Elsa R. Pimentel explained it simply: "I was born and raised taking care of poor people." She can't think of any reason to do otherwise. It was born and bred into her.

Pimentel was honored Saturday evening by the Montgomery County Hispanic Coalition for her years of service to the county's less fortunate residents. She has volunteered to help the poor, especially the Spanish-speaking, thread their way through tangles of red tape, surrounding language barriers and culture shock.

She helped them find better housing and jobs, qualify for welfare and health programs and cope with immigration regulations. Now she is employed by the county's Department of Social Services and is working with the area's recently arrived Cuban refugees.

Saturday about 300 of her admirers rose to their feet a Yegher's Caterers in Silver Spring to salute her efforts.

"While everybody else is working in an office, she is working in the community," said Montgomery County Council President Scott Fosler in Spanish as he presented the award.

The occasion was a banquet and political forum celebrating the first anniversary of the coalition, whith was founded, according to Jorge Luis Ribas, to "seek the betterment of the Hispanic community" in Montgomery County.

The room abounded with politicians. Ribas, who lost his primary bid to become a county school board candidate, already has filed to run in the 1982 school board election. State Sen. Ed Conroy (D-Prince George's), candidate for the U.S. Senate, made the rounds. Various school board candidates spoke with friends old and new and there was even a representative from the Montgomery Carter-Mondale Committee.All sought the support of the affluent and influential Hispanic leaders who crowded the room.

The evening's main event was debate between U.s. rEp. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and his Republican opponent, former Rep. Newton Steers.

"Instead of speaking to you as Hispanics, I want to speak to you as Americans," said Steers, who pledged to work to improve the economy which, he said, would benefit all groups.

He pledged to cut back on deficit spending, decrease dependence on overseas oil, curb inflation with productivity, and reform taxes.

Barnes defended his record, which includes support for bilingual, bicultural education and support for the Refugee Act of 1980. Barnes said the act would institute a "much more logical, humane and understandable" policy on refugees. Barnes serves on the subcommittee on immigration and the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees.

Coalition President Javier Miyares said the organization already has held two other forums. One, held in the spring, was on bilingual education. Based on that forum, he said, the coalition decided to support a bilingual education plan for the county and lobbied the school board to accept it. Once the board accepted the plan, he said, coalition members lobbied the County Council to fund the school board budget including the plan.

Another forum in the summer brought together Montgomery County police and recent refugess to try to dispel myths and sensitize each group to the other's needs and expectations. Miyares said the coalition has about 200 members and includes prominent Hispanic community labor and political groups.

The coalition also presented awards to the Montgomery Journal newspaper for a series about the problems of the county's Hispanic community; to WDVM-TV9 for its weekly half-hour show on Hispanic affairs, PRISMA; and to WGTS-FM for an hour show in Spanish which airs four times a week.