POINT LOOKOUT -- On this jagged peninsula where thousands of Confederate soldiers met their deaths, the air is thick with the smell of charcoal and marinated beef. Soccer balls whiz past colorful hammocks. Several adults dressed head-to-toe in white stand on a rocky beach waiting to be born again -- baptized in the warm waters of the Potomac River.
And everyone is speaking Spanish.
Point Lookout State Park, once a Civil War prison camp, has evolved into a retreat for Latin American immigrants, many of them from El Salvador. The map might call it Southern Maryland, but on summer weekends, this slice of land where the Potomac meets the Chesapeake Bay looks more like a Salvadoran beach. Spanish becomes the principal language, soccer is the main sport and carne asada replaces the hot dog as the perfect picnic meal.
"All you see here is pure El Salvador, everywhere," said Johanna Cruz, a native Salvadoran who visited the park on a recent Sunday from her home in Bowie. "Everyone's here."
Immigrants aren't new to Point Lookout -- the park was popular with Asian-Americans during the mid-1990s, and its proximity to Washington has made it a stop for many other ethnic groups. But the influx of immigrants from El Salvador, a country about the size of Massachusetts, is a recent phenomenon, created by word of mouth.
"Once people start talking about a place to go, it will spread like wildfire throughout the community," said Kim Propeack, a community organizer for CASA de Maryland, a Hispanic advocacy group, who was surprised on a recent visit to find so many Salvadorans at the park.
Point Lookout is not the largest or the closest waterfront destination for the Hispanic picnickers, most of whom live in the Washington suburbs. But unlike Ocean City, its shores aren't full of immodestly clad sunbathers who might distract from a baptism. Its trees are perfect for hanging hammocks, something many Salvadoran natives say they can't do outside their townhouses.
And it is one of few places where Salvadorans, some of whom endured treacherous border crossings to escape poverty, can relive the pleasures of home -- a coastal view, friendly surroundings and the ability to be understood in their own language.
El Salvador is the largest single source of Spanish-speaking immigrants to Maryland, with nearly 42,000 Salvadorans (out of 176,000 Latin American immigrants) calling the state home, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.
Challenge for staff
Point Lookout staff estimate that thousands of Spanish speakers come to the park on summer weekends. Though state officials say they're thrilled that the new immigrants have discovered this park and others, they acknowledge that the Hispanic infusion has been challenging for the cash-strapped parks service.
A bilingual Department of Natural Resources employee was helping write signs in Spanish for some of the state's 48 parks, but she recently retired and has not been replaced. Nearly all the department's recent hires have been seasonal employees who live in rural areas near the parks, and most don't speak Spanish.
The state legislature passed a law two years ago requiring agencies to translate vital documents into any language spoken by more than 3 percent of those using the agency. Spanish qualifies; 4 percent of Marylanders speak it. But the law is being phased in and won't apply to DNR until next year.
Point Lookout has one employee who speaks Spanish fluently -- parks service associate Christy Bright, who studied in Venezuela during college. When she was hired five years ago to help run the nature center, Bright says, no one asked her about the Spanish abilities listed on her resume. And the Reisterstown native didn't have many occasions to use it until three years ago, when rangers called on her for translation during an emergency.
Since then, Bright has been the park's de facto translator. Among her duties: telling new immigrants to throw back a just-caught fish that complex regulations deem too big or small; explaining that a newly purchased international driver's license is a fake; and reminding visitors that they can remain in the park after dusk only if they are fishing. Several times, she has told crowds watching a baptism to step back because they block the lifeguards' view.
With her interpretive skills, Bright said, "we can solve major problems before they become major problems."
For more simple matters, like when police have to write a ticket, Bright has developed a card with Spanish phrases such as "What's your address?" and "When were you born?" She has also made Spanish signs explaining the parking rules.
Maj. John W. Norbeck, who manages the state parks north of Baltimore, has enlisted his Spanish-speaking daughter to make signs explaining that the parks have no garbage cans and people should take their cans and wrappers home.
Norbeck, who says the parks at Gunpowder Falls, Elk Neck and Point of Rocks are becoming popular with Spanish speakers from Lancaster, Pa., says finding bilingual staffers is "not as easy as we had hoped." Fortunately, he said, many of the immigrants' children speak English.
"It's definitely different. But as far as different being a problem, I don't think we've experienced that," he said, adding, "They really know how to picnic."
Picnic hot spot
That's true at Point Lookout, where the smell of spicy beef envelops the beach and so many cars arrive that the park has twice this summer been forced to turn people away. A recent Sunday crowd included two young women who had been in the United States for a week and had just caught their first Maryland crab; several teens enjoying a last vacation before school; and a prayer group from the Pentecostal Church of God International Movement in Washington.
The crowds gathered according to the region of El Salvador that they call home -- San Vicente, San Miguel and La Union being the largest groups. But when a church leader strummed a Spanish melody on his guitar -- "He'll come back for us, a second time" -- everyone joined in.
Josue Carranza, who'd been playing soccer in the San Vicente area, stopped. He sat in a hammock with his wife, Nada, and sister, Anna, and the three sang along to a hymn.
"I remember my country," said Anna Carranza, who manages a Mexican restaurant in Reston, Va. "We used to go to church every Sunday and sing."
"In my country, we have a place like this," Josue Carranza said. "I don't remember the name of it, but this place is similar."
After more prayers, church members passed around a palm tree purse to collect donations, then followed Pastor Iluminada Gomez to the water. In the Pentecostal Salvadoran tradition, the faithful choose to be baptized after age 12, when they are old enough to understand what service to God means.
A half-dozen members of Gomez's church immersed themselves in the river to a chorus of accented "hallelujahs." One man said he'd been clean from drugs for three months; another said it was time to welcome God back into his life.
Most of the Salvadorans have not toured the park's historic sites, among them a cemetery with a monument to the more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War's largest Union prisoner of war camp. And while some park officials wish the Hispanic visitors would take an interest in that history, they recognize that the immigrants are creating a story of their own.
"We miss our culture," said Miguel Contreras, 18, who lives in Kensington. "This reminds us of how we really are over there."