Needed: Summer Jobs for Youths, Police Sensitivity to Latinos' Needs
THE TV cameras have left and the hordes of police are no longer patrolling Mt. Pleasant Street, but Pedro Aviles wants to make sure the city government doesn't forget about its Hispanic population. Three weeks after riots sparked by a police shooting of a Salvadoran man, the district's Latino Civil Rights Task Force, which Mr. Aviles chairs, is keeping the heat on the mayor's office.
"We want an ongoing process of dialogue and negotiations," says Aviles, a 32-year-old Salvadoran who came here 17 years ago. "If they think we will give them a report and that's that, they're wrong. If we need to, we will have pickets, vigils, and nonviolent street demonstrations."
Since the May 5-6 disturbances in a Hispanic section of Washington's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, prominent district Hispanics have seized the opportunity to address longstanding grievances. Members of the 60-person task force have been meeting with heads of city agencies for recreation, housing, police, human services, and employment to discuss solutions. The task force will soon present a report to the mayor.
In the meantime, says Aviles, emergency action is needed in two areas: summer jobs for youth and training for police in community relations.
Summer jobs are scarce for all the city's youth, not just Hispanics. Last year, the district's jobs program spent $12 million giving 9,000 teen-agers minimum-wage jobs. This year, the city cut its jobs budget by $5 million; there are only 1,800 spots for 10,000 applicants. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon has asked area business leaders to create about 3,000 jobs for youths.
If young blacks perceive that Latinos are given preferential treatment - both in hiring and in other city programs - to keep them quiet following the riots, there may be trouble this summer in some of the poor black parts of the city, say community leaders.
"This is a very tense situation, and not just in Mt. Pleasant," says Ken Fealing, an African-American who represents the largely low-income section of Mt. Pleasant in the local neighborhood commission. "Anacostia's going to blow up," he adds, referring to one of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.
Long-simmering tensions between the city's lower-income blacks and Hispanics have been exacerbated by the recession and the city's budget cutbacks. Last Saturday night, groups of young Hispanics and blacks threw rocks and bottles at each other in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood next to Mt. Pleasant.
Relations between the black-dominated police force and Latinos have also long been strained, with Latinos claiming physical and verbal harassment at the hands of police.
Activists say Washington police need to be sensitive to the backgrounds of many Latino immigrants - the largest group being from El Salvador - who have come from war situations where the police are often viewed as instruments of oppression.
"We can't resolve this until there's a mandate from the top that harassment is unacceptable," says Lori Kaplan, director of the Latin American Youth Center and a member of the Hispanic task force.
In addition, the number of district police of Hispanic origin (roughly 150 out of 4,800) and who speak Spanish (108) is disproportionate to the size of the city's fast-growing Latino population. The 1990 D.C. census recorded a Hispanic population of 32,710 - 80 percent more than in 1980 - but heads of social agencies say the number could actually be upwards of 100,000, out of a total city population of 606,900.
Mayor Dixon has instructed Police Chief Isaac Fulwood to examine the makeup of the current classes in the police academy to ensure that enough Hispanics are being recruited.
Another problem is that many Latinos have not been in the country long enough to assimilate, learn English, and become citizens. The district police department often must recruit Hispanics from outside the area, and then frequently loses officers to forces in suburban Maryland and Virginia, which also have burgeoning Latino populations.
The Hispanic task force will also put forward longer-term proposals to address issues such as city hiring for permanent jobs and housing. Of the city's 48,000 employees, only about 800, or less than 2 percent, are Hispanic. Of Mayor Dixon's 39 cabinet appointees, there are two Hispanics. On the housing question, Hispanic activists cite a pattern of discrimination, though they can provide only anecdotal evidence.
Despite the task force's best intentions, however, it remains to be seen what it can accomplish on a large scale as long as much of the Hispanic community is low-income, not registered to vote, speaks only Spanish, and lacks the status to work legally.
Activists say there are only 3,000 registered Hispanic voters in the district. No Hispanics sit on the city council or school board, and only two of the 323 members of the city's neighborhood associations are Hispanic.
Latinos have been insecure about getting involved in politics, says Pedro Lujan, a Mt. Pleasant business leader and member of the Latino task force. Mr. Lujan has lived in the US for many years, but, he says, "Sometimes when I go to meetings I get almost a panicked feeling, because if there's a fast exchange, I can't say what I want to say in English."
Chairman Aviles represents the next generation of Latino immigrants ready to make their community a real political force.
"Washington is the first major city where Central Americans dominate the Latino population," says Aviles. "It's a socio-political laboratory. This will give Salvadorans a chance to show what they can do."