A group of Howard Hispanic leaders hope a new nonprofit organization they are creating can serve as an advocate for growing numbers of low-income Hispanic immigrants to the county.
The organization, Alianza de la Comunidad ("Community Alliance"), hopes to "increase the living standard of the Hispanic community in Howard County," said Viviana Simon, co-chairwoman of Alianza's steering committee.
The group recently received a $10,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, a Howard nonprofit that supports health care issues. The money will be used to develop the organization as well as to identify the needs of Hispanics in Howard.
"I've seen this as a missing link in other parts of the country," said Richard M. Krieg, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation. "There is presumptive evidence that there is a great need, but we need to do a better job" of getting resources to people.
Part of the challenge will be gathering more information about the number of Hispanics who live in Howard and their needs. The 2000 Census indicated that about 7,500 Hispanics live in the county, but community leaders say the total could be twice that number.
Compiling data about that population won't be easy.
Many of immigration counselor Walter Rodriguez's clients at the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) are younger, working-age Hispanic men who have left their families behind to earn money working two or three jobs in the United States.
"A huge problem is getting information to them," Rodriguez said.
Members of other minority groups typically emigrate with more education, said Marta Goodman, another Alianza steering group member. "The Hispanic poor usually only speak Spanish, and the possibility of learning English is limited because they come with a low level of education."
So even fliers in Spanish might not reach all of its intended audience, Rodriguez and Goodman said.
Any service that doesn't have an interpreter is very difficult for some poor Hispanics to use, Simon said.
As a result, people find help by word of mouth. "There's a lack of a central place where people can go and get the answers they need," she said. "Some of the [answers] they're getting are wrong. We want to be sure that changes."
Immigration status also is a big challenge for those attempting to reach Howard's Hispanics. An unknown number of Hispanic county residents are in the United States illegally and fear deportation.
Their lack of legal standing makes them attractive targets for unscrupulous landlords, employers and others who provide basic services, Rodriguez said.
"A big group of [Hispanic residents] is very suspicious of anything that is organized. They don't trust authorities," Rodriguez said. "They are concerned if they report any crime or attack, police will report them to Immigration."
It's a problem that Alianza would like to fix.
The diverse roots of Hispanics in Howard County and in Maryland generally contribute to the problem of organizing the community and providing services.
Howard's Hispanics come from all parts of Latin America - Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. As a result, cultural differences within the community can outweigh similarities.
"In Maryland, no particular Hispanic group has the majority," Rodriguez said. "Just little groups, here and there."
"Even though we all speak Spanish, we all have our own dialects and our own subcultures," said the Rev. Jorge Fonseca, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana de Columbia, a Spanish-speaking evangelical Christian congregation that meets in Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. Fonseca is co-chairman of Alianza's steering committee. "The sense of community is really not there. We want to try to establish a community of Hispanics here in the United States."
The Alianza committee met with representatives of social service groups that serve Howard's Hispanics last spring. Based on that session, the committee developed a list of 20 items to work on, including housing, health care and English language literacy.
"We have been investigating and confirming what we think are problems," Fonseca said.
Providing basic access to health care will be a major initiative, said Goodman, the steering committee member who works as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) liaison at Running Brook Elementary School. Many Hispanic immigrants are working part-time service jobs that don't offer health care as a benefit, she said.
"Nobody is thinking about `How is that lady behind the counter taking care of her health needs?'" Goodman said.
Thus far, the Alianza committee has written bylaws and identified possible office space, including limited hours at the Wilde Lake Village Center.
The committee is searching for an executive director to lead the outreach effort, she said. English literacy classes and a space to provide cultural events are in future plans.
But Rodriguez cautioned against trying to quickly answer all the needs of Howard's Hispanics because the causes of the problems that they face are complex.
"I believe we are working in actually two fronts at the same time," he said. "We are dealing with people who have the needs, and we need to deal with the authorities, the organizations that have the resources."
Fonseca said he believes one of Alianza's primary missions should be to raise awareness of unanswered needs.
"We acknowledge that what we have is just a beginning. Part of our efforts are to continue to rally," he said.