Arundel's changing Hispanics Barriers increase for newer arrivals

September 12, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Vincente Ortiz, then a linguist with Army intelligence at Fort Meade, bought a house in Odenton in 1965. He and his family were the first nonwhites on the block.

"I found out five years later that some of the neighbors got together and were trying to decide if they were going to let us move in," said the native Puerto Rican.

The neighbors did nothing, and the Ortiz family moved in without incident; integration simply involved their neighbors getting to know them.

Mr. Ortiz, 69, typifies Arundel's established Hispanic community. is a state employee with a college degree, speaks flawless English and lives in a solidly middle-class community -- where his minority status is noted only at census time.

"We don't have a block where all the Hispanics live," he says. "But with the new immigrants coming to Annapolis, you're beginning to see the blocks. And the reason is probably because the people don't know the English language. They look to each other, and they try to stay together."

Anne Arundel's established Hispanic community has for years been invisible, spread out. But that has started to change, due to a new breed of immigrants -- often the victims of violence in Central America or poverty in Mexico -- who are largely poorer, still struggling with English and less intent on assimilating into the surrounding culture.

Drawn together by national ties and the solidarity of their language, they tend to seek out affordable housing in apartment complexes such as Admiral Heights, Spa Cove and Allen Apartments, all in Annapolis. Another Hispanic pocket occupies apartments in Southgate.

Unlike Mr. Ortiz, many of these newer Hispanic residents say they experience prejudice from employers, and among neighbors with whom communication is difficult.

"We have a lot of discrimination here," said Luis Obregon, a native of Colombia who moved to Annapolis from New York eight months ago. An experienced carpenter who speaks English with an accent, he has not been able to find work in six months. "And every day I call four, five, six, 10 guys. But I never get an answer."

"On the job there is a lot of discrimination," agreed Mario Rivas, a Salvadoran resident of the Allen Apartments who speaks little English and works as a hotel maintenance man. "If you don't speak English, there is discrimination. If you don't speak English, you have many problems."

The community by numbers

Finding threads that bind together Anne Arundel's Hispanic community is not easy. Census figures from 1990 show a Hispanic population of just over 6,700, less than 2 percent of the county's population. They are young, with a median age of 26 (compared to 33.5 for whites and 29.4 for blacks and Asians). They are comparatively well-educated, with approximately 85 percent of Hispanic adults over 25 years old having at least a high school diploma -- better than any other census group.

They have a median income of $42,169 -- $4,175 higher than the statewide median for Hispanics, $10,399 higher than the county median for blacks and $4,752 lower than the Arundel median for whites.

But some say those numbers are skewed by the large population of Hispanics who have lived in Anne Arundel 25 years or more. Many, like Mr. Ortiz, are Army retirees who had been stationed at Fort Meade. Large numbers still live in the Fort Meade area or in Glen Burnie.

The Hispanic community includes professionals like Dr. Alcides Pinto, head of psychological services at Crownsville State Hospital, a native of Chile who was educated in Spain and arrived in the United States in 1963.

Some are successful businessmen like Richard J. Otero of Annapolis, who founded Lanham-based RJO Enterprises 13 years ago and built it into a communications and software firm that employs 550 people and recorded revenue of more than $52 million last year.

Newer arrivals, however, do not have some of the same advantages. And the influx of Central Americans into the county, especially into Annapolis, caught government officials flat-footed.

"In Anne Arundel County, as of two years ago, there was nothing for Hispanics," said Marianela Sargent, a paralegal who assists Hispanics with immigration. "And I saw that a lot of them were lost, really.

"So, I started knocking on doors, asking, 'Do you have Spanish-speaking people to help?' And a lot of [government agencies] closed the door on me."

But agencies eventually began to respond. In July 1991, Annapolis and county officials -- led by Adrian Wiseman of the county's Human Relations Commission and Emily Green of the city Office of Drug and Alcohol Prevention -- organized a meeting at Mount Olive Baptist Church to hear the needs of the newer arrivals, as well as to ease tensions between the Central Americans and their neighbors.

"There was a problem of a language barrier between the new residents and the older residents," Mr. Wiseman said, admitting that the meeting was "an eye-opener" for he and Ms. Green -- especially when they found communication possible only through interpreters.

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