Washington's Hispanic community is made up of people with backgrounds in 21 different countries, but despite that diversity and because many of them are undocumented immigrants, Latins here are forgotten by the rest of the populace, panelists at a Smithsonian Institution forum on Hispanics said yesterday.

"What they know is the Spanish festival," Veronica De Negri, a Chilean native, said in reference to the annual summer festival held in Adams-Morgan that attracts people from throughout the metropolitan area.

De Negri, a youth counselor for the city of Rockville and a panelist at the forum called "The Other D.C.," said that "after the Spanish festival, everyone forgets about the Hispanic community. After that we are a problem."

In a day-long series of discussions at the National Museum of American History, a number of community leaders and academics examined the issues of indifference to the strengths and contributions of Hispanics, the "acculturation" difficulties faced by immigrants and the special problems of Hispanic youths and women.

Marina Felix, Spanish affairs coordinator at the University of the District of Columbia, said, "When we come to this country we are considered a minority, which is a concept foreign to us."

Felix said Hispanics here face the obstacles of language and immigration laws -- knowledge of which "determines which opportunities are available to the individual."

Retaining cultural identities and adapting to the requirements of a new society is a balancing act members of the area's Hispanic community must achieve in order to move forward, panelists said.

William Vargas, 23, came to the United States from Nicaragua at age 18. "In my country, I had friends, a girlfriend. I had everything," Vargas said.

But when he arrived here, he said, "I was lost."

Vargas entered high school in Maryland in the ninth grade and graduated in 2 1/2 years, but in doing so he had to go through the arduous "process of learning English, the process of learning the system."

"Getting on {a transit bus} was easy," he said, "but getting off was different. The door never opened. Well, that's one of the things you have to learn here."

When Vargas came here, he said, he wanted to be like the English-speaking kids. Now, he said, "I say I'm proud to be a Latino American {and} I'm proud to be in this country."

Beyond the issue of assimilation, the health of the Hispanic community ultimately depends upon preservation of native culture, said Alicia Partnoy.

Partnoy, a poet and author who emigrated from Argentina for political reasons, decried the dearth of bilingual education and warned against "cultural invasion." She said of fellow Argentines, "When we came here, we didn't come here to stay . . . . We wanted to keep our cultural lives."

But Lucy Cohen, who chairs the anthropology department at Catholic University, sees hope for the breakup of stereotypes and progress for Hispanics through bilingual education.

"Language is culture," she said. "There's no way around it."