Hispanic wave splashes across suburbs of D.C.

October 27, 1991|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

HYATTSVILLE -- Odir Arias was 14 and playing soccer in his native Intipuca, El Salvador, when soldiers surrounded the field to "recruit" Odir and his teammates.

Odir was later freed because of his tender age, but the next year he had an even closer call. He was again almost forced into the Salvadoran army while dancing at a party. It was then that Odir's father, supporting the family by working menial jobs in Los Angeles, decided to pay a "coyote" to smuggle his son into the United States.

Now when 18-year-old Odir plays soccer, the field is in Prince George's County, far from Salvadoran soldiers. But his team is still from Intipuca, a town whose young men have been transplanted nearly intact from El Salvador to Maryland's Washington suburbs.

A wave of Hispanic immigrants is imparting a Latin flavor to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which are now home to two-thirds of Maryland's 125,000 Hispanics.

The Hispanic population of the two suburban counties has more than doubled in the past decade -- providing a vast crew of workers for the local economy, straining the resources of county schools and establishing a vibrant Spanish-language subculture from Gaithersburg to Bladensburg.

Visit Heurich Park in Hyattsville on a Sunday and you might be in Latin America. Half the park is Mexico: A baseball game pits Veracruz vs. Puebla.

The other half is El Salvador: Los Estudiantes de la Plata face Gaithersburg on the soccer field. A handful of vendors sell beef tacos seasoned with cilantro, onion and chili to both crowds.

Unlike earlier immigrants, the newly arrived Latin Americans -- largely Salvadorans, disproportionately young men -- no longer necessarily check in first at big-city ethnic enclaves before moving to the suburbs. Many, like Odir Arias, follow family or friends directly to a room in Mount Rainier, a high-rise apartment in Langley Park or a split-level rental in Wheaton.

But suburban life for Latinos often resembles "The Children of Sanchez" more than "The Simpsons." Central American and Mexican immigrants work long hours at low-paying jobs to scrape up dollars to send to families left behind; they live tripled up in sparely furnished apartments or basements; they forgo medical care for lack of health insurance; they confront constant language and cultural barriers, and often fear deportation. Their only recreation may be the Sunday soccer game or a six-pack of beer.

"It's a whole underclass having a very difficult time existing," said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Salvadoran-born Montgomery County school board member. "We have a potential of more Mount Pleasant situations arising in our counties," she said, referring to Hispanic rioting in Washington in May.

Henry Melendez, a 33-year-old Salvadoran, waits for work daily at a Silver Spring 7-Eleven whose parking lot has become the unofficial hiring hall for young Hispanic workers.

"Sometimes I get one day of work a week, sometimes I don't get any," he said.

"Because we're in the United States, people at home think we have money. That's a lie. The situation here is too bad."

"It seems that we're back in Mexico," said Fortunata Bravo, 75, selling tacos one Sunday at Heurich Park. "There is no work, and everything is very expensive."

Her son, Alberto F. Vargas, 43, brought his family to Hyattsville after years picking cucumbers out West, driving a cab in New York and finishing concrete in Maryland.

"Economically, Mexico is bad," Mr. Vargas said. "Here, sometimes we're all right economically, but spiritually we're bad off because people look down at us.

"I'm tempted to go back to Mexico," he said, "but I want to be in a strong economic position, my children were born here. . . . As the Mexican song says, 'You're going and you're going and you're never gone.' "

Carlos Morales, a 35-year-old Nicaraguan accountant, works 72 hours a week running a Latin American grocery in Wheaton. He left Nicaragua seven years ago when the Sandinista government was at the height of its power. He fully intended to return someday.

"Now the government has changed, but I don't want to go," Mr. Morales said.

"If you work hard, if you are honest, you can have success here."

However, few new immigrants are well-educated, like Mr. Morales, and fewer still come from their countries' elite, like Mrs. Gutierrez, an aerospace systems engineer from Chevy Chase whose father was a Harvard-educated diplomat. Adult newcomers are often illiterate in their native Spanish; children from war-scarred countries may never have gone to school. Few of the children, even those born to immigrant parents in the United States,knows any English at first.

As a result, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs have mushroomed. ESOL enrollment has roughly doubled in the past five years in the Montgomery and Prince George's public schools. Of nearly 10,000 ESOL students last year, about half were Hispanic.

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