Latinos find political voice

Influence: Maryland's growing Hispanic population shows signs of becoming an organized force in the state's halls of power.

March 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Pablo Palomino came to Baltimore from Lima, Peru, six months ago and speaks only a hint of English. That didn't stop him from going to Annapolis on Monday evening, where he joined more than 200 fellow Latinos to lobby legislators on immigrant rights and carried a poster-sized "Latinos Unidos!" sign to a rally on Lawyer's Mall.

No doubt, lawmakers and activists say, Maryland's Spanish-speaking Latino population is stirring as never before. With recent U.S. Census numbers bolstering their causes, Latinos are finding their collective political voice and directing it - sometimes with vigor and sophistication, sometimes in fits and starts - toward the State House.

Newcomers such as Palomino have joined an expanding group of Latinos across the state who have come to understand that politicians aren't going to offer, so they themselves had better demand.

This legislative session, Latino activists are pushing an ambitious agenda and using it to educate their ranks about the political process. They are meeting with lawmakers to seek support for bills that would require state agencies to translate information into Spanish and allow children of immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

And through aggressive lobbying - which included a rush order of "We Are a Country of Immigrants" T-shirts - they have mounted what appears to be a successful campaign to amend a provision in the governor's anti-terrorism package that would have drastically limited the ability of noncitizens to get driver's licenses.

Last week, Latino business owners, who have abandoned loose coalitions and united into chambers of commerce, threw their first State House reception, an effort to befriend lawmakers and lobbyists over mussels and paella.

`Como esta?'

"Buenas noches," Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, a Montgomery County Democrat, said somewhat awkwardly to the crowd. "Como esta?" The businessmen are angling for legislation that would award a percentage of state contracts to Hispanic-owned companies.

"It's about time," said Del. William H. Cole IV, a Baltimore Democrat, as he surveyed the crowd of Latinos who came to the lobbying rally Monday night. "Any time you can get this many people here, it's impressive."

Never mind that as a two-man mariachi band played, the rally's speakers had to shout because they lacked a microphone - perhaps a perfect symbol for Latinos' political situation in Maryland: Until now, they have not been loud enough, and lawmakers have not bothered to listen.

"Right now I think the legislature needs to understand that there are groups other than women and African-Americans that need attention," said Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, who has been helping Latino businessmen make their case in Annapolis this session. "I think they all know it, but the attitude is, `Let's not wake up any more problems.'"

That attitude won't last long, say many Latinos and politicians. Carmen Nieves, executive director of Baltimore's Centro de la Comunidad, is among those who sense an important shift.

"I really think it's like waking up a sleeping giant," she said. "[Lawmakers] have known we were here, but I don't think they took us seriously."

"All of a sudden," she said, "there's a momentum. I see a lot of things coming together."

Signs of change are everywhere. Del. Mark K. Shriver has hired the former president of the Montgomery County Hispanic Democratic Club to help him win Latino voters for his congressional bid. One of his primary opponents, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., is showing up at Latino events, reminding people that he helped secure $100,000 for a minority business procurement center in his Montgomery district.

Groups' support is sought

Other advocacy groups such as the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition are calling Latino organizations and asking for their support. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has sat down with Latino leaders two years running.

Electronic voting machines installed in some counties for elections this year will have a Spanish-language option. Also, the Maryland secretary of state's office is organizing workshops to help Latino-owned companies win state contracts.

Ana S. Gutierrez, who is running for the House of Delegates from Montgomery County, credits much of the change to sheer numbers, which she says will soon make Latinos an impossible force to ignore. "The census brought it home, and all of a sudden it's, `Oh, we have to pay attention,'" she said.

Growth spurt in '90s

The 2000 Census shows that Maryland's Hispanic population grew by 82 percent during the 1990s, with the majority moving to the Washington suburbs. While Latinos make up just 4.3 percent of the state population, in Montgomery County they account for 11.5 percent.

Most observers agree that the official count probably did not capture undocumented Latinos, and so is very low. In Baltimore, for example, the census counted 11,061, while health officials, social workers and others who work with the population estimate the true number is at least twice that.

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