. Census reported 7,600 Latino residents.

As if to underscore the community's growth, for the first time Latino candidates are seeking office. Two of them -- both from the 1st District -- have quietly been campaigning for City Council seats. They are Libertarian Lorenzo Gaztanaga and Democrat Carlos Manuel Torres.

But, for the 15 Latinos who met at the South East Community Organization on South Wolfe Street on Tuesday, many of their expectations of improving Baltimore start with the mayor's office. Their hopes are near to the hearts of many city residents: improved housing and city services, less unemployment and less crime.

However, like many African-Americans, they said they also worry about the police.

Last year, three Latino immigrants said they were robbed of several hundred dollars by a uniformed police officer in Fells Point. The officer, who resigned, will be tried this year.

The incidents drew protests in the community and fueled the mistrust many Latinos feel toward police officers.

Train police

"What you need to do is educate the police," said William Ramirez, a Fells Point resident. "You have different nationalities living together, and if [someone is] going to be trained to be police, let them learn about that."

Heads nodded around the room. The group lingered on this subject.

Hector J. Vinas, a Fells Point resident and activist, pointed out that many newcomers come from countries in Central and South America that have suffered under abusive armies and heavy-handed police. As a result, many remain wary of officers in this country, though brutality here is rarer.

Trust needed

"There was [Juan] Peron in Argentina and [Augusto] Pinochet in Chile and [Rafael] Trujillo in the Dominican Republic," Vinas said. "For the American people, it's very difficult to understand that, but we see [police abuses], and we become more fearful."

Said Hector L. Torres, a North Baltimore resident and a spokesman for the city Fire Department, "It harms the relationship with the community. Trust really needs to be built. There needs to be a better dialogue."

This theme -- better communication to build trust between Latinos and other Baltimore residents -- was repeated throughout the evening.

One person said the next mayor should hire more Latinos in city agencies. Others agreed, saying each department should have at least a few Spanish speakers to ensure that clients have equal access to services.

"It's almost like there is a consistent effort not to share resources with Latinos," said Gigi Guzman, a city businesswoman.

"Right," agreed Richard J. Colon, a board member of Education-Based Latino Outreach (EBLO). "There are too many times when someone in a city agency deals with us and they act like they're being asked to give something away that really belongs to him."

Not all bad

Colon, the Miami-born son of a Puerto Rican mother and Colombian father, compared such treatment to not-so-long-ago days of more blatant discrimination. Thirty-eight years ago, while en route to Baltimore, he stopped in a Savannah, Ga., diner for a meal. He recalled that he left hungry after being told, "We don't serve foreigners."

He said, "1961 is not that long ago. I think, now, [discrimination has] just reached a level of sophistication."

But, the group was quick to point out, things are not all bad. Thousands of Latinos have come to Baltimore in recent years -- many from New York and other first-stop cities -- in search of jobs and cheaper housing. They have found both.

The school system, they said, has welcomed their children. English classes are provided for those who need them.

Also, organizations such as Centro De La Comunidad, the Hispanic Apostolate and EBLO provide much of the support newcomers need.

"What we really need is more funding," Colon said. "If the upcoming [mayoral] administration took a look at what the Hispanic community is doing on our own, it would be a wise investment for the city to help out."

Most in this group were reluctant to announce whom they will vote for in the primary Sept. 14 -- Democratic front-runners include City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, City Councilman Martin O'Malley and former school board member Carl Stokes. The Hispanic Business Association endorsed O'Malley last month.

Candidates have mentioned Latinos rarely, and then in passing.

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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