Miguel Angel Rivera is still pained by the thought of a walk he took three years ago in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador. A young boy cried hysterically as a stranger dragged him by his arms.
"His mother has given him to me," the stranger told Rivera.
The boy's mother, who said she could not afford to feed her child, had given away four of her seven children, Rivera said.
A native of El Salvador, Rivera returned to his home in Randallstown and decided to do something. He rounded up several Salvadoran friends and founded La Fundacion Pro Ayuda Para Nuestras Generaciones 14 de Julio (The Foundation to Help our Generations July 14).
Since 1988, the organization has sent an estimated $24,000 in medical supplies, food, clothing and other humanitarian aid to the survivors of the decade-old civil war.
Early today, more than 100 Salvadorans, mostly restaurants workers at the end of a 13-hour day, celebrated the organization'sthird anniversary in the basement of St. Mark's-on-the-Hill Episcopal Church in Pikesville.
It was a bittersweet four-hour celebration. They danced and laughed They remembered the families they left behind in the midst of a U.S.-supported war that has killed an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans.Photographs of children, their legs blown away by land mines, hung from the walls.
Confronted with a culture they do not understand and a language they do not speak, the Salvadorans here said they take jobs as dishwashers and cooks in local restaurants, earning as little as $30 daily for 13 hours of work. They said they are abused verbally. One man said his boss sometimes pulls a handgun and threatens him.
"Who do you report this to?" he asked.
The Salvadorans are employed in many area restaurants. Cultural differences and language barriers often result in tension between the workers and their employers.
"There are many abuses," said Rivera, who himself works as a waiter. "There are insults. Threats. No days off. We need to find a way to have their rights respected. They have no rights."
Most of the Salvadorans entered the Unites States illegally, completing the hazardous crossing of the U.S.-Mexican border. Since then, some have registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service under temporary protective status, which bars authorities from deporting them for 18 months while U.S. officials evaluate human rights conditions in El Salvador.
They are scattered throughout the area. There are more than 15,000 Hispanics in Baltimore and Baltimore County, according to the 1990 census. But advocates, noting that many avoid being lTC counted or are missed by census takers, say the area's Hispanic population is about 40,000 and growing.
Once a month, a small group of Salvadorans meet at St. Mark's-on-the-Hill. All are Roman Catholics but they worship in an Episcopal church, which they said has opened its doors to them.
The Rev. Robert Stucky, rector of the Pikesville church, speaks fluent Spanish and offers a Saturday service for the Salvadorans, said the local religious community is "doing next to nothing for the Hispanics."
But the church, said many of the Salvadorans at today's celebration, is the one place where they feel at home.
"Here we are like a family," said Juan Romero Cruz, 26, recently unemployed. "They have opened their doors and their hearts to us."
At the party, many of the men flocked around the Rev. Elias Lobo Rivera, a young Roman Catholic priest from the Salvadoran state ofSan Miguel. San Miguel was home to most of the 1,500 Salvadorans who advocates say live in the Baltimore area.
The priest, visiting relatives in Baltimore, reported news from loved ones. He said there was hope of a cease-fire and urged them to continue sending help. "The help from the U.S. government goes to the wrong cause," he said.
Since 1979, the United States has spent more than $1 billion for military aid to Salvadoran armed forces besieged by a Marxist guerrilla insurgency.
"We are on no one's side," said Cruz. "That is why we came to this country."
Max Portillo, 22, served on the side of the national armed forces. He went into the army when he was 16. With 10 days to go before completing his two-year tour of duty, his body stopped four guerrilla bullets.
Under the cover of darkness, he slipped into California from Mexico 11 months ago. Now he works in a junk yard. "I didn't want to fight any more," he said.
Santo Vidal Rivera, 34, took the same route into America. That was 22 months ago. He left behind his 26-year-old wife and his four children, ages 3 to 10.
"I'm desperate to see them," he says.
As the music played and couples danced early today, Juan Cruz stared into the night sky.