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Latinos find political voice


Pablo Palomino came to Baltimore from Lima, Peru, six months ago and speaks only a hint of English. That didn't stop him from going to Annapolis on Monday evening, where he joined more than 200 fellow Latinos to lobby legislators on immigrant rights and carried a poster-sized "Latinos Unidos!" sign to a rally on Lawyer's Mall.

No doubt, lawmakers and activists say, Maryland's Spanish-speaking Latino population is stirring as never before. With recent U.S. Census numbers bolstering their causes, Latinos are finding their collective political voice and directing it - sometimes with vigor and sophistication, sometimes in fits and starts - toward the State House.

Newcomers such as Palomino have joined an expanding group of Latinos across the state who have come to understand that politicians aren't going to offer, so they themselves had better demand.

This legislative session, Latino activists are pushing an ambitious agenda and using it to educate their ranks about the political process. They are meeting with lawmakers to seek support for bills that would require state agencies to translate information into Spanish and allow children of immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

And through aggressive lobbying - which included a rush order of "We Are a Country of Immigrants" T-shirts - they have mounted what appears to be a successful campaign to amend a provision in the governor's anti-terrorism package that would have drastically limited the ability of noncitizens to get driver's licenses.

Last week, Latino business owners, who have abandoned loose coalitions and united into chambers of commerce, threw their first State House reception, an effort to befriend lawmakers and lobbyists over mussels and paella.

'Como esta?'

"Buenas noches," Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, a Montgomery County Democrat, said somewhat awkwardly to the crowd. "Como esta?" The businessmen are angling for legislation that would award a percentage of state contracts to Hispanic-owned companies.

"It's about time," said Del. William H. Cole IV, a Baltimore Democrat, as he surveyed the crowd of Latinos who came to the lobbying rally Monday night. "Any time you can get this many people here, it's impressive."

Never mind that as a two-man mariachi band played, the rally's speakers had to shout because they lacked a microphone - perhaps a perfect symbol for Latinos' political situation in Maryland: Until now, they have not been loud enough, and lawmakers have not bothered to listen.

"Right now I think the legislature needs to understand that there are groups other than women and African-Americans that need attention," said Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, who has been helping Latino businessmen make their case in Annapolis this session. "I think they all know it, but the attitude is, 'Let's not wake up any more problems.'"

That attitude won't last long, say many Latinos and politicians. Carmen Nieves, executive director of Baltimore's Centro de la Comunidad, is among those who sense an important shift.

"I really think it's like waking up a sleeping giant," she said. "[Lawmakers] have known we were here, but I don't think they took us seriously."

"All of a sudden," she said, "there's a momentum. I see a lot of things coming together."

Signs of change are everywhere. Del. Mark K. Shriver has hired the former president of the Montgomery County Hispanic Democratic Club to help him win Latino voters for his congressional bid. One of his primary opponents, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., is showing up at Latino events, reminding people that he helped secure $100,000 for a minority business procurement center in his Montgomery district.

Groups' support is sought

Other advocacy groups such as the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition are calling Latino organizations and asking for their support. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has sat down with Latino leaders two years running.

Electronic voting machines installed in some counties for elections this year will have a Spanish-language option. Also, the Maryland secretary of state's office is organizing workshops to help Latino-owned companies win state contracts.

Ana S. Gutierrez, who is running for the House of Delegates from Montgomery County, credits much of the change to sheer numbers, which she says will soon make Latinos an impossible force to ignore. "The census brought it home, and all of a sudden it's, 'Oh, we have to pay attention,'" she said.

Growth spurt in '90s

The 2000 Census shows that Maryland's Hispanic population grew by 82 percent during the 1990s, with the majority moving to the Washington suburbs. While Latinos make up just 4.3 percent of the state population, in Montgomery County they account for 11.5 percent.

Most observers agree that the official count probably did not capture undocumented Latinos, and so is very low. In Baltimore, for example, the census counted 11,061, while health officials, social workers and others who work with the population estimate the true number is at least twice that.

But in Annapolis, Latinos say, they feel they have little, if any, representation. Only one of the General Assembly's 188 members identifies himself as Hispanic: Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, whose mother is Cuban. Although Mooney clearly cares about immigrant problems, his conservative Republican politics usually leave him outside the power circles in Annapolis.

Mooney put in a bill this session to require the state to award 2 percent of its contracts to Hispanic-owned businesses, a proposal that is unlikely to pass. "It's a complete outrage that they would leave us out," he said of the governor's minority business initiative last year, which established procurement set-asides for women and African- Americans.

"It's a big mistake to ignore them," he said of Latinos, "because 20 years from now their kids will be citizens, will speak English and will vote."

Many Latinos say they feel ignored. An editorial in last month's El Heraldo, a statewide Spanish-language newspaper, criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening for having had only one Hispanic person in his Cabinet.

The editorial also said that Latinos, who mostly vote Democratic, should not rely on any political party and should consider backing Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor. "The Democrats take us as a given, and then ignore us," it said.

Unlike the politically established Latino populations in large states such as New York, Florida and California, Maryland's Spanish-speaking community has been fragmented.

In part, that is because their numbers simply haven't been large enough. Even lawmakers who support their causes quietly say the percentage of Latinos who can vote is too small to give them any influence.

The political result is tangible. As top lawmakers and the governor's office worked on legislative redistricting, for instance, they decided not to create a majority Latino subdistrict in Montgomery County, in favor of making sure incumbents were comfortable.

Another difficulty is that Latinos come to Maryland from numerous places. Salvadorans settle mostly near Washington. Mexicans have migrated to the Eastern Shore, and the Baltimore area is home to a Hispanic United Nations - Latin and South Americans, Puerto Ricans and Costa Ricans.

While their problems are often identical, each group brings its own fears of and expectations for government based on what it experienced in its home country. Then there are the class differences between the new immigrants and the more established Latinos.

Message blunted

These rough edges can make organizing tricky and have blunted Latinos' political message. Sometimes their requests to politicians have been unfocused, or undercut by infighting. Once, as Glendening greeted Latino residents in Fells Point, representatives from three different Latino groups approached him asking for money for the same project.

"Sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, whose Montgomery district has the state's highest number of Latinos.

Luisa Sauseda, who is now working for Shriver, came to Maryland from California three years ago and noticed the disorganization.

"I was in shock," she said. "I think the first thing that hit me was that there were absolutely no Latino elected officials." She was also struck by the segregation of Latinos here.

"There wasn't the experience in terms of organizing efforts," she said. "There's a sense of distrust, which means considerably more effort is needed to engage people in the process."

But Sauseda has seen great improvement, she says. Latino Democrats are increasingly determined to mount candidates for state and local office, to build coalitions with Asians and blacks, and to start a political action committee.

Importance of organizing

To Palomino, 41, Latinos' gradual political progression in Maryland is worrisome. A former sports reporter who works in a Timonium factory as a packer, he came to Baltimore so his 17-year-old son could be educated here.

He immediately understood the importance of organizing his Fells Point neighbors, and helped start a Latino parents association at Patterson Park High School.

"I, who have only been here six months, am participating," he said. "But others, who have been here for years and years and years, don't. Why? That's what concerns me."

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