Trembling with rage, Emilio Perche Rivas was on his feet. He clapped his hands and the sound rang out, sharp as the clack of castinets in the suddenly still room.
It was a Montgomery County school board meeting to discuss the special needs of Hispanic children. Rivas had just learned there was no time scheduled for Hispanos to speak.
"Vamonos!" he shouted. With that, the white-haired Rivas stalked out of the room in protest. Immediately all 50 Hispanos present followed, as the Montgomery County school board watched in awe.
Today, nearly a year later, the controversial Cuban smiles congenially in his Silver Spring office -- and with the school board have improved and at an October meeting Hispanos, including Rivas, spoke their minds at length on bilingual education and other matters.
Rivas was unopposed for reelection to a third term as president of the Spanish Speaking Community of Maryland Inc. (Communidad), a private nonprofit group that provides special services to Hispanos, primarily in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Under Rivas' auspices, the organization has received federal grants to help the area's Hispanic immigrants with jobs, housing and legal services.
Rivas himself has become well known among Anglos as well as Hispanos as a leader of his people. If you need food stamps, housing, a driver's license, you go see "Perche," as he is called, observers say. He will help.
But as his power grows, so does the number of his enemies. As local government begin to pay more attention to the area's growing Hispanic population, jealoiusies and rivalries as fiery as jalapeno peppers have sprouted among Hispanic groups vying for political power.
Because of his unquenchable thirst for the political limelight, 57-year-old Emilio Perche Rivas is a target in much of this controversy. He is either praised as a saint or booed as a barrio boss among local Hispanos whose sizzling temperaments know no middle ground when it comes to politics.
"He is a remarkable man," says aide Maria Carbonell, her dark eyes shining at the mention of his name.
"He is a fraud!" declares Jorge Ribas, a rival who strongly disagrees with Rivas' educational views.
"Perche is an enigma," Carlos Anzoategui says slowly. Anzoategui directs the governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "Some people say he is a good samaritan. Others say he is a godfather figure."
Elizabeth Gomez Del Rio laughs when she hears this.
"He is a little of both," she said. Del Rio works in the Montgomery County office of community and economic development and is a personal friend of Rivas.
At a public meeting, Rivas is in his element. He moves through a crowd of Hispanos, erect in an impeccable suit. He flashes his smile at this one, gives a convivial tap on the back to that one. His elegant mane of wavy white hair attracts the eye like a magnet as he moves his head, nodding in agreement as someone whispers in his ear. His rhythmic chuckle is audible among the lilting Spanish voices.
"He is a symbol. He has the charisma, the eloquence, the old world courtliness," says Anzoategui. "Perche has kept families from being deported, being evicted. He has taken people to the hospital in the middle of the night."
Gloria Fernandez, a Kennedy High School teacher, agrees.
"He is the extended family they left behind. They go to him when they are in trouble. And he is very astute politically. He enjoys it," she said.
To poor Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially the elderly and the homesick, Emilio Perche Rivas is a tie to the past, a Castillian elegance and authority they can trust. He is their champion in the beaureacratic maze and for this, observers say, he expects loyalty. But people expect to give it. After all, this is the way it is in the old country.
Silver Spring shopkeeper Jose Veiga pauses from stocking his shelves of guava jam, palm oil and sesame cakes to explain: "American community no want me to open my store. They say Hispanic grocery store not needed. Perche help me open store. He help my mother-in-law become citizen so she could vote." The rotund man wipes his hand on his apron. "Sure we will vote for anyone he chooses because if we help him we help ourselves. But he never ask who we vote for."
Rivas is a firm believer in United States government. Every week he personally takes Hispanos to Baltimore to be sworn in as citizens.
"This is the best system," he says. "But people must realize that they can be a part of it. They must become citizens to vote and contribute to this society."
Yet, Rivas does not speak English. Translators interpret for him whereever he goes, while he smiles and nods.
"I am too old to learn," he says.
"It is a handicap he finds very convenient. He knows more than he lets on," comments one observer.
Trim, dignified and energetic, Rivas came to this country 10 years ago, "without a penny," as he likes to say.
Born into a poor family in Havanna Rivas worked his way through college, became a dental technician and rose to the rank of labor leader in Fulgencio Batista's regime. He was elected to congress and when Fidel Castro came to power, Rivas went to jail. Although he was aquitted repeatedly, he was tried repeatedly. So in 1967 he left Cuba on a flight arranged by the Johnson administration.
He had some friends in Montgomery County so he traveled here and began working as a dental technician. But politics was part of his nature. He quickly made lots of friends and soon started to connect friends who needed help with other friends who could help them. In this way, he began to build a network among Hispanos, critics and admirers recall.
"He is a born politician. He started helping Cubans relocate, get their cars fixed, whatever they needed," says Dr. Jose Palancar, and old friend who still gives Rivas dental work and also is on the Communidad board.
Five years ago, Rivas discovered the Communidad. He saw that it had potential.
"It was a weak organization, a social affair. They met. They went home," Rivas says. "I said give me six months and I will really turn it into something to help people. The people ned an organization like this. Not everyone is lucky enough to have friends like I did. There are many with no place to sleep, nothing to eat and no place to go."
Shortly after Rivas took over, the Communidad moved into a Wheaton office. Now there are two more offices, one in Hyattsville and one in Silver Spring. Another in Gaithersburg is planned for next year.
From these offices, Rivas and a staff of 13 help people find affordable housing and jobs they can fill with skills from their native lands, and give them referrals to any county services they may need. Rivas recently ran a series of seminars for Hispanos on crime prevention, housing and education. The sessions were attended by both Prince George's and Montgomery county officials.
"Everyone always tell me you are helpful but I do not believe it until you get me apartment.You do all papers for me and tell me what it was about. You also give me transportation. I say to you thank you for all you do for me," writes one grateful recipient of "Perche's" help.
But his critics claim he has created a "Little Havana" founded on patronage and nepotism.
They specifically point to the fact that Rivas is both chairman of the board and president of the Communidad. They point out that top jobs are held by the members of the same families -- Cuban families at that.
"Perche is an old-world politician who does things in the old way. He has no concept of the term conflict of interest," says one critic.
Rivas says he sees nothing wrong with husbands, wives and in-laws serving n the same board and staff.
"They are devoted. They work many hours. They deserve it," he says.
Rivas, who earns $20,000 a year directing the organization's projects, says he is not acting as president while he is directing the projects. When asked about Cuban favoritism, he points to different people on the Communidad's board and chants a litany of the names of the Latin American countries they come from.
"The biggest problem," says high school teacher Gloria Fernandez, "is that the only thing Hispanos here have in common is their language andd their religion."
And sometimes not even that. Emino Perche-Rivas wants Hispano children to be taught in Spanish as well as English. Ecuador native Jorge Ribas feels Spanish should be taught at home, "not at the expense of Montgomery County taxpayers."
Other groups tend to agree with Rivas but want to share the platform when it comes to addressing government officials.
"He wants everything for his own organization and that hurts all Hispanos," says aura Adams, who heads another group, the Hispanic Association of Maryland Inc.
Montgomery County and Prince George's officials say they know of the rivalry and want no part of it. "It's part of their culture that no Anglo-Saxon bureaucrat is going to change," said one.
According to Dr. Ileana Herrell, Montgomery County's newly appointed special assistant to the executive on minority affairs and a native of Puerto Rico, "Given what he has to work with and the size and the disparity of the Hispanic community, Perche Rivas has emerged as a recognized leader. Whether or not you agree with him, those facts remain."