Affluent Fairfax County is home to at least 1,000 Hispanic families whose members earn meager pay working at mental jobs, according to volunteers for the Spanish Outreach programs who are trying to change their lives.
The poor Hispanos live in concentrations of low-rent apartments around Seven Corners and Bailey's Crossroads, along the Rte. 1 corridor and in the Herndon and Reston areas.
"We're not moving mountains; we're moving by inches," says Joseph Stasiak, a retired Air Force officer who is one of five VISTA volunteers with Spanish Outreach. "They (Hispanos) need a lot of help here, and any kind of help they get counts for something."
Their problems are those of poverty and more lack of language and sometimes education, ignorance of how to accomplish commonplace tasks like getting a driver's license, confusion over their status under changing immigration laws. These are in addition to the usual problems of lack of money and cars in a 400-square-mile county where to be without a car is to be housebound.
Spanish Outreach, a branch of the Fairfax Community Action Program and partially funded by the United Way, attempts to address all the problems but finds itself spread thin doing it.
The help comes in the form of a four-page newsletter in Spanish that informs its 1,800 readers about everything from free English lessons to inexpensive housing. Help also comes with referral services for employment, free medical and legal help, family planning, housing, alcoholism, nutrition, transportation and day care. Direct help comes from the five VISTA volunteers stationed where Hispanos live. It is not unusual for the volunteers to help people in need open a bank account, enter the hospital or register children in school.
The outreach effort also runs three senior citizen programs, preparatory classes for taking the high school equivalency certificate exam, special seminars, social functions and a hot-line from its closet-sized office at 308 Hillwood Ave. near Seven Corners. Workers hope to soon relocate at Willston Shopping Center where they would open a walk-in Spanish community center.
Last Wednesday night, 15 Hispanos gathered in a classroom at J.E.B. Stuart High School to study algebra and grammar. They were preparing for an examination that would give them the equivalent of a high school diploma - a key for some to leave jobs cleaning tables and scrubbing floors.
They came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and other Latin American countries. Some were educated, others had not finished high school. There were teenagers and adults. One young mother brought her two children whose raucous play didn't appear to disturb students concentrating on solving algebraic formulas.
"Education is the most important thing for the Spanish-speaking," said Marcelo Pareja, a 28-year-old native of Colombia who organized the classes this summer and teaches math there three days a week. "They try very, very hard; you'd have to be in their places to know how hard."
Pareja is critical of Spanish Outreach, saying its services are not substantial enough to make a difference.
"What the hell are the poor going to get from a Navy band?" he complained, referring to a festival last month where the Navy Band played.
Pareja said he left the program as a VISTA volunteer this summer because he was not allowed to teach undocumented aliens. Now he teaches on his own.
Adriana Lake, a native of Chile who supervises VISTA volunteers for Outreach, said Pareja was actively seeking illegal immigrants to give them assistance.
"When people come for help, we do not ask if they are illegal," said Lake. "But if we discover that someone is here illegally, the best we can do is refer them to legal help. We receive federal money and we cannot legally help them. But on the other hand, you can't let them starve either."
Marta Fernandez coordinates Spanish Outreach, teaches classes, works with the VISTA volunteers and tries to find jobs for people. She concedes that more needs to be done for the Spanish-speaking community, but feels that Spanish Outreach has made its mark since it began in 1974 with dreams of organizing community "clusters" where one Hispano would become self-sufficient and then integrate his neighbor into the society.
Leafing through a thick black book of job applications from Hispanos, Fernandez described the situation of one man who was an accountant in Peru but has been working as a waiter in Fairfax for seven years:
He began waiting on tables because he didn't speak English well; later, prospective employers told him his training was too different from U.S. training to enable him to work as an accountant in metropolitan Washington. Now they tell him he has been out of his field too long.
"One problem creates others for them," said Fernandez, a former Spanish teacher at George Mason University.
Of the $11,000 United Way gives the program, $8,500 goes to Fernandez' salary, which is supplemented by Fairfax Community Action Program. FCAP has estimated it costs a total of about $58,500 to run Spanish Outreach, including the allowances of VISTA volunteers.
FCAP initiated Outreach with a door-to-door survey to locate Hispanos who needed help and found nearly 1,000, a figure workers considered low. While estimates of the total number of Hispanos in the county range from 10,000 to 30,000, nobody seems to have an accurate count.
The community group tried to organize the Hispanos within their own communities, but the attempt was submerged by the Hispanos' immediate needs. The program is still trying to meet these needs on a case-by-case, person-by-person basis.
"But always in the back of our minds is to organize the community well enough so they can take care of themselves. That is still our goal," said Lake.