Latinos Carve A Niche In City

May 14, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

East Baltimore's growing Latino community, moving beyond its base in upper Fells Point, is giving new life to a vacant storefront north of Patterson Park and to a one-time bowling alley in Highlandtown.

The city's first Latino community center, Centro de la Comunidad, will occupy the storefront at 2720 Pulaski Highway, near the Patterson Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The building's inauguration is set for 3 p.m. today.

About 20 blocks to the southeast, the Rev. Angel Nunez has found a home for his Spanish Christian Church, at 417 S. Eaton St. in Highlandtown, after years of leasing space in other churches. An opening ceremony is scheduled for May 21.

The moves reflect an increasing Latino presence in areas of East Baltimore away from traditional settlements near Broadway and Eastern Avenue.

"Spanish-speaking people are coming to Baltimore like flies to honey," Mr. Nunez said.

Just how many Latinos live in East Baltimore is anybody's guess. The 1990 census counted 7,602 Hispanics in the city, but the same census -- based on a more intensive sample of households -- reported that 12,127 people over 5 years old lived in homes where Spanish was the primary language.

Community advocates estimate the city's Latino population at 15,000 to 30,000, including what Haydee Rodriguez, the mayor's liaison for Hispanic affairs, called "tremendous growth" since the census was taken. Most live east of Broadway.

Both the community center's board and Mr. Nunez's congregation typify the diverse mix of Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, South Americans and others who make up the city's Latino community.

It is a community that ranges from upper-middle-class professionals who are U.S. citizens to poorly educated farmworkers who are recent, illegal immigrants.

Bill Villanueva, a businessman who presides over the community center's board, is a transplanted "Neoyorican" whose Puerto Rican father was a longshoreman on the New York docks. The center's spokeswoman, lawyer Patricia M. Tasher, is a Peruvian Jew whose father fled Nazi Germany. The

board is composed largely of Latino professionals.

With a $50,000 city grant, the group has bought the former used-furniture store on Pulaski Highway, ending a nearly four-year effort to establish a center. Now the group seeks foundation grants and individual donations to hire staff.

The organizers plan to set up a one-stop, storefront referral service where Latinos can get help with education, housing, health care, and other needs.

"We're here to serve the community, not from a paternalistic standpoint, but to teach Latinos how to assimilate, move forward and prosper," Mr. Villanueva said.

Organizers insist the center will complement -- not compete with -- the work of the 30-year-old Spanish Apostolate, a Catholic agency that offers English classes and other services in upper Fells Point, and a handful of small, evangelical churches.

Mr. Nunez has taken a hands-on approach to social activism during the past four and a half years as pastor of the Spanish Christian Church by running food and clothing banks out of his rowhouse basement.

Once a teen-age South Bronx drug dealer, the 38-year-old minister travels the country to preach about how God has changed his life and he walks the streets of East Baltimore to promote harmony among ethnic groups.

Now the Pentecostal pastor will house his programs in a 7,000-square-foot former bowling alley and clothing warehouse. His 100-member congregation raised $150,000 to buy the one-story brick structure north of Eastern Avenue, and they are putting $50,000 into renovations.

Church members have sold baked goods and have held yard sales. Architects and tradespeople have donated their talents. And one memorable day in November an anonymous donor handed an envelope stuffed with $10,000 cash in the pastor's front door.

Mr. Nunez views his church as helping to unite the community.

"We have become bilingual," he said. "I have African-Americans, Anglos and a diverse group of Hispanics -- Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Mexicans -- I can go down the list."

Activists with the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative, a nonprofit group trying to revitalize the area north of the park, welcome the eastern drift of the Latino population. They hope the newcomers will become homeowners.

"The ultimate goal is to create a stable, multicultural neighborhood," said Deb Kleiner, the group's marketing coordinator.

"Instead of the Us vs. Them feeling that can occur if it's strictly a black-white issue, when you've got a real mixture, people tend to feel less antagonistic," she said.

A Latino couple, Luis and Mirtha Simbala, he from Ecuador and she from Cuba, have become a neighborhood success story.

After renting near Patterson Park for nine years, they have bought a three-bedroom Clinton Street rowhouse. The neighborhood group helped pay closing costs.

After her husband had surgery two years ago that wiped out their savings, Mrs. Simbala had despaired of buying a house. But she read a pamphlet on the neighborhood group's homeownership program and decided to give it a try.

Now the couple pays only $75 a month more (including property tax and insurance) for a home of their own than they use to pay in rent. The new house is more spacious and it's closer to their 11-year-old son's middle school.

"I feel like I'm in a palace," said Mrs. Simbala, 49, a data entry operator.

Mrs. Simbala hopes the community center will guide other Spanish-speakers to similar chances to improve their lives.

"I never thought we would be able to buy a house, and here it is. The opportunity is there," she said.

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