The well-groomed woman in the white, tailored suit doesn't look as if she would raise her voice in public, much less yell, "Sit down and shut up!" in a room full of her fellow Latin Americans.
But Sonia Gutierrez, president of the 18-month-old Council of the Hispanic Community and Agencies, said the council's first meetings were far from orderly. "People would start shouting at each other," she said, "and I would have to be really rough."
Now in her second term as president of the council, which represents 17 educational, religious, health and social service groups in the Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, Gutierrez says much of that initial "jealously and competition" has died down. "Now there's more trust. We know where we are coming from."
Eva Guevara-Erb, a Californian who recently was hired as executive director of the council, said one of its aims is to "speak with one voice for the needs of the Latino community vis a vis the District of Columbia and the federal government."
But council history indicates that finding one voice has not always been easy.
Council members include natives of Cuba, Argentina, Spain, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the continental U.S., all representing a Latino community that is only about 10 years old.
Council meetings are conducted in Spanish, although the council secretary, Mildred Mersereau, takes the minutes in English. Mersereau of the Mental Health Dupont Center and Fr. Sean O'Malley of the Spanish Catholic Center are the only "gringos" on the council. Both are fluent in Spanish.
Guevara-Erb said most of Washington's Latino community comes from Central and South America, bringing problems such as "lack of education, lack of jobs and, in this case, the language barrier. These people are really voiceless. There's a lot of exploitation."
Accurate statistics on the size of the metropolitan Latin community do not exist. The 1970 census estimated it at about 50,000, but community leaders claim it has grown considerably and may be as high as 150,000.
Serving those residents efficiently was a primary reason the council was formed.
Three years ago, agencies in the Hispanic community felt that they were competing with each other for United Way funds. According to Norman D. Taylor of United Way, about 20 agencies in the Hispanic community were given temporary, two-year United Way grants. Taylor said the temporary grants are given to "new and emerging" agencies "to help them strengthen themselves." He said temporarily funded agencies can later apply for permanent United Way funding, but must meet more stringent requirements.
Seven of the 20 Hispanic agencies qualified for permanent funding. Members of those that did not qualify said they felt the other seven agencies should have helped them fight for permanent funding. As a result of the tensions, about 200 people demonstrated in front of National Capital Area United Way headquarters on July 3, 1975.
Some hard feelings apparently linger between agencies that joined in the demonstration and those that did not.
Luis Rumbaut, an attorney with Ayuda, a legal aid organization that received permanent funding and did join the demonstration, said: "I still hear about that though I wasn't with Ayuda at the time."
The Hispanic council now includes the seven permanently funded agencies and 10 others, which receive funding from a variety of sources. The council provides no funds to any of the 17 agencies.
Rumbaut said the council has been largely successful in ending internal dissension though "it's still not all that lovey-dovey."
In addition to money issues, Gutierrez said, better coordination among the 17 agencies was one need the council hoped to meet.
"The council began from the need for a sharing of resources," she said, "to promote communication and to work together on issues which affect the community." She said these issues include housing, immigration, education and a campaign for a 24-hour-a-day Spanish radio station.
Another aim is to avoid duplication of programs. Recently, the council voted to set up a multi-service center that would provide common staff members to do bookkeeping and write funding proposals for the 17 agencies.
This year, according to Guevara-Erb, the council is funded with a $16,000 grant from the Meyer Foundation and will receive another $9,000 from the foundation if the council can raise $10,000 on its own.