ANGELO SOLERA asks the American question passed down from generations of anxious immigrants: Where do I fit in? His bumpy journey, beginning in a Spanish orphanage 35 years ago and aiming now toward a seat on the Baltimore City Council, attempts to answer that question for Solera, and for many in the city's growing Latino population.
"I wouldn't run," he says, "as the Latino candidate." But he knows better. He knows that his accent, and his history, would brand him for certain voters, no matter how much he might talk about possibly running to represent "everyone" in the city's newly configurated east-side 1st District.
It is, for better or worse, the constant journey for all immigrants who reach for the American mainstream but hold proudly to traces of their past. Solera has lived that mix. Arriving here 22 years ago, he crossed racial lines to marry an African-American woman. He's held jobs as a liaison between City Hall and the city's Hispanics. And now he edges toward declaring his candidacy for the council, knowing that his election would be a landmark for Latinos reaching for their political place in Baltimore.
"It's the old story," says Solera. "We're the new kids on the block. We arrive in a city that is basically black and white, and we say, `Where do I fit in?' We come from countries where the system of government is different, where we sometimes didn't have freedom of speech, and sometimes we feared the police. And we live in a place now where we're still learning the political system, and all of a sudden we have rights we never had. But our voice has never been heard in government, and so we don't feel like we belong."
Solera grew up in such poverty in Salamanca, Spain, that his parents placed him in an orphanage at age 4. He stayed there for 10 years, "wearing the same clothes for a week at a time, showering once a week, changing clothes only for church. I didn't know what long pants were until I was 12 years old."
Sent home at 14, he ran away three years later. Arriving in Baltimore at 17 and speaking no English, he washed dishes, dug holes, worked construction. And then found both marriage and a drug habit.
"We have a city full of people who are addicted the way I was," he says. "We lock them up, or we give them a week to detoxify and then send them back into the jungle and wonder why they go right back to it. There has to be more to help them get better."
In what he calls the turning point of his life, "I got off drugs because I had a son. He was 4 or 5. My wife and I had separated, and it was my turn to watch him. And I said, `I can't take him, I'm high.' And my boy was crying, and I remembered my father, who was an alcoholic and abused me.
"I'm telling my ex-wife, `I can't do this,' and she's saying, `Are you going to tell your son you don't want him? Are you going to say you don't love him?' And my son is crying, `I want to be with you, I love you.' And, in that moment, looking at him, I knew it was over. I wanted to give him what I never had - a father. I thought, `Either I stop now, or I'm gonna die.' I went to therapy. I went to hundreds of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I've been clean for 11 years."
For the past decade, he's worked in public health: with AIDS cases, with homeless people. At the city's Health Department, he was special liaison to the Latino community, then became vice chairman of the mayor's committee for Hispanic Affairs.
"What I see in the Latino community is the kind of thing facing all newcomers," he says. "It's tough to get services. You try to get help, and you can't find somebody to speak the language. You go to the service agencies, you don't see Latinos. Why is that?
"You know, we work hard. You go to construction, landscaping, restaurants, cleaning, you see Latinos. We're doing the jobs nobody else wants to do. We're hard workers. We make a tremendous contribution to the tax base. But we want services, too. And that means putting people in government who understand that."
There are estimates that Latinos might comprise as much as 20 percent of East Baltimore, although the percentage of voters is much smaller. Solera says he will make up his mind about running "in the next few weeks." As a first-time candidate, he knows he's a distinct long shot to win.
"But it's a win-win situation," he says. "The city needs new blood. And me being in the race - just being there, it's a sign that we're getting involved, we're trying to be a part of the process."
And that's part of the continuing American journey.