Ensuring Latino voices heard within melting pot

April 04, 2000|By Michael Olesker

OVER LUNCH AT the restaurant El Salvador, Deva "Angel" Dwarka bites into a Latino concoction vaguely unpronounceable to a clumsy Bawlamer tongue but delicious in any language. This is one little corner of America, in case anyone cares to notice: a second-floor dining room above Upper Fells Point's Broadway, with a big-screen television broadcasting a Spanish soap opera, and paintings of Central American farm country lovingly etched into a wall, and laughter and music, and lush aromas and conversational Spanish filling the whole place.

"Now, you take me," says Dwarka. Somebody, please. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example. Take Dwarka, somebody. But, what in particular do they take him for?

He is 46 years old and has lived here for 12 years with his wife and two children. They are dark- complexioned. They arrived here from Venezuela, but Dwarka traces his roots to his great-grandparents, who emigrated there from India.

The U.S. Census Bureau wants to know his race, and so do employers' job applications. Sometimes the employers' applications mention only black and white. But the country doesn't break down that simply.

"Have a drink of this," says Dwarka. Again, it is something unpronounceable to this simple tongue, but marvelous. Where in the world do they concoct this stuff?

Which is exactly the point. We come from all over, carrying the best we have: food and drink, music and dance, and brains. And, while we're sometimes more mosaic than melting pot, we tend to bump into each other in the night, and overlap, and find ourselves caught between instincts: wanting to feel fully American, whatever that means. But, also, choosing sides, and each side then reaching for its share of political power, and public services, and jobs.

This is one reason Dwarka put together his organization, Latinos for Progress. He is president. He says it numbers in the hundreds, and works for "the economic and civic advancement of all Latinos and other minorities."

It's the American way. Which is to say, when you don't feel fully American, when you feel marginalized, you organize as many people as you can and try to squeeze your way into the mainstream. And this is why there is particular concern in parts of the Latino community.

How big is this community? Who knows? The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't know, but it's trying to count heads. Some have claimed as many as 50,000 Latinos in the Baltimore area, though Dwarka thinks it's probably closer to 30,000. But maybe the census people will say otherwise. If they can count.

"Try this," Dwarka says. This time, he offers food for thought: There are not enough Latinos, he says, or enough individuals of any background who speak Spanish, to get an accurate count of Maryland's Latino population.

He says he's applied for census jobs and is waiting for a response. He rattles off numbers he's researched, which he says boil down to this: The Census Bureau hasn't hired enough Spanish-speaking employees to take an accurate count of Latinos.

The Census Bureau's response: It's trying to hire Latinos, and it has aimed extensive advertising at the Spanish-speaking community.

"In our community," says Dwarka above the lunchtime crowd's noise at El Salvador, "there will be some people who will simply throw the census forms away. They may not know what it is. And that's true in plenty of communities, not just ours. So now you have to have door-to-door follow-ups.

"But then you will have apprehensiveness, especially if someone is there who doesn't speak the language. Or if someone comes from a place where there was oppression by the government. They'll see a non-Latino and feel intimidated. And, of course, in Baltimore, we had the police incidents," last year's highly publicized case of the uniformed city cop who stole from a Spanish speaking immigrant and was accused in two other cases.

Americanization takes time. Dwarka's wife, Leila, works for the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene. His son, Vivek, goes to high school at Poly and runs with a cross-section of kids, "all colors," says Dwarka. His daughter, Yogini, is a premed student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They consider themselves Venezuelans, Dwarka says. But he wonders about this.

"My grandchildren will see themselves as American, because they will be born here," he says. "My children still have memories of Venezuela. But they wouldn't be comfortable living in Venezuela now, nor would I. This is where we live. But it's a struggle to find your way."

That's a two-way problem. To many Americans, El Salvador is a little country on the other side of people's consciousness. Out here, El Salvador the restaurant is not on most Baltimoreans' road maps. We choose up sides, we distance ourselves. And sometimes, we can't even get an accurate head count.

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