Latin Immigrants Escape From Turmoil Back Home

June 09, 1991|By Paul Shread | Paul Shread,Staff writer

Each morning a truck pulls up in front of a run-down apartment building in Annapolis to collect workers for construction jobs.

Juan, 17, leaves the tiny apartment he shares with seven other people and climbs into the truck. He earns about $7 an hour under the table working odd jobs at construction sites.

The work is hard, but his pay is better than his relatives get for washing dishes in local restaurants. He is isolated in a country where no one speaks his language, but he is happy here. Here, he does not have to worry about la guerra -- the civil war that has divided his native El Salvador for more than a decade.

Juan probably would be wearing a soldier's uniform had he stayed in El Salvador. The government comes to claim young boys for the army when they are 12 years old.

His mother, Barbina, just returned to El Salvador to pick up two more of her children. The journey will take three weeks and will cost $10,000, all the money the family has saved since coming to the United States five years ago. Barbina worked three jobs to save the money. Still, she will have to leave two other children behind with herparents.

Juan's family is one of several from El Salvador living in the Annapolis apartment building. They live as many as 10 to an apartment. They pay about $500 a month to live in the tiny, two-bedroomapartments. There are holes in the walls and the plumbing leaks. There was no heat for three weeks last winter.

Most of Annapolis' Hispanic population lives in the same area. About half have paid $170 for a work permit to be here legally. They came to the area because relatives told them there was work here. Most earn about $5 an hour as dish washers.

They have endured hardships and injustice to live here. They have been taken advantage of because they do not understand the language and customs of a strange land. They have been afraid to speak out for fear the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service will deport those who are not here legally.

Gabriel and Nanda and their four children left a farm in El Salvador for an apartment they share with another family. They miss the beautiful countryside in El Salvador, but in Annapolis, "You don't have to worry about getting shot when you go outside," Gabriel said through an interpreter.

Nanda holds up a yellowed newspaper clipping taken from a leftist newspaper. There is a photo of four government soldiers. Nanda said the soldiers killed her aunt and uncle and their three children. They were shot in the family store, murdered for $4,000.

Patti Brodie, the interpreter, has been volunteering her time to work with the families since she moved to Annapolis two years ago. Brodie estimates the size of Annapolis' Hispanic community at 400 people. Most are Salvadoran. An estimated 800,000 Salvadorans have fled their country during the past decade. Fifteen percent of that country's population now lives in the United States and Canada.

"They need each other," Brodie said."That's all they've got. If something goes wrong, they stick together."

But sometimes, that's not enough, especially for the illegals.

A young pregnant woman walked to a local restaurant every day to stand in a hot kitchen and wash dishes. The owner paid her with a badcheck for $1,000. When Brodie went with the woman to collect her money, the owner refused to pay, saying the woman "shouldn't be here anyway."

A man bought a car from a local dealer that apparently was stolen. Brodie tried to register the car for the man, but the numbers on the car didn't match with any on file at the state Motor Vehicle Administration. The dealer left town soon after, and the man was stuckwith the car.

Brodie has been unable to obtain social services for the families, because she said agencies inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they find illegal aliens. She plans to start a non-profit referral service to help Hispanics in Anne Arundel County.

"I just want justice for these people," she said. "It doesn'tmatter whether they're legal or illegal. They should be treated fairly."

The language barrier is the biggest problem the families face. Brodie went with one man to the MVA to help him with the computers the agency uses to administer driver's license tests. The MVA refusedto let Brodie help the man because they said she might help him cheat. The agency has no Spanish-speaking interpreters, Brodie said.

Some of the Hispanics have enrolled in English language courses, but the courses cost money and it takes a long time to learn a new language.

For Brodie, 42, helping the families has become a personal crusade. Born Patricia Archuletta in Pueblo, Colo., she watched her parents endure discrimination she vowed she would never tolerate.

"My parents had such a rough time," she said. "They were always being taken advantage of. It's not that they were stupid. There was a language barrier."

She became involved with Annapolis' Hispanic community when she volunteered as an interpreter at a local health clinic. It took a long time to earn their trust, but they now view her as a familymember. They call her their "Eagle who is strong." Brodie translatestheir letters and helps them with phone and utility service. She hastaught them to use answering machines and has delivered eight babies.

The success stories keep her going. Jose came to the United States from Mexico several years ago. He is learning English and soon will become a permanent resident. He is a cook at a highly regarded county restaurant. He has helped many other Hispanics settle in Annapolis.

"I'm really proud of him," Brodie said. "Stories like that make it all worthwhile."

Anyone wishing to donate to the Hispanic referral service can send a check to Patti Brodie, P.O. Box 70, McLean, Va. 22101.

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