Tomas Carlo, 43, is fond of calling himself a "voting Puerto Rican" who supported District Mayor Marion Barry for reelection in 1982. For Carlo, and many others in the city's burgeoning Hispanic community, the Barry administration seemed to offer a new voice in a city government that promised to shut out no one.
Carlo, an Adams-Morgan street vendor who has lived in the District since 1963, said he thought Hispanics were at last becoming part of the city's mainstream.
But in the wake of Barry's demotion of Jose Gutierrez, until last week one of the mayor's cabinet officials and the highest-ranking Hispanic in the District government, Carlo said he and other Hispanics are taking a second look at the mayor, a man they once admired for his civil rights activism and up-from-the-street mystique.
A variety of Hispanic leaders said that while they are protesting the treatment of Gutierrez, now demoted to a low-level planning office job, they are more concerned about the broad issue of whether Hispanics are being dealt with fairly by Barry and his administrators in the District Building.
"We are somewhat concerned that the D.C. government may not be as receptive toward sharing power as it should be," said Gilberto de Jesus, president of the Hispanic Bar Association here.
According to a variety of estimates, there are perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 Hispanics living in the District at the moment, roughly 10 percent or more of the city's 623,000 residents.
Despite such numbers in the general population, relatively few Hispanics have been hired by the city government. The D.C. Office of Human Rights said that the most recent survey, which covered 20,864 D.C. workers in 1983, but not the school system or the corrections department, showed that 222 workers were Hispanics, slightly more than 1 percent.
Officials of the 3,832-member D.C. police force say they do not know how many Hispanics it currently has, lumping them in a group of 53 officers that includes Hispanics, Orientals and native Americans. The Department of Employment Services, which oversees job training and placement in the District, has 832 employes, 16 of whom are Hispanics, a 2 percent representation.
While no one knows with any certainty the number of Hispanics who live here, officials of Hispanic community groups widely agree on two demographic issues: that the 1980 census figure of 17,652 Hispanics in the District was vastly below the actual number, and that the number, whatever it was then, has increased sharply since then.
The Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, about 60 square blocks in Northwest Washington, still serve as the commercial and cultural hub of a Washington-area Hispanic community that increasingly finds itself being pushed into the suburbs by rising housing costs. Yet local studies indicate that the Hispanic population in Washington continues to grow rapidly.
One reason, the studies say, is the current political instability in parts of Central America. Before 1979, the majority of Hispanics living in Washington were from Caribbean and South American nations. The D.C. Latin American Youth Center estimated last year that 50,000 to 70,000 Hispanics have arrived in Washington in the last five years, with Salvadorans constituting the largest group.
"The Hispanic community in Washington is like no other," said Willie Vazquez, a Hispanic consultant and former head of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs. "It's not like New York, not like California.
"There is a lot of diversity, just like there is in the black community, white community and the gay community," he said.
While several leaders in the Hispanic community questioned why Hispanic representation in the city government is low, they stopped short of accusing Barry directly of failing to keep his campaign promises to bring Hispanics into his administration.
"The mayor has told us that he's encouraged city officials to hire Hispanics , but they don't do it," said Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas, director of bilingual education for the D.C. public school system, twice head of campaign groups called Hispanics for Marion Barry and one of the Hispanics protesting the treatment of Gutierrez last week.
"We're not telling the mayor to have a quota," Fernandez said. "If there's an opportunity and there is a qualified [Hispanic] person, he ought to have a chance."
The Rev. Jose Somoza, director of the Spanish Catholic Center, and de Jesus suggested that city officials, themselves only relatively recently empowered to run the local government, are not receptive to the idea of sharing political power with another group of outsiders.
But Somoza said Hispanics do not have a racial conflict with the black-dominated city government.
"It's the problem of a new minority," the 47-year-old priest said. "The people who have the power don't want to share power."
He said Hispanics here "are still a large community that is not really very active. They have to be aware of the possibilities and sooner or later gain representation at all levels."
Enrique Rivera-Torres, president of the Council of Hispanic Community and Agencies, a coalition of 18 Hispanic community-based groups, said, "I basically feel there is a long way to go in incorporating the Hispanic community into the city."
It is the newest arrivals who have the most difficulty in gaining a foothold. Many of the Hispanics who came here from Cuba more than 20 years ago, escaping Fidel Castro's revolution and takeover, are now well established in their careers, just as they might have been in their native land.
More recently, some displaced Cubans moved here in the early 1980s after being dispatched on Castro's boat lift to the United States. But the largest group of new Hispanics here is Salvadorans, many of them illegal aliens who have escaped their war-ravaged country in search of a new home and have begun to establish roots in Washington.
Somoza estimated that 20 percent of the District's Hispanic community may be illegal aliens, a percentage that other Hispanics say increases sharply in the ranks of the recent arrivals.
Jose J. Sanz, a Spanish legal alien who has produced a television film on the estimated 80,000 Salvadorans living in the Washington area, said that there may be 50,000 of them here illegally. Hispanics "choose Washington," he said, "because once you leave your home in Latin America you always think of going to the capital. It's where you can make it."
"The only difference is that they're not considered political refugees [by the government]," he said. "Like any other immigrants, they're starting at the bottom and they're taking jobs no one else wants. They're in service-oriented jobs, they're employed in restaurants and hotels as dishwashers and housekeepers."
Carlo, who operates a clothing stand in the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW, said, "This is a community that has for a long, long time tried to work ourselves into the system. Now all of a sudden, when we have somebody [Gutierrez] who represents us, somebody we can tell our children to look to, he's wiped out.
"We feel left out."
Vazquez said he sees a "coming together" in the Hispanic community over Barry's handling of the Gutierrez case. He said local Hispanics, a relatively young community that is maturing and becoming more sophisticated, are looking for the political benefits they have earned by their campaign contributions and support.
"I think what is happening now is that people are remembering the promises of '82," Vazquez said. "Now it's getting close to 1986" and another mayoral election.
Coco Bueno, a 30-year-old Salvadoran who with her husband Daniel operates a popular record and variety store in Adams-Morgan, said she understands Hispanic frustration in Washington.
"We really have a lot of needs," she said from her shop's crowded back room office. "When we come here, you try to find someone who will help get you a job. You can't. We need more translators in the courts, more clinics and more money for the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs."
"I think we need more push for Hispanics," Bueno said. "We need more people in a position that can help Hispanics."