Drivers advance Latinos' goals

Rutas: The informal shuttles are critical to immigrants not licensed to operate a car.

November 15, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Maria Aguilar wipes the morning dew from all the windows of her Toyota Camry, then grips the steering wheel with both hands as she leaves her Annapolis home. As she drives, the recently licensed El Salvador native signals at every turn.

Aguilar pulls up at three homes and gently honks to her passengers, all co-workers at the hotel where she works.

The women squeeze in tighter and tighter, chattering about work and church over the salsa music playing on the radio. At some point during the short ride, each discreetly hands Aguilar a dollar for gas.

Aguilar provides a much-needed service to some Annapolis-area immigrants -- using her right foot.

She runs a ruta, an informal shuttle service for some Latinos in the Annapolis area. Because many of the state's nearly 230,000 Latinos cannot get a driver's license or afford to buy a car, they depend on drivers such as Aguilar to get to work.

"People have a hard time getting to work without me," explained Aguilar, a native of Chalatenango, El Salvador.

Aguilar, a maid at an Annapolis area hotel, says she doesn't make any money for taking about 15 people to and from work, church and the store every week. But in Annapolis, where many Latinos live on the east side and work in clusters of restaurants and hotels along City Dock and Riva Road, rutas are a vital part of many immigrants' lives.

"She's important," said Mirna Lopez, a native of San Miguel, El Salvador, who depends on Aguilar to get to her job as a hotel maid. "We can't get anywhere else without her."

Immigrants who have become U.S. citizens or who have legal status -- such as a "green card" allowing them to work here -- may apply for driver's licenses. Illegal immigrants are not allowed to obtain them.

The state does not keep track of how many Latinos have driver's licenses. However, Latino advocacy groups estimate that there are about 100,000 illegal immigrants in the state.

A bill was introduced in the General Assembly last year to give undocumented immigrants the chance to drive, but it did not pass. So many Latinos throughout the Baltimore region get to work by taking the bus or a taxi, or riding a bicycle. Others couldn't get to work without a ruta, Latino advocates say.

One-fifth of the unemployed clients who come to CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit that mainly works with Latinos in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, had to quit their jobs because they could no longer get a ride with a ruta, said Kimberly Propeack, a lawyer with CASA.

In Annapolis and much of suburban Baltimore, many Latinos are employed by tightly clustered restaurants and hotels, making it easier for them to take or develop a ruta, which means "route" in Spanish. It's not unusual for four-passenger cars to pull up in front of restaurants and hotels and discharge six or seven Latinos.

"The large majority of our kitchen workers do it," said Dan Monk, the assistant general manager at Pusser's Landing in Annapolis.

Maria Sasso, executive director of ALMAA, a nonprofit group that advocates for Latinos in Anne Arundel County, agreed that the rutas are popular. She says that many Latinos don't want to walk or ride their bikes at night because they are afraid of being robbed and would rather pay people to drive them to work, even if some have to pay more than $10 a week.

"What other choice do they have?" she said.

Aguilar tries to leave her Annapolis Walk Drive townhouse, where she lives with her three children, at 7:15 a.m. One recent morning, she removed some papers from the back seat of her car. "I'm taking four people, so I need a lot of space," she said in Spanish.

Aguilar said she never drove in her native country, and when she arrived in the United States, she rode the bus. But after years of waiting on corners on chilly -- or hot and humid -- days and nights, she decided to apply for a license about a year ago.

"I never imagined that I would learn to drive. I was never more scared than when I was learning to drive," she said. "Now, I'm more used to it. It's not so scary," she said.

Latino drivers rarely pick up people they don't know, advocates say.

"There's a greater reliance on friends and family than I've seen in [other] groups," said Ricardo Flores, president of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Some drivers use their licenses and cars to make money, but Aguilar said she uses the money only to pay for gas, maintenance and car insurance. "The money is not important," she said.

Local laws require a license for taxi drivers, but it is not illegal to provide rides if the driver doesn't solicit a fare.

Aguilar's passengers said they would like to learn to drive. "It would make my life much easier and I wouldn't have to stand in the cold for a bus," said Bertalisia Lopez of Annapolis.

Even with Aguilar's help, some of her passengers say they sometimes have to use other means of transportation. Lopez has to take a taxi to her night job at a downtown Annapolis business. "I would like to save that $6," she said, sighing.

In parts of the country with large Latino populations, rutas are so common that drivers often follow a set route every day to pick up passengers. In the Chicago area, the routes can stretch to up to 40 miles one way, said Rob Paral, a fellow at the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University.

"That's where the jobs are," he said.

In Annapolis, the commutes don't stretch long at all. The hotel is less than five miles from Aguilar's home, although she drives more than that picking up her passengers.

But that would be a long way to walk, especially during the winter. When asked what she would do if Aguilar couldn't drive her, Lopez's eyes widened. "I don't want to think about that," she said.

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