New `digital village' aims to close computer gap in Latino community

Bilingual hub to offer free classes to immigrants

March 18, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A 1922 Fells Point library building in which thousands of new and aspiring citizens learned English and studied for citizenship exams has been partly converted into a "digital village" to serve a new century of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Education-Based Latino Outreach, the nonprofit group chosen by the city and the Enoch Pratt Free Library to take over the brick building at 606 S. Ann St., moved in after the library was shut Sept. 1, 2001.

The Latino organization opened a high-technology computer learning center last week inside the building. The center is designed to help Spanish-speaking residents enter Baltimore's commerce and culture.

"This little hub can be the engine of progress for the whole city in the age of information," Mayor Martin O'Malley said at a ceremonial opening last week. "Out of sadness of having to close a library, we created an opportunity."

He also tried out a familiar refrain in Spanish, calling Baltimore "la ciudad mas grandiosa" in America, or "the greatest city" in America.

"Not bad for high school Spanish," he said.

O'Malley is seeking to attract immigrants to the city in an effort to boost its population and vitality. The 2000 census estimated the local Latino population at 11,061, or less than 2 percent of the total. But it was up from 7,602 in the 1990 census.

Baltimore's Latino community is concentrated in East Baltimore, which the Clinton administration designated as an urban empowerment zone. The federal designation opened the way for the donation of 10 desktop computers to EBLO.

Two years ago, Hewlett-Packard Co. selected East Baltimore, East Palo Alto, Calif., and a Native American village in California for a $5 million program to improve computer literacy. The company created a curriculum to teach computer skills to Latinos.

Job seekers, students and others will use the computers, which have Internet access. The digital village will be open to all, six days a week, said Hewlett-Packard executive Lew Karabatsos.

Mirian Vargas, 36, a Highlandtown resident born in Bolivia, dropped by the center recently. She said she hoped to use the new equipment to improve her English.

Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt director, said the event was a sign of the city adapting to change. The branch library that formerly occupied the building was one of five closed in 2001 because of budget cuts. The system now has 21 neighborhood branches.

"This is perfect, an establishment for learning and self-improvement, exactly what the community needs at this time," Hayden said.

Pittsburgh philanthropist Andrew Carnegie originally gave the building to the city.

Jose Ruiz, EBLO's founder and O'Malley's liaison to the Latino community, said the city is seeking additional paid staff fluent in Spanish, English and computer languages for the center.

Daniel Santos, 58, a longtime pastor in the neighborhood, said the public computer center and free instruction would bridge the "digital divide" -- the gap between homes that have computers and those that do not."

"This program ties the Hispanic community beautifully with technology and computer tools they would not be able to buy," Santos said. "It shows the city believes in us and in integrating us on the same level as everyone else."

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