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Hispanics can find help adjusting to life in U.S.


Less than a decade ago there were only few dozen faithful sitting in the pews during the Spanish Mass at St. Mary's parish, a few Spanish-speaking police officers, and no place to buy more than one kind of jalapeno in Annapolis.

Today, there are several hundred at the Spanish service, two Latino grocers, a Hispanic police liaison, and sprawling apartment complexes and neighborhoods that have become predominately Hispanic -- changes that mirror new census figures showing a major influx of Asian, Latino and other immigrants settling in Baltimore's suburbs.

"There were not too many of us when I first moved into the Annapolis area," said Nicolas Gomez, the Cuban-born coordinator of Hispanic ministries at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, who moved from Pennsylvania 17 years ago. Now, "there are plenty of our people here."

Robert Morales, the first police liaison to the growing Hispanic community in Annapolis, and Maria Casasco, the Hispanic initiative coordinator for the Anne Arundel county Health Department, are in the midst of the boom, struggling to develop programs and keep up with a population that remains largely uncounted.

While the county estimates the Hispanic population in the Annapolis area at 1,859 -- double what it was in 1990 -- community groups estimate 5,000 to 7,000 Hispanics live in the area. And some say there may be more than 40,000 Hispanics living in the county.

In his part-time job as Hispanic liaison, Morales -- once a chief judge of a district court in Puerto Rico -- has created a survival manual for new immigrants. It tells them how to open bank accounts, get medical services and apply for citizenship.

He also has started Spanish classes for police officers and has written a handbook called "Conversational Spanish: Short and Sweet" to aid communication.

When he begins passing out his books at a crime prevention rally, he says, "Look what we have."

With Morales, 62, it is always about "we."

"The man doesn't understand what a 20-hour work week is or a 50-hour week, for that matter," said Annapolis police Chief Joseph S. Johnson. "He's just full of knowledge and energy. There's an absolute need for his work. The rapid growth of the Hispanic community really caught us off guard."

Morales and Casasco share an office -- a converted apartment donated by the managers of the Allen Apartment complex in Parole, where 76 percent of the 99 lease-holders are Hispanic. Ruth Jones, the complex's manager, said that number stood at 15 percent when she began work there in 1990.

They have weekly mediation sessions to resolve neighborhood and employment disputes and tell residents where to find help in making the transition to American life. Since 1994, the complex has offered a Thanksgiving meal to explain the tradition to immigrants, Jones said.

Morales often tells new immigrants that when police make a traffic stop, the fine is not to be paid on the spot. Sometimes, immigrants run from police because they don't have money, or they offer the police cash, which Morales tells them is considered a bribe.

"The concept of bail is totally foreign to them," he said, while displaying a flier in Spanish that explains the arrest process, defining such terms as "bail bond."

Some immigrants, he says, are baffled even by basic living accommodations. "They don't know what the smoke detector does," said Casasco. "It's loud, so they destroy it."

"You start with deodorant, indoor plumbing, electricity, then you go to 911 and Miranda warnings," said Morales.

"It is about a comprehensive approach," said Casasco, who refers many of the residents to health services and counseling.

Other police departments in the Baltimore area have responded to the rapid growth of immigrant populations by creating liaison positions.

In Baltimore County, for example, an informal network of volunteers works with community police officers as liaisons and translators, said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a spokeswoman for the county's Police Department.

In Annapolis, the growth of the Hispanic population has fueled the success of several local businesses, including a handful of restaurants and two Spanish grocers: Tienda Mexican Los Horizontes opened two years ago and Anita Spanish Grocery opened six months ago.

Gomez said the population is attracted to the Annapolis area for jobs in landscaping, construction, hotels and restaurants.

"Immigrants will come into this area today, and tomorrow they will have a job," he said.

Rick Ferrell, president of the Organization of Hispanic/Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County (OHLA), said employers "love their work ethic" and the service sector has "become dependent on Hispanics."

OHLA, which Casasco helped found in 1998, has seen its membership double to several hundred in the past year, Ferrell said.

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