Parishes branch out to give Hispanic immigrants a break 25 find work at last in Christmas tree lots

November 30, 1991|By Ginger Thompson and John Rivera

Not too long ago, Victorino Curup, a 31-year-old immigrant from a small town in the Guatemalan highlands, faced a bleak holiday season.

Unemployed, he spoke so little English that he was turned down for a job at a Lexington Market vegetable stand. Then he learned work was available through a church in Canton.

"In our situation as Hispanics who can't speak English, it is very difficult," Mr. Curup said in Spanish. "In certain situations, you have to know the basics of English to work."

Today, Mr. Curup is one of 25 Hispanic immigrants hired to work at seven Christmas tree lots that opened this week on Episcopal Church lots across the Baltimore area.

Many of the immigrants speak little or no English, have had little contact with Americans and have not been able to find any other jobs.

The tree-selling scheme is the brainchild of John Schmidt, a 35-year-old member of the Rev. Miguel Vilar's parish in East Baltimore.

"It's not a cause. It's something that has to be done," said Mr. Schmidt. "These people need to work. They need to learn English. They need to learn that Americans don't bite. And we need to learn that they don't bite."

Mr. Schmidt, an entrepreneur who has been involved in various eclectic ventures throughout his life, ran Christmas tree lots in San Francisco several years ago and suggested the idea to Mr. Vilar, with hopes of raising at least $50,000 for the ministry.

Half of the profits from the sale of the trees -- which range in price from $18 to $90 -- will go to help Mr. Vilar in his efforts to obtain legal residency, housing and jobs for hundreds of Baltimore's Hispanics.

"Right now my ministry is a one-man show," said Mr. Vilar, who works out of a cubicle-sized office in the basement of the Chapel of the Holy Evangelist in Canton. "I don't think that's very good. And the demand on my time is growing fast, but my budget is growing slowly."

The 1990 census counts Baltimore's Hispanic population at a little more than 7,500, but Mr. Vilar calls that number "a joke."

He estimates that there are more than 30,000 Hispanics here, many of whom have fled civil and economic upheavals in their homelands.

Mr. Vilar said he also plans to use proceeds from the Christmas tree sales to start a 24-hour telephone referral service called "Ayudeme," which means "Help me" in Spanish. The line would be staffed by one paid person and several volunteers who would listen to callers' problems and refer them to attorneys, social workers, doctors, employers and landlords.

In the days before the lots opened, the workmen spent long days making preparations in the parish basement. Several sat around wooden tables, forming the long strings of lights used to illuminate the lots. Others chopped wood to make hundreds of tree stands.

As they worked, they spoke of the difficulties they had adjusting to a culture where the language, the customs and the lifestyle are so different from their hometowns in Latin America.

"It's strange when people pass by and you don't know them," said Mr. Curup, who has lived in Baltimore for two years and comes from San Rey Mundo, a town in the mountainous western part of Guatemala. "It's not like in my town, where you know everyone who passes by."

Many of the men hope their jobs selling Christmas trees will lead to other employment opportunities. Mr. Schmidt wants to continue the enterprise after the Christmas season by contracting janitorial jobs for the men, who will work in teams similar to those that will run the various tree lots.

The tree-selling enterprise has received a positive response from many of Mr. Vilar's colleagues.

"I'm doing it because I want to support [Mr. Vilar's] work," said the Rev. Phebe Coe, pastor of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton, where one of the Christmas tree lots will be located. "I didn't give it a second thought. He is an outstanding priest and his work is very important."

The lots will be located at parishes in Pikesville, Odenton, Monkton, Roland Park, Carney, Woodlawn and Canton and will operate until Dec. 23.

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