The driving, brassy rhythms of Latin music bounced out of the van parked in front of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Columbia Road and Euclid Street NW, last week as the group of Dominican Republic youths took some time out from their beer-drinking and pot-smoking to play a game of cards on the church steps. They tapped their toes to the beat of the music and talked in the staccato Spanish of the Carribean.
A police car drove up and two officers climbed out.The youths stiffened. "What's the matter with you boys, playing cards on the church steps?" said one of the officers as he walked towards the youths. "You'll have to move on out of here."
The youths gathered up their playing cards and put them away, but did not move. As soon as the officers drove away, one youth, wearing Adidas sneakers, painter's pants and a Navy shirt, shouted after them: "You wouldn't do that to the blacks or whites on 14th Street. I don't know why you comin' around here. We don't bother nobody. But you always botherin us."
Elsewhere in the city that day last week, officials at various federal agencies were holding special programs to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Week and taking note of what the federal government is doing for Hispanics. But that was far from the scene on Columbia Road. The scene is repeated over and over between police and the Latino youths who had no idea President Carter had designated last week to honor their heritage and who say their lives are yet to be touched by the government's helping hand.
This corner is not just the social hub for the youths, most of whom are unemployed. It is a thriving drug market as well.Sometimes the scenes with the police do not end as smoothly as the one last week, but finish with a cursing match and the youths being taken off to the Third District police station to be charged with disorderly conduct and fined $10.
Of all the 25 or so youths who habitually hang out on the corner, most say they have been arrested for disorderly conduct. "I come out every day with $10 in my pocket because I never know when I'm going to jail," Said the youth in Adidas sneakers, pulling out a crisp new bill from his pocket.
Observers say they see the tensions between the youths and the police rising each day. Underlying the tensions are the deeper problems of high unemployment and idle time among the Latino youths.
In their late teens or early 20s, most have not been able to hold a steady job. The jobs they are able to hold, they say are uninspiring: truck driver, dishwasher, waiter, busboy.
They come from some of the poorest countries of Latin America but in many cases have grown up here, in the vicinity of Columbia Road, and feel they have a certain claim to the neighborhood. To them, the police are interlopers. Also, Latin Americans traditionally have viewed police with suspicion and even hatred since police organizations in their homelands are often paramilitary in nature and considered brutal and corrupt.
For the youths, each day is virtually a carbon copy of the day before. It begins around 9 a.m. when they start to gather in front of one of the Latino record stores or trinket shops on Columbia Road with a few six-packs of beer, a supply they replinish throughout the day.
One day last week, Miguel, 18 was out with his guitar, singing a honey-smooth, heart-wrenching ballad he learned in the Dominican Republic. Tony, 22, was there, too. Also a Dominican, Tony had quit his truck driver's job a few weeks ago because he says he didn't like the work and felt he should be paid $9 an hour, as many truck drivers are, instead of $4. He was carrying around his unemployment papers tucked in his left sock in case he decided to go down to the D.C. Employment Services office. Together, Tony and Miguel began harmonizing. A third singer, a homeless Puerto Rican man and well-known Columbia Road vagrant, joined in with them.
Most of these youths don't fit into any neat catagory for government help. They are in many cases too old for the city's summer jobs program. The two major youth employment groups for Hispanics in the city concentrate mostly on finding part-time jobs for youths in school.
Neither the city nor any Hispanic group has any idea how many unemployed, out-of-school Latino youths there are in the city.
In the early afternoon the youths gravitate toward their social center -- the steps of the church. The group grows to 20 to 25 at times. Often they go over to a park just across the street -- which they call el triangelo -- with bongo drums, trumpet, guitar, and cow bells to jam until late at night. The pulsating Latin rhythms coming from el triangelo have become a familiar element of the Columbia Road neighborhood.
Complaints about activity in el triangelo have increased in recent years, residents say, since middle-class Americans have begun moving into the area.
"Why the police didn't worry about the community three years ago? The [triangle] was exactly as it is today, people playing congas and drinking cerveza [beer] until 3 a.m.," said one Hispanic leader who asked not to be named. "Nobody said anything then. I think the question is, who is behind this? Who wants to change our community?"
In the middle are the youths, who say they feel unwanted in their own neighborhood. "We don't hurt nobody. We don't rob nobody. We try to help the community by playing music," said one youth. "I don't know why the police have to bother us."
"This is our neighborhood. We grew up here and now they want to kick us out. Well, they gonna have to kill us first," he said. Police who patrol the area say the youths are not "criminal." "The main problem is disorderly conduct," said Officer Ralph E. Harmon, who is from Panama.
Although D.C. police have placed about 14 Latino officers on patrol in the sections of the city where Hispanics live, it is the Latino officers that the youths complain most bitterly about.
Often the Latino officers get threatening phone calls at the Third District. The calls were particularly frequent when one Latino officer recently patrolled the Adams-Morgan area asking people to show their immigration cards. The third District police commander ordered the practice stopped.
"If they [the police] just helped us instead of harassing us, (relations) would be a lot better," said Jose (Jumbo) Sevilla, a community activist. "They think [the youths] are hard-core because they come here from downtown after looking for a job to have a beer, relax. You don't know what it's like to be unemployed. I was unemployed for six months and I almost went out of my mind."
But says Officer Albino Villanueva, a Chicano officer, "To some degree, nobody wants to get locked up. But everbody wants to get locked up. But everybody wants to get locked up. But everybody wants to drink on the streets. But whether you are white, black or Hispanic, we're going to lock you up."