Living the American dream

Delegates: Two Hispanic pioneers in the House vow to give voice to constituents' concerns.

February 08, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

To Victor R. Ramirez, his life's tale is the American dream: A native of El Salvador comes to the United States as a child, makes good as a lawyer and becomes one of Maryland's first Hispanic members of the House of Delegates.

For Ana Sol Gutierrez, the story is different, but the first and the latest chapters are the same: An engineer, also from El Salvador, helps give the state's Hispanic population its strongest voice ever in the Maryland General Assembly.

Voters in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties elected Democrats Ramirez and Gutierrez, respectively, in the fall with the solid backing from the state's growing Hispanic population. Although they still number just two in the House and one in the Senate, their presence is being felt in Annapolis as they push for legislation and make their positions are clear on issues affecting their constituents.

Ramirez, 29, is working on creating the first Hispanic Caucus in the legislature to build a unified voice for the Latino community.

Just three weeks into their first legislative session, some lawmakers have dubbed him a "rising star."

"It's just refreshing to see someone who is serious about the agenda," said Del. Joanne C. Benson, who also represents Prince George's County. "He's not staying in Annapolis. Victor is absolutely a rising star."

Meanwhile, Gutierrez, a 61-year-old businesswoman, is using her experience as a Montgomery County school board member and Clinton administration appointee to influence legislation and state programs.

"They're both very committed individuals," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. Winning support for legislation and other initiatives is "as much about style and how you go about things as any thing else."

Numbers growing

The election of the state's first two Hispanic delegates is seen by many as long overdue. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who is half-Cuban, is the state Senate's only Hispanic member.

The state's Hispanic population is 227,916, or 4 percent of Maryland's 5.3 million residents.

In Prince George's County, where Ramirez was elected, Hispanics make up more than 7 percent of the population, or 57,057 residents. In Montgomery County, Gutierrez's home, the number of Hispanics stands at 11.5 percent, with almost half of the state's Latino population living in that county.

Despite their increasing numbers, Hispanics make up just 1.5 percent of the legislature.

Ramirez, in his relaxed, soft-spoken manner, says he intends to take his job as a legislator seriously. He also intends to work hard to represent the diversity of his district.

"I'm proud of my culture," Ramirez said. "We have to be role models for our community. But just because I'm Hispanic, it doesn't mean I'm going to agree with you 100 percent. You have to keep in mind that we all live in this community."

He's finding that meeting the needs of a diverse community isn't always easy.

One recent evening, Ramirez got an earful from mostly African-American seniors in a Hyattsville retirement community about their cars being stolen, increasing rental fees and utility costs.

"Is there any possibility that Annapolis can introduce a bill for rent control?" asked Martha Bragg, a 73-year-old Hyattsville resident. Another asked what to do when her income fell short of the rent.

"We're going to look to resolve something here," Ramirez told them. "Write letters. Make phone calls. We're going to get something done."

Ramirez knows the Hyattsville community well. After moving to the United States from El Salvador at age 6, he spent his school years growing up in Hyattsville and Mount Rainer.

The third child of a mechanic and a maintenance worker, Ramirez and his siblings found education to be the tool to success. "Watching my parents come home late, we all decided that they had sacrificed their lives for us," he said. "So the least we could do is become productive citizens here in the United States. It's like the American dream."

He grew up admiring such revolutionaries as Che Guevera, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But as a child, he saw no Hispanic role models in local politics, he said.

Even after graduating from Frostburg State University and St. Thomas University in Miami, Ramirez found Maryland politics failing to reflect population changes.

"Someone Hispanic needed to run," he said. "Somehow, you have to fend for yourself. We can't always expect people to take care of us."

Ramirez and Gutierrez both speculate why it took so long for Hispanics be elected to the state legislature.

"Maybe people are just weary of politics," Ramirez said. "Their interest is not in politics. Their interest is in taking care of their families."

Just as he has found education important to his success, he sees it as the tool that will help other Latinos in Maryland.

Tuition initiative

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