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April 12, 2002

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley is boning up on his high school Spanish. He is about to record public service announcements for ethnic radio stations in the Washington suburbs, where the bulk of Maryland's 230,000 Hispanics live.

His message: Move to Baltimore. Life is cheaper here, and operating a business is simpler and more profitable.

"We want to talk about the city, because it's up and coming, back on the map again," explains Jose Ruiz, the mayor's liaison to the Hispanic community.

"We want to lure people from Prince George's and Montgomery counties," Mr. Ruiz said. "Instead of [locating in] Adams Morgan, businesses should come here."

Some of this is already happening.

In just two decades, the Baltimore region's Hispanic population has more than doubled - from 20,407 to 50,888. So many Hispanic businesses now operate near Broadway and Eastern Avenue that the area is known as Spanish Town. Those businesses, in turn, have created a new umbrella organization - the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Presided over by Luis Borunda, who operates a sign company near the Ravens' football stadium, the new organization represents the diversity of the Hispanic community. This is essential if the chamber wants to be a credible voice for its businesses and not just an advocate for certain nationality groups.

Baltimore's Hispanic population is still tiny compared with those in many other big cities, but has proved itself a vigorous force in turning around moribund neighborhoods. Whether they come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America or Europe, Baltimore's Hispanic neighbors have aggressively involved themselves in public life.

The Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce wants to be heard at City Hall and in Annapolis. It is a welcome addition that could become an important lobbyist for newcomers who want to realize their American dreams.

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