Poised for action: Haydee Rodriguez arose from the city's mushrooming, evolving Hispanic community to fulfill a promise many saw in her early. Some question her actions, but not her commitment.

August 18, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Haydee has poise.

Everybody says so: "Haydee has poise." Or, "Haydee has matured nicely." "She is steady." So forth and so on.

People cluck over her, older people unrelated to her who have watched her through the years. They cheer her on. They tsk, tsk, tsk reprovingly if she disappoints them.

Her full name is Haydee Marilu Rodriguez de Leon. She arrived in this country from Guatemala on Jan. 1, 1979, four days before her 13th birthday, and moved in with her grandmother. Her parents had broken up, and she became the foster child not only of abuela Delfina Pereda, but, in effect, of the then-minute Hispanic community of Baltimore.

She is 32 now, a young woman with many people still watching her as she evolves into one of that community's leaders. She is the new chief of Centro de la Comunidad, the East Baltimore charity that offers social services to Hispanics. For this, Haydee Rodriguez will need her poise. She will need all the help she can get.

The Hispanic community in Baltimore has grown possibly by 100 percent in the past eight years. It also has been transformed in every other measurable way. As it has gotten bigger, its complexion has changed; its education level has plummeted, it has gotten poorer and its needs have multiplied dramatically.

Haydee Rodriguez will be one of the key people in the city trying to meet those needs.

She has narrow dark eyes, short hair; her hands are small, and she keeps them still in her lap. Her voice is very young, especially on the telephone, and a little weepy. She is notably intelligent, manifestly soft -- but may be tougher than she appears.

When Orioles general manager Pat Gillick last May ascribed Armando Benitez's bad behavior in beaning a New York Yankee to his more "emotional" Latin culture, Haydee Rodriguez shot back from her office, then in City Hall: "If he's going to make that sort of observation, then he would have to comment on the temperament of people in England and Germany, where we have seen people crushed and trampled to death after a soccer match," she told The Sun.

Marliese Diaz, head of the local branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, has known her for a long time. "She has grown as the community has changed," Diaz says. "All of us who knew her as a young woman are very proud of her."

So who is Haydee Rodriguez, and what is she all about? How did she get where she is today?

She is a woman who may have had the perfect experience for the job she has undertaken, including a life-transforming experience.

Haydee Rodriguez came from a country at war with itself for the better part of 30 years. A violent, atrocious conflict it was, and though she lived safely in her grandfather's house in fluorescent Guatemala City, the war darkened the background of her early years.

She had a blind great aunt, and she was charged with reading the newspapers to her. She remembers the stories about young people disappearing, "pages and pages of them." One remained in her mind: a 16-year-old student who disappeared and was later found dead, tortured.

It was something for a young girl to brood about, and she did. But once she got to Baltimore there were other demands on her attention. "My first three years were years of adjustment, learning the language, adjusting to my parents' separation and such."

Expectations developed early on about Rodriguez, maybe because her grandfather, Carlos Efrain Rodriguez, had been a pilot and diplomat who served as secretary to three Guatemalan presidents, or maybe because her grandmother, Delfina Pereda, was a community activist -- she'd founded Baltimore's first Hispanic social organization. But the young immigrant grew up without giving off much in the way of precocious indications. She went to a Catholic middle school, then Seton High and Loyola College. She studied modern philosophy. She did the usual volunteer work of a concerned student. She graduated.

In 1986, while she was still a sophomore at Loyola, she was re-introduced into that violent atmosphere that had shadowed her youth. A delegation of clergy and students was organized by Chester Wickwire, the former chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University, to visit Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador. All of these countries were being steadily reduced by civil wars, and the United States had a hand in it.

To say the visit affected Haydee Rodriguez is an understatement. For a month the group toured refugee camps, relocation villages. In every country they encountered the meeker victims of these wars, the weak and helpless rendered utterly abject.

Of a camp in El Salvador, she said: "It was the most depressing sight I have ever seen. They were primarily women and children. They were there because they had been forced there, and it seemed to me, from the look on their faces, they were lost. They had absolutely nothing, and they had been placed in these camps. Nothing."

It changed her life.

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