As the high-ranking federal officials toured Washington's Latino community, far from their massive office buildings and bureaucracy, many experienced a homecoming of sorts. Because before they were assistant secretaries, before they were agency directors, they were Latinos.
The tour last Monday, organized by the D.C. Council of Hispanic Community and Agencies, was an effort to remind them of that once again, and in large measure, it seemed to succeed. For the first time in the city's history, Washington's Hispanos said they felt they had been able to open a dialogue with the federal government which they believe has neglected them for too long.
"You can talk about Hispanic unity as much as you want," said Eva Guevara Erb, executive director of the council, "but if they help us, it will be a way of showing the 'gringos' that we meant it."
Washington's Latin community, unlike those in most of the rest of the nation, is not dominated by any single group, such as the Cubans in Florida, the Puerto Ricans in New York or the Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Here there is a mix of people from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
One consequences of this diversity is that it has taken years to develop any sort of cohesive organization; another is the long-standing suspicion that most Latinos who rise to national prominence will be more interested in helping their own groups than the Hispanic community as a whole.
The tour - which included HEW assistant secretary Arabella Martinez and HUD assistant secretary William Medina, among others - did much to dispel such reservations. It was an out-growth of Hispanic town meetings sponsored by the Carter Administration in the District and throughout the country earlier this fall. The meetings were designed specifically to foster communication between the federal government and Hispanic communities.
As the group visited the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans on Calvert Street in Adams-Morgan, they encountered a group of about 20 elderly Hispanos exercising together and singing their traditional songs. "You almost want to join in," laughed White House fellow Fernando Torres Gil.
At the Spanish Educational Development Center's day care facility on Kalorama Road, they greeted little children coming in for their afternoon naps. "Como te Ilama?" What is your name? "Lucinda," "Alexis," came the answers.
And as the tour went on - through Ayuda Legal Services, Gala Hispanic Theater, the embattled Kenesaw Building (which the tenants have been fighting to buy) and the Andromeda Mental Health Clinic, among other agencies - the federal officials expressed a growing awareness of the environment that exists, almost literally, in their own backyards.
By the time they reached the new quarters of the Peila adult education program in Georgetown's Gordon School, many talked of returning frequently to the community - both to enjoy its culture and to work with it.
Again and again, the federal officials had to explain just what their agencies can and cannot do for the local population. "The problem here," said Graciela Olivares, director of the Community Services Administration, "is that these people need to be trained in how to exercise their rights. . . . I have a feeling that I'm going to be organizing a training course in Spanish on citizen participation.