Silence reflects the isolation of Baltimore's Hispanic population Churches provide relief from fear and suspicion

May 13, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

Services at the Spanish Christian Church in Southeast Baltimore are typically spirited, with hymns accompanied by tambourines and maracas that stir the 100-member church into a frenzy.

Men in suits hop in the aisle, women lift their hands in the air and sway, and everyone loudly chants praise to God.

But once they leave the church, the group is silent -- just like most of Baltimore's Hispanic community.

Some are poor laborers who work in restaurants or at construction sites. They speak little English, and some are illiterate even in their native Spanish. Many live in this country illegally.

Afraid to seek city services out of a fear of government authority, or for fear of deportation, their increasing numbers are invisible to everyone except those who work with them.

That invisibility also leaves them politically feeble.

"Things are getting desperate," says Paul Osorio, a deacon at St. Michael's Catholic Church, one of a handful of Catholic parishes that offer a weekly Mass in Spanish.

Referring to the violence that erupted in a Latino neighborhood in Washington last week, he said, "If our community continues to suffer, it could explode like an atomic bomb."

"We can provide for people's spiritualneeds, but we don't have the expertise to help them get their everyday needs," he said. "We need leaders who can show us how to organize so that we can get the government assistance we need."

Unlike other large cities, Baltimore has no barrio. Most of the city's Hispanic residents are dispersed throughout Southeast Baltimore -- from row houses in Fells Point to public housing projects in O'Donnell Heights. In those communities there are small Latino-owned businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants and drug stores.

"The census says there are only 7,000 Hispanics in this city, but that is a joke," said the Rev. Angel L. Nunez of the Spanish Christian Church. "Our people are afraid to be counted. They are afraid of the government because they come from countries where if the police or government officials come knocking at your door, then you are never heard from again."

Most of the city's Hispanics are Puerto Ricans, but more and more are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and Spain.

They need help learning English, filling out job applications, seeking legal-resident status or finding affordable housing.

Courses in English as a second language are offered to adults at the New Community College of Baltimore, but the people who need them cannot afford them. Some Hispanics are eligible for social services, but few city social workers speak Spanish. And if Hispanics are victims of crime, many are afraid to call 911.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Committee on Hispanic Affairs is working to get public funds for the creation of a Hispanic Community Center, which would be staffed with Spanish-speaking counselors in social service, employment and housing.

Until such a center is opened, however, Hispanics often turn to the only sanctuary they know -- the church. A handful of ministers have organized free English classes, provided money to assist people who cannot find work and accompanied parishioners in search of jobs or social services.

At La Mision Hispana, an Episcopal congregation that meets in the basement of a church in Highlandtown, the Rev. Miguel Viral registers Salvadoran men for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) every Thursday. The TPS designation allows them to live and work in this country for up to 18 months. But their lives here are far from the prosperity they imagined.

"I look at their lives, and I realize that maybe I don't have it so hard," said Margie Alvarado, a Puerto Rican woman who moved to Baltimore less than a year ago and volunteers with Father Viral by helping the Salvadorans fill out their TPS applications.

The men come here and live together -- about 10 to an apartment," she said. "Some can't sign their names. They sign with an 'X'."

Margarita Lopez had studied extensively at a university in Puerto Rico, but when she moved to Baltimore four years ago, she says, she felt like a "dummy." She and her son and daughter couldn't nTC speak anyEnglish. Fortunately, her children are quick learners.

"To learn English we watched a lot of TV -- especially 'Good Times,' " said 9-year-old Denise Lopez. "It was easy."

Once her children began speaking English, Ms. Lopez said she took her son -- then 8 years old -- with her everywhere as an interpreter.

"He went with me to apply for social services," said Ms. Lopez, a resident of the O'Donnell Heights public housing complex. "He even went with me to court when I was trying to get child support from their father."

On Saturdays, Ms. Lopez's children attend tutoring classes at La Mision Hispana with 50 other children from kindergarten to seventh grade.

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