Hispanic 'Pilgrims' deserve a welcome

August 02, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANGELO SOLERA was 17 when he arrived here alone from Salamanca, Spain. He spoke no English.

He did housework for $2 an hour for a German immigrant who spoke broken English. They got by on hand gestures and nods. He lived in a buddy's apartment in the 2900 block of St. Paul St. and one day took the bus home, only it was the wrong bus, and he found himself utterly lost and unable to ask where he was.

He was scared to death. He looked at street signs and saw one that said: "One Way." He thought that was the name of the street.

Seventeen years later, Solera chuckles at the memory, but it clings to him, a metaphor for those he sees around him in Baltimore, who speak mainly Spanish and struggle not only with a new language, but also with finding a way home, with reaching a sense of belonging, and sometimes the streets all seem marked "One Way."

It's the story of every new wave of immigrants reaching for the American dream, but the numbers in Baltimore are newly remarkable. Solera is the Hispanic community liaison for Baltimore Health Care Access Inc., a bureau of the city Health Department. In the past five years, he says, Baltimore's Latin population has probably quadrupled. He figures it's approaching 50,000 now. Just four years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau figured 39,364 for the entire metro area and 8,685 for the city.

Last week, Solera was lunching at the Caribbean Food Restaurant, 1725 Eastern Ave., Rosa Joseph's cozy little Dominican and Puerto Rican establishment, with Latin music wafting from a cassette player on a shelf. On this one block, between Broadway and South Ann Street, are signs for Eltaquido Mexiciano, the Bodega-Hispana Spanish-American Market, Dios es Amor Iglesia Pentecostal church and the Latin American Connection travel agency.

"Hispanics are the Pilgrims of the '90s," Solera says. He chuckles when he says it, but there's an earnest underlay. The nation's always embracing new immigrants, or holding them at arm's length, and Solera's point is simple: Baltimore should clutch the opportunity that's arrived here and not cringe from a sense of impending trouble.

"We're a work force," he says. "We work. You can look at the unemployment figures, and it doesn't matter what they say, we're working two jobs. We're a labor force. We're a market force. We embrace the family, which is the center of everything for us. And we bring diversity, which is America, right?"

And yet, and yet, he sighs. It is human nature to fear change, and to suspect those who are different. Solera's been here 17 years, and holds an important job with the city, and still, he says, "People ask for my green card. Now, what is that?"

It's anxiety about The Other, which speaks in a strange accent or has a different complexion. It's the prickly mix that keeps America simultaneously anxious and edgy, and fresh and creative. The first-generation immigrants cling nervously to the old ways, while their children reach for the new. And those whose forebears reached here generations ago sometimes wonder, "Why can't they be more like us?" -- until they remember their own family histories, of feeling most comfortable with their own peoplebut wanting to be accepted by those who seem just out of reach.

Solera says Baltimore can avoid the problems other big cities have faced. Look at the Police Department, he says. Only 10 Latinos. Or the Health Department, only two Latin liaisons. And none at City Hall, or in most agencies dealing directly with the public.

"We don't know how to work the system," he says, "so we call for help and there's no one there who understands us. We go to a hospital and sit there for hours waiting for someone who speaks Spanish there. We look for political help, but nobody at City Hall speaks the language.

"From this simple lack of communication, we begin to feel, 'Oh, no, they don't want me here.' But that's all we want, to feel a part of the community. Many of our people are learning to speak English. I learned it by taking classes at the YWCA years ago. But it took me six years. Three years to understand you and three years to make myself understood.

"The great agency in Baltimore has been the public schools, which is where most of us send our children. The schools have done a great job. They understand that many of these children come from homes where the parents speak Spanish. Even if they speak a little English at home, the kids still enter school behind the other children. The schools understand it doesn't mean these children aren't bright or don't want to learn. They're working with them."

He finishes the last of lunch and sighs. Much of this is familiar stuff in American history. But it takes us forever to learn the lessons. Solera comes back to language barriers.

"We have kids," he says, "who have to translate for their parents. Can you imagine, a 6-year-old doing this for her mother?"

It pains him to think of the parent depending on the child. But it's thrilling to see the child reaching hungrily for every piece of the new community -- and sometimes, if we're all really lucky and smart, the new community reaching back.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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