Members of the county's Hispanic community have lived in isolation for years, so when the chance came for them to be heard, they didn't let it pass.
Two hundred crowded a church meeting room Wednesday night to tell city and county officials of their hardships and fears.
The response was so overwhelming, it persuaded officials to step up their efforts to help them.
"It reinforced our contention that these people are out there and they need assistance," said Emily Green, director of the Mayor's Office of Community Services and SubstanceAbuse. "It's very exciting. There will be a lot more to come."
About 90 percent of those who turned out for the meeting at Mount OliveAME Church in Annapolis were from war-torn El Salvador; others came from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
They told 25 representatives of social service agencies about difficulties they face. They have been taken advantage of and victimized. They haven't reported crimes to police because of the language barrier, and they fear that those here illegally will be deported.
They said a lack of public transportation makes it difficult for them to get to and from work. The city provided bus service for the forum.
When asked if they wantedto learn English, nearly everyone raised a hand.
Green, who organized the event with county Human Relations Officer Adrian Wiseman, said eight people at the meeting volunteered to teach English to Hispanic residents. Seventeen translators have volunteered their skills to help Spanish-speaking residents.
Lt. Gary Simpson, head of public affairs for the Annapolis Police Department, said the department willwork with Hispanic residents to educate them and to provide better police protection in their neighborhoods. Two Spanish-speaking officers will work with representative groups of five to six residents each.
"Some of these people may be political refugees, so they're goingto be wary, but if we get together, we can work on fostering trust and understanding," Simpson said.
Hispanic residents have an advocate on the city's Human Relations Commission. Marianela Sargent, an interpreter for the state court system who ran Wednesday's meeting, wasappointed to the commission last week by Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins.
She vowed to be active in support of Hispanic residents.
"It's nice to see them united and supportive of each other," Sargent said.
Green said city and county efforts will first focus on getting everyone registered. "Then we can get down to more basic things, like health and education," Green said.
Officials will hold another forum Sept. 10, with representatives of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Salvadorans have until Oct. 31 to register to be herelegally. The INS has a toll-free recorded information line in English, Spanish and Creole.
The number is (800) 755-0777.
According to the U.S. Census, 6,815 Hispanic residents live in Anne Arundel County, about 1.6 percent of the total population; 483 of them live in Annapolis, about 1.5 percent of the total. But local officials say thepopulation may be 25 percent higher than the census count.
Most Hispanic residents in Annapolis are from El Salvador. They came because relatives told them there was work here. An estimated 800,000 Salvadorans have fled their country during the last decade. Fifteen percent of that country's population now lives in the United States and Canada.
Green said the forum's biggest achievement may be that Hispanic residents no longer feel they have to hide.
"Now they feel welcome and comfortable enough to come out," she said.