Obidio Villalta's face is the definition of bewilderment as he sits on a couch in his newly purchased three-bedroom townhouse and tries to make sense of a letter from his mortgage company.
The Spanish-speaking Villalta has learned little English since moving here more than a decade ago from El Salvador. "It's a little scary. I don't know what it is," Villalta says of the letter, smiling and slowly putting his words together in English.
A neighborhood organization helped Villalta, his wife, Ana, and their two young children overcome the language barrier as they bought a $75,000 home on Midheights Road and became pioneers of sorts: They are believed to be the first Latino family to buy a home in Northwest Baltimore's Fallstaff community.
In a city where neighborhoods typically are dominated by a single race, Fallstaff is becoming one of Baltimore's most diverse areas. A growing population of Latinos are putting down roots alongside African-Americans and Jews, prompting adjustments in schools that teach the youngest newcomers.
Latinos in Baltimore typically settle in Fells Point or parts of East Baltimore. But Jose Ruiz, Mayor Martin O'Malley's liaison to the Latino community, said jobs for unskilled labor and cheap housing are drawing some to Fallstaff. And as more move in, others make plans to come.
"The best way to explain it is, as a Latino, if I were looking to move into a neighborhood, I would want to go where other Latinos are," said Ruiz. "It's word of mouth. I move in and then my brother moves in and that's how it happens."
You couldn't tell from the most recent census figures for the area, because most Latino families did not fill out the survey in 2000, city officials said, but their numbers are growing in Fallstaff. Most live in an area between Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road, south of Fallstaff Road.
"It's evident just in the number of Latino families looking for housing in the area and enrolling their children in the local public schools there," said Tony Bridges of the mayor's Office of Neighborhoods.
Cross Country Elementary School has 70 Latino pupils this school year, up from 14 in 2000, according to state education figures. The school now has two full-time faculty who teach English as a second language and a Latino vice principal who sometimes helps in the classrooms.
"Many of them come with no English skills, especially when it is the first sibling, because they are not exposed to English in their homes," said Cross Country ESL teacher Rachel Perjansky.
"In families where there are multiple siblings, the children with older siblings come to us with a little more English," she said, "because as the older children progress through school they learn more and share the English at home."
Perjansky said the Latino children are having a cross-cultural effect on the other pupils and teachers. Other pupils now want to learn Spanish and some teachers use Spanish words or phrases to help the Latino children feel more comfortable in class.
Baltimore City Community College teaches English to two classes of adult immigrants twice a week. The free classes meet during evenings at Fallstaff Middle School but the emphasis is not so much on conjugating verbs and understanding pronouns, said program director Meintje Westerbeek.
"We try to give them English skills that they will need every day," Westerbeek said. "They need to be able to fill out a job application, they need to be able to spell their name correctly and give an address and answer questions like, if they have children or not."
During class last week, instructor Marita Hartman paired her students and had them read an apartment guide so that they could learn how to go about finding a place to live.
"Who can tell me what a lease is?" Hartman asked. No one knew. But by the end of the exercise, the class understood a lease, security deposit and what abbreviations such as BR (bedroom) and BTH (bathroom) mean.
Giant Food is reaching out with plans to open a larger grocery store in the area that will carry an expanded line of merchandise specifically for Latino people, said Barry F. Scher, Giant's vice president of public affairs.
Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., more commonly known as CHAI, is an influential nonprofit Jewish organization in Fallstaff that promotes home ownership as a way of stabilizing a community. CHAI took notice of the influx of Latinos two years ago and hired Lucy Brigman as its Spanish-speaking liaison to assist Latino families.
Aryeh Goetz, director of home ownership for CHAI, said it was an easy decision to reach out to the Latino population.
"We're not talking about integrating cultures, we're just talking about understanding each other's culture and being respectful," he said. "If we're going to be neighbors then we're all in this together, so let's talk and get along."
Goetz added that if Latinos struggled to find housing, it could potentially be a drain on the prosperity of the entire community. To that end, Goetz is trying to force landlords to clean up and fix the slum-like conditions of some of the homes that he says Latinos are being rented.
CHAI works with about 70 Latino families, from countries that include El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Its most ambitious effort has been to live up to its stated purpose and identify a Latino family that it could help purchase a home.
Brigman had met the Villaltas during alley cleanups and neighborhood get-togethers and thought they'd be good candidates.
"I recruited this family because they had a stable income and no debt and they are trying to raise a family," Brigman said.
Obidio Villalta works at a restaurant on Reisterstown Road. His wife sometimes works but mainly stays home with 4-year-old Joel and 2-year-old Ana.
CHAI found a home, walked the family through credit screenings and the pre-approval process and found financial assistance to help with their down payment. Then Brigman sat with the family when they went to closing. CHAI also gave the family money to make some repairs and updates to their new home. The Villaltas pay their own mortgage.
And Brigman was there when Obidio Villalta got his letter from the mortgage company -- it merely explained who holds the loan. The Villaltas call on Brigman all the time now. But it wasn't like that at first, when Brigman had to convince the reluctant family they could buy a home.
"It was hard because there was no trust," Brigman said. "Latinos who haven't been in this country too long don't trust a lot of things. And I had so many personal questions I needed them to answer. So I had to show them the numbers and take a lot of time with them. It was hard."
Brigman earned their trust and now other Latino families in Fallstaff want Brigman to help them buy homes.
"I'm very happy, I have a future for my kids," Ana Villalta said through Brigman's translation.
"Being a renter, no matter what I do to make the place nice, it wasn't mine. But being a home owner, I can fix it up nice and it will be mine."