"They call me 'The Old Man' . . . 'The Leader', said Carlos M. Rosario, 57, with a slight smile. "And they call me 'The Godfather' - he paused - "but the reason they call me that is because I'm the founder of the community."

Rosario has been one of the most prominent Latinos in Washington politics for the last 25 years, since the days when the city had virtually no Latino community. But that is not, say many Hispanics, the only reason he is called "The Godfather." They talk of him as a barrio boss of the old school whose style is "caciquismo" - to patronize and sometimes coerce as much as lead his people, and rarely to listen to those who disagree with him.

As Mayor Marion Barry is about to appoint an executive director to the Office of Latino Affairs - a cabinet-level position in the new administration - Rosario, who has been serving as acting director, is now faced with an uphill fight to hold the job. The battle has been rough, fought in the old style, and many Latinos express fears the community, which has grown tremendously in the last 15 years, will be torn apart by it.

Meetings of community organizations to consider persons to be recommended for the job have been racked by partisan shouting matches. There is talk of "arm-twisting," "dues-paying," and thinly veiled threats.

"It's disgusting. It makes me sick to my stomach any time I think of the whole thing," said Eva Guevara Erb, a former head of the Council of Hispanic Agencies who works for the mayor. After a decade of attempting to achieve a sense of unity, democratic processes and political sophistication in the community, Erb called the current infighting "a regression to the old days."

The lines of conflict run in several directions, reflecting the national, political, social, economic and cultural differences that always threaten to divide Washington's Latino community.

Old-timers, may of whom feel they owe Rosario for his community activities dating back to the mid-'50s - and some of whom say privately he has often reminded them of their debts in recent months - are pitted against those who believe they owe Rosario nothing.

Rosario ascribes some of the friction to differences between Puerto Ricans like himself and the other most established group of Latinos. "Those people who voted against me were Cuban," Rosario said. "They stick together. I know them."

One of his opponents described the problem as basically the difference between "competence and Carlos." Others say he has claimed credit for much that he had little to do with, and has failed to move the bureaucracy he is supposed to deal with on behalf of Hispanics.

Many influential Latinos said that they are simply afraid to speak out aginst Rosario publicly. "He is known to be extremely vindictive and if he's in any position of power, we'll get the ax," said one who asked that her name not be mentioned, "But at the same time," she added, "there's fear and threatening on one side and on the other there's a bond, like having fought a war together [with Rosario] to make a place in this city."

Rosario said yesterday he was "surprised" to hear allegations of such rough tactics leveled against him. He has been campaigning for the postion he said, but only in conventional ways. "Sincerely, I don't know why anyone would say such things," he told a reporter. "I love this community and I work for this community."

Rosario's political activities date back to 1956, when he worked in Washington for the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign. "I remember I was in charge of the Spanish community, and there was no Spanish community," he laughed.

During the late '50s and '60s - as the community grew to as many as 50,000 - he was instrumental in organizing several groups that successfully sought to bring bilingual education for children and adults to the city's schools. He also helped, he said, to bring manpower training programs to the community, as well as more Latin businesses.

In 1970, former mayor Walter Washington made him executive director of the newly formed Spanish Community Advisory Committee. This office, after several incarnations, became the Office of Latino Affairs, it has acted until now largely as a referral service, according to people familiar with its operation.

Rosario has said that he has been responsible for bringing about $20 million to the Latino community in Washington, but many Hispanics, while acknowledging his work, find this figure implausible.

"I look around," said community organizer Silverio Coy, "and I ask, 'Where is it?'"

The choice of the new executive director was supposed to have been an orderly process. In 1977, then councilman Barry pushed through a bill that set up a Latino Commission and raised the Office of Latino Affairs from its position as an office in the Department of Human Resources to a spot with direct access to the mayor.

Rosario had been director of the office before and continued as acting director while, through many delays, the D.C. Office of Personnel went about screening a broad range of candidates.

Earlier this year eight names were submitted to the Latino Commission with the idea that it would return three of them to the mayor to make the final choice. The commissioners voted on their choices at the beginning of the month.

Rosario came in fifth, according to sources at the commission. In first place was Thomas Pintado, who does volunteer work in the community and is an employe of the D.C. Internal Revenue Department. Second was Aida Berio, a former head of the Latino Commission who recently won a discrimination suit against her employers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Rosa Maria Jimenez Vazquez, a social worker and community organizer from Florida, was third. Willie Vazquez, a Washington management consultant, was fourth.

Supporters of Rosario were so adamant in their opposition to the results that all five names were submitted to the mayor.

Even before that, Rosario and his backers solicited scores of letters demanding that he keep the position, and since then groups of Latinos have visited Barry and his aides to argue Rosario's case.

Several Lation leaders said privately that much of this support was coerced, but none would allow their names to be used.

In one case Rosario, having obtained a small grant for surveys dealing with child and wife abuse, offered the funds to several community agencies. The director of one of these agencies said that the offer of the money - about $2,000 - was made in the same conversation as a request from Rosario for support in his quest for the appointment.

Rosario said yesterday that he did offer the money to three agencies, but denied that he tied it to requests for support. "It was just coincidental," he said.

Rosario, many of his supporters and some of his opponents, said that a significant reason he is receiving backing for the appointment is that few people in the community feel that they know or are comfortable with the other people on the list, regardless of qualifications.

Asked why, however, the commission composed of a community cross-section voted against him, Rosario said he was at a loss to explain.

He talked with several of the 13 commissioners, he said, many of them long-time acquaintances. "They told me, or rather I felt after we talked, that they would vote with me - and they didn't. I had a feeling they were with me 100 percent because they owe me . . . Well, I don't want to mention that I just want to help people and not give favors." CAPTION: Picture, Carlos M. Rosario, a contender for executive director of Latino affairs office. By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post