The fan in a corner of the small, barn office was of little help in the near-tropical temperatures. So Soledaad Paz waved a newspaper to stir up a brisker breeze.
Every few minutes, she interrupted her fanning to answer the phone with each call, Soldad broke into Spanish, sometimes questioning, sometimes consoling, always sympathitic to the person on the other end of the line.
One call was from an elderly woman whose air-conditioner had broken down. Could Paz help?
Paz knows nothing about fixing air-conditioners, but, unlike her caller, Paz speaks English.
Yes, Paz told the caller, she would telephone the woman's landlord and explain the problem.
At the Spanish Committee of Alexandria, in an annex of the Blessed Sacrament Church at 2500 Kenwood Ave., Paz and her coworker Maria Gonzalez spend most of each week working to assist Spanish-speaking residents of Alexandria.
Paz, who came to the United States from Peru three years ago, and Bonzalez, who emigrated from Nicaragua 10 years ago, have been working in the office for nealy 18 months. But come September, when the $16,000 in federal funds that pay their salaries runs out, they may have to close shop.
Paz and Gonzalez may find hope for their future in the Committee to the Spanish-Speaking Community of Virginia. Luis H. Vidana, chairman of the state committee, is trying to convince the city to provide $45,000 to establish a permanent, and Larger, Spanish Committee office. Under the proposal, the office would include a social worker-office manager, two aides and a clerk-typist.
Pazz and Gonzalez say the expanded services are needed.
During an average month the women handle 100 to 150 clients.
They arrange for translators and drivers to go with clients to doctors' appointments, to apply food stamps, to get Social Security benefits. They assist in locating low-cost housing for newly arrived families. They comb help-wanted ads, sending job-seekers to hotels and restaurants where the wages are meager but jobs abundant.
"A lot of people call us and ask for economic help, but we don't have money to give them," said Paz. "This is a poor office."
Vidana says there are 5,000 to 6,000 Hispanics in Alexandria, although city estimates are somewhat lower, 3,000 to 4,000 of the total Alexandria population of 120,900. Both Vidana and the city admit the estimates are tricky, since the populations include an undetermined number of illegal aliens. t
The Hispanci community in Alexandria is scattered throughout the city, although many live in low-income garden apartments along Rte. 7 on the western edge of the city. Most of the residents are poor, say Gonzalez and Paz. Few speak English well, if at all, and that often bars them from more than menial, low-paid jobs.
Vidana, a lawyer who emigrated from Cuba, has been a leader in the Virginia Hispanic community since 1960. He estimates there are 70,000 Hispanics statewide. In a federally funded survey by the Virginia Hispanic Committee last year, 92 percent of Virginia Hispanic Committee last year, 92 percent of Virginia Hispanics cited their inability to speak English as their major problem.
The same study reported that 16 percent of the Hispanics in Northern Virginia are unemployed, more than three times the state average and twice the national average. The study also found that a large number of Hispanics are underemployed, primarily because of the language problem.
"The biggest problem we have is the language gap and that's what (a permanent Spanish office in Alexandria) would alleviate," said Ignacio Palacio, an Alexandria resident who is a member of the state Spanish Committee.
"All the programs that the city has, the Spanish-speaking community doesn't really take advantage of -- either because they don't know about them or they're afraid to go there because they don't have translators."
For instance, says Palacio, every three months Spanish-speaking residents receive pamplets from the city describing available activities and classes. The flyers, he points out, are in English.
"(The pamphlets) go into the trash baskets because they need to be translated." Palacio said.
Vidana says city services for poor residents often are taken advantage of by Hispanics because there is rarely an interpreter available.
A permanent Spanish Committee office, he says, could act as liaison between the city and the Hispanic community, as do office in Fairfax County and Arlington.
Assistantg City Manager Mark Horowitz says the city is preparing a department-by-department report on special services now offered to Hispanic residents. He expects the city to make a decision on the Spanish Committee request after that, probably in September.
"The problem is communicating what city services are available to the Spanish community," Horowitz said. "Are we doing enough and reaching enough? Should the city do more on its own or would it be more effective to fund a separate organization?"
Vidana says part of the problem of lobbying for assistance for Hispanics is that the Spanish-speaking community is not as large as other mnority groups. In addition, he says, Hispanics have not been as vocal or organized as other groups.
"The black community assigns ore pressure (on city hall)," he said. "We have been unable to develop a strong lobbying group."
However, through the efforts of Vidana and the Virginia Committee, the city's Hispanics are making progress. Recently, the Alexandria Spanish Committee was awarded a $77,075 grant from the Governor's Employment and Training Council. The grant will be used for job-placement services only and cannot be transferred to the permanent office the committee is seeking.
Back in the local Spanish Committee office, Maria Gonzalez was fielding calls from her fellow Hispanics.
"Comite Hispano de Alexandria," she said. and then she began, questioning, consoling, working out another problem.