Spanish charity's English grows by word of mouth Language: Baltimore's Spanish Apostolate serves needy immigrants whoever and from wherever they may be.

April 14, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

There's a large map up on the wall of the Spanish Apostolate. It's one of those strategic-looking things war-room generals favor, a projection of the Earth with little wedge-shaped flags spread like sprinkles on a cake.

Ivory Coast is flagged, so are Nepal and India. There's a flag in Slovakia, an old country with a new name. Even turbulent Albania has a flag.

Could a hand-to-mouth charity operation such as the Spanish Apostolate really have such global reach? Does it deploy agents in all those foreign countries, like the Catholic Relief Services?

In fact, it's just the opposite. These flags denote the countries from which students have come to the modest premises of this charity so peculiar to Baltimore.

The Apostolate was set up 34 years ago by the Associated Catholic Charities to service Baltimore's then-minuscule Hispanic population. Since then, that population has grown dramatically, even as the city's as a whole has declined. Students from every country in Latin America have trooped through the Apostolate primarily to learn English -- or not, depending on their diligence. Nearly every country in this hemisphere is represented by a flag on the Apostolate map.

That is a fact, of course, which clearly fits the Apostolate's mission: to help immigrant Hispanics by offering social services, medical and legal, help finding jobs -- but mainly by teaching them English.

But all these others? What do Poles and Albanians and Chinese have to do with such a place?

The answer's not hard. Don't Polish immigrants have the same linguistic needs as newly arrived Hispanics? Of course. And always have.

So the flags prove a maxim of good old American capitalism: Offer a good service and clients will come. Especially if it's free. And since the Apostolate moved to its current quarters at 430 S. Broadway last July, word of that service has reached Baltimore's Chinese community.

On any given day, 25 to 30 students arrive for English instruction. Currently the four Chinese students are the largest contingent of non-Hispanics.

Rosa Azcarate, who coordinates the volunteers (those who teach and provide other services), remembered only an occasional Chinese student dropping in at the old Wolfe Street headquarters. The Broadway premises are a little more polished. They have rugs.

"I think the Chinese started coming here because now they are close to us," said Azcarate. "There is a restaurant nearby where they work."

There has never been any thought of turning the non-Hispanics away, despite budget pressures.

"We couldn't do that," Azcarate says, as if the thought were physically distasteful. "It's hard for us.But it's harder for them. They are good students. They really like it here."

Learning English, a language notorious for its inconsistencies, is difficult for Spanish speakers, whose language has more predictability, and is phonetic. But the two tongues do share many cognate words, derived from Latin. These are words that appear in similar form in both English and Spanish, and in other Romance languages, like French, Italian, Portuguese, even Romanian.

Inventor, petroleo, monotono, whose meanings are self-evident, are good examples.

These words are spelled the same or similarly in English and Spanish, mean the same thing, and are only pronounced differently. There are thousands of them.

The Chinese students do not enjoy this head start, so to speak. There are few words in Chinese and English that mean and sound the same.

But, as Azcarate said, the Chinese students are determined. They show up every day, and are growing more comfortable among the Hispanics. One of them, a young man from Shanghai who wants to start up an export-import business and make a quick million, recently approached one of the female staff and tried a little flirting.

"You are a pretty woman with big eyes," he said.

A good line. Trouble is, he said it in Spanish.

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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