Maryland Hispanics respond to calls for unity 2-day congress was a local first

February 08, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The recent advertising campaign for Maryland's "el Gordo" lottery angered Carlos Lopez-Rodriguez. The veteran Baltimore schoolteacher said television commercials touting the game contained so many false stereotypes of Hispanics that he found it almost "laughable" that a state agency could portray his minority group in such a poor light.

Yet there was little outcry from Maryland's Hispanics, though many apparently shared his distaste for the promotion. Mr. Lopez-Rodriguez attributed the silence to fragmentation of the state's Hispanic community, with dozens of social clubs representing different nationalities.

That fragmentation may be coming to an end. Maryland's first Hispanic-Latin American Congress ended yesterday at Essex Community College with calls for unity and political and economic "empowerment."

"We have to organize ourselves and fight for our own rights," said Dr. Cuahctemoc Sanchez, a Mexican physician who works at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and heads Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's advisory committee for Hispanic affairs.

More than 180 area residents attending the two-day session discussed and at times debated the needs of Hispanics for better access to education and health care, for help in finding good jobs and housing, and for taking pride in who they are.

"It's important for us to learn that not everything about Hispanics is bad," said Dr. Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner, a University of Maryland pharmacy professor who is from Puerto Rico. "When I first came to this country, it upset me so much that I had an BTC accent. . . . But I came to realize that it's OK because I speak two languages, and most people here do not."

Hispanics have less access to health care than other Americans, yet they are three times as likely to have diabetes and more prone to hypertension and high cholesterol, Dr. Rodriguez said.

The congress was sponsored by the Federation of Hispanic Organizations, which represents 11 of the state's 48 Latin groups.

The meeting was inspired in part by the town meetings that Bill Clinton held during his presidential campaign.

"For us it was an adventure, because Hispanics are so volatile," said Dr. Jose Albornoz, a Baltimore physician who was co-chairman of the congress.

But the debate remained "all very high level," he said, even on such divisive topics as whether Spanish-speaking students should get bilingual instruction in public schools.

On one thing, all agreed -- more English lessons are needed, both for children and adults.

"English is your tool . . . to make it economically. It's your tool to make it politically," said Patricia Tasher, director of the congress and a Baltimore lawyer who was born in Peru.

The number of Hispanics in this country is growing so rapidly that they are destined to become the nation's largest minority group by the year 2013, according to recent U.S. Census projections.

"It's these masses of disadvantaged people that have given us the power, the opportunity to become identified as a group," Ms. Tasher said.

The census tallied about 30,000 Hispanics in the Baltimore area, but those at the congress contended that many recent immigrants were not counted.

In response, one group, the Centro de la Comunidad (Community Center), is working with the United Way of Central Maryland and Johns Hopkins University to survey the local Hispanic community and identify its needs.

Work is also under way to establish a community center for Baltimore-area Hispanics, said Mr. Lopez-Rodriguez, the Centro president.

Those attending the congress, almost all of them professionals and fluent in English, were urged to donate time and money to help recent immigrants and other Hispanics who are less fortunate.

"We want to use America's system to be able to empower ourselves, like any other group, like the Italians, like the Irish, like African-Americans," said William Villanueva, who runs a medical equipment supply business in the Essex area.

Recent controversies over the employment of illegal immigrants as nannies by two of President Clinton's choices for attorney general have cast public attention on a festering problem, said some yesterday.

"America has been the land of opportunity, and is the land of opportunity, for so many. Why is it closed to us?" asked Mr. Villanueva, vice president of Centro.

"No one is illegal in this world," said Javier G. Bustamante, publisher of Coloquio, a locally published Spanish language magazine. "They're undocumented."

He noted there have been 27 Nobel prizes awarded to Hispanics.

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