Speaking the passengers' language

Bilingual bus drivers a lift for immigrants

September 10, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Maritza Vasquez and Marlon Alvarado are fast becoming celebrities within Annapolis' burgeoning Hispanic community. And they're doing it from behind the wheel.

As the first bilingual Hispanic bus drivers hired by Annapolis Transit, Vasquez and Alvarado have become fixed points of reference for many of the city's Hispanic bus riders.

City transportation officials say the two have become known not just for who they are, but for how they make getting from Point A to Point B easier for riders - especially those with little or no proficiency in English.

The newfound attention has caught Vasquez off guard.

"When I took the job, I said, `It's a good opportunity,'" she said. "But then my sister told me, `You know, Maritza, they say you and Marlon are the first drivers to speak Spanish and English.' They wanted me to tell everybody.

"And my little one said, `Mom, you're famous now!' and gave me a hug."

City Department of Transportation officials also have embraced the two natives of El Salvador and hope they can help the department better serve the city's growing Hispanic population and boost efforts to recruit more drivers from the community.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, Hispanics make up 6.4 percent of Annapolis' population, rising from 483 in 1990 to 2,301 last year. That growth occurred as Anne Arundel County's Hispanic population jumped 89 percent during the past decade, from 6,815 to 12,902, the figures show.

Community groups say those figures are understated and estimate that 5,000 to 7,000 Hispanics live in Annapolis. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanics live in the county, the groups say.

Hispanic immigrants also have made up an increasingly large percentage of Annapolis Transit's ridership. Transportation officials estimate that Hispanics make up 30 percent to 80 percent of the riders on any given route.

Despite their growing presence, city transportation officials have had a difficult time hiring qualified Spanish-speaking drivers. New immigrants rarely have the required license or English-speaking abilities, and more established immigrants are usually settled into jobs, transportation officials said.

"Let's face it. You don't become a bus driver in a small city like Annapolis because you're going to make a million dollars. You do it because you want to live, work and make a difference in the city, and that's what [Maritza and Marlon] do," transportation Director Danielle Matland said. "They're just excellent employees with a wonderful attitude. They weren't hired because they're Hispanic, but that's an extra benefit."

Matland said the department has made efforts to reach out to the Hispanic population. Bilingual bus schedules have been installed at many new bus shelters and, two years ago, bus routes that ran along the Forest Drive corridor were rerouted to better serve residents of the predominantly Hispanic Allen Apartments in Parole.

Paul Foer, marketing specialist for the Department of Transportation, said that since the hiring of Vasquez and Alvarado, the department has received applications from two potential bus drivers who are Hispanic.

Last winter, Vasquez and Alvarado came to the attention of transportation officials through a "City Hall Comes to You" forum for Hispanic residents sponsored by Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson and by the efforts of Robert Morales, who serves as the city Police Department's liaison with the Hispanic community.

For Vasquez, 34, and Alvarado, 33, public transit has become a family affair - Alvarado is married to Vasquez's sister. Family ties aside, the two have much in common.

Both came from Chinameca, San Miguel, a small town about 120 miles east of El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, where they met. Both were school teachers in their native land. Vasquez taught music; Alvarado, grades one through six.

Vasquez moved to America in 1987, first living in San Francisco, and eventually moving to Connecticut. Alvarado arrived two years later and settled in Connecticut. Both drove school buses there.

Alvarado moved to Annapolis in 1997. Vasquez came to the city three months ago.

Both have been promoted from trainee to "Driver 1" since July, when they began driving full-time in Annapolis.

When they're not transporting riders across the city in their boxy shuttles, the two can often be found taking a short break on Spa Road at the city's "transfer point," an asphalt parking lot of a Public Works garage where drivers rest before the start of each route.

"I enjoy talking to people, meeting new people," Alvarado, a father of three, said of his new job. "The Spanish community is happy to see a Spanish driver on the bus.

"But sometimes they're confused. They say, `Where are you from? You Filipino?' I say, `No. My heart is from El Salvador.'"

The pair say their bilingual skills are tapped the most on routes that pick up passengers at the Annapolis Mall, where many Hispanic residents hold restaurant and retail jobs, and on Hilltop Lane near the Admiral Farragut Apartments. So many El Salvadoran immigrants have settled there that the complex has been nicknamed "Little San Salvador."

"I'm glad that I'm able to speak Spanish and help people," said Vasquez, a mother of two. "Sometimes [riders] lose it because they don't understand, they don't speak English."

But Vasquez says there is another job perk as well.

"I enjoy the outdoors. When you're working in the morning and the sunshine comes in the bus, it's so beautiful," she said. "When it's raining, when it snows even, I love it."

All Annapolis buses and trolleys will be free tomorrow - primary Election Day in the city - as part of Try Transit Week, which launches today. City transportation officials are encouraging residents to take public transit to the polls.

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