Speeding the immigrant journey into American society

April 29, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, Lupita Alvarez thumps her hand against her heart and looks around. She sees continents of people coming in from the sidewalks. Some speak English and some speak Spanish. Others grew up hearing Polish and Italian and Greek. Into this American mosaic, Alvarez lifts her voice, and wishes to raise an entire community's profile.

"What I want to say," she declares, "is very simple: `I'm here; we're here.'"

This is an ancient cry to the heavens. A cobblestone block from Jimmy's, at the Broadway Market, we had generations of those who arrived, mostly from Eastern European countries. They opened food stalls in the market, and each day you heard their cries across the aisles in a chorus of native languages as they slowly adapted to the American jargon.

The journey continues, but Alvarez wishes to speed it along. She bills herself as a multicultural consultant and heads a Brooklandville firm called Bridge Span, designed "to bridge the Spanish- and English-speaking cultures." It is her attempt to update the immigrant experience with modern marketing insights.

Alvarez left her native Mexico 20 years ago to study here. She stayed with an older sister in San Antonio. She remembers the loneliness: cut off from most of her family, from familiar surroundings, from a language she could speak comfortably. She came to Baltimore with a husband who was doing post-doctoral work at the Johns Hopkins University, and a young son. She divorced. She worked for a hospital, for Planned Parenthood, for the Girl Scouts.

And she watched, over time, the area's growing Latino population - and the slow, sometimes reluctant response of government and business. Today, there are estimates of about 50,000 Latinos in Baltimore, and similar numbers in the surrounding counties - and complaints from activists about insufficient response to the newcomers from schools and health departments.

To walk around Fells Point alone is to see a changing climate: Spanish signs on businesses, and Latino laborers gathered each morning outside the 7-Eleven at Broadway and Lombard, waiting for someone to offer them work for the day. At nearby Jimmy's Restaurant, you hear kitchen workers calling to each other in Spanish.

Alvarez formed Bridge Span as a link between communities signaling each other in different languages.

"My business benefits the Spanish-speaking community," she says over breakfast at Jimmy's, "because they're looking for jobs, and for connections to the world around them. And it benefits English-speaking businesses because they're looking for consumers."

Alvarez, 40, has heard some of the political talk. Several months back, the comptroller of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer, famously got upset over a Spanish-speaking fast-food worker. Alvarez looks at it with a larger perspective.

"I know," she says, "that English-speaking people say, `Why should I have to learn Spanish? Why can't they learn English?'" This involves more than the snapping of fingers. "Many in the Latino community are working two jobs, they're trying to survive - and they're doing what others have done before them, which is to pick up the language as best they can as they live their lives. What we need is a bridge between the cultures - because it benefits everyone."

"A great idea," says Nick Filipides, sitting himself down. He owns Jimmy's, and comes from a history like Alvarez's. "What you're doing today," he tells her, "is what the Greeks, the Poles, the Jews, they all had the same problem, and they all struggled to communicate with the world around them. And they earned a living, and sent money back to their families in the old country, and hoped that the world would open up to everybody."

He mentions two Latino fellows, Jose and Eddie, who have worked in his kitchen for 10 years. He mentions a young woman who washes dishes and speaks only Spanish. And he remembers his father, a Greek immigrant who sent money back to his family in Andros.

"That's what the Latinos do," says Alvarez. "They work two jobs, three jobs, and send money home. They'll do anything, whatever it is. But there's still this misunderstanding."

Her firm attempts to tell business people how to reach the Latino community. "They have no clue," she says. "They don't know how to reach them as consumers, as employees, as clients. They don't understand there are so many cultures within the Latino community. And they don't know how to reach any of them."

She mentions government agencies still trying to figure out how to deal with Latinos. She mentions law firms with no Latino connections. And businesses. The Orioles, for example: On a ballclub loaded with great Latinos, is the organization making the best efforts to draw from the considerable Spanish-speaking fan base?

"What we're trying to do," says Alvarez, "is open communications. We don't know how to talk to each other. What I'm trying to do is say, `Hey, guys, we can do this together. It doesn't have to be as hard as it used to be.'"

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