The District's Hispanic community, which has thrived politically under the Barry administration, looks warily to the Sept. 11 mayoral primary, divided over whom to support and whether it can deliver a solid bloc of votes.

"We're still a fragmented community," said lawyer Clotilde Benitez, who has campaigned for Democrat John Ray's mayoral campaign. "But I think people are aware of what they need to do."

For years, Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the city's population, have sought to carve their own niche in District politics, and to a considerable extent they have succeeded.

Mayor Marion Barry established the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs to funnel assistance to the community; appointed Hispanics to high-ranking posts; and directed city agencies to provide services to all D.C. residents, including illegal immigrants, who constitute a large percentage of the Hispanic population.

Barry's decision not to seek a fourth term has left many in the Hispanic community nervous. They face the prospect of a new administration with new policies during a period of budget austerity.

Currently, none of the mayoral candidates is a clear favorite among Hispanic voters, according to community activists.

"Barry delivered," said Steve Ramirez, a longtime community activist. "The new person is going to have to prove himself."

Although many candidates remain relatively unknown among Hispanics, Ramirez said, "It's more a reflection of the Hispanic community itself."

"No one {of the candidates} has been a great advocate, that's true," he said. "But why should anybody be a great advocate for us unless we prove we deserve to be great to?"

Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, one of five Democratic mayoral candidates, is credited with seeking early support from the Hispanic community, including having some of the most influential Hispanic leaders on hand when he announced his candidacy.

Ray, an at-large D.C. Council member, was widely criticized by Hispanics last year after he held a demonstration in front of the Embassy of Peru to protest that country's growing of coca, which is the base for the cocaine sold on Washington streets. They felt that Latin Americans were unfairly being blamed for U.S. drug problems.

Ray has attempted to improve relations with several recent community outreach efforts.

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) recently made inroads by introducing legislation designed to force landlords to improve their rental housing, a measure dubbed the Improve It or Lose It Act.

Council Chairman David A. Clarke has been hailed by some Hispanics for being the only council member to favor allowing noncitizens to vote for advisory neighborhood commissioners.

Lawyer Sharon Pratt Dixon made a strong showing at the Hispanic forum last month, but several leaders said the community still does not know enough about her.

Political activists in the District's Hispanic community have been working methodically this year to gain influence this election season.

Hispanic festivals and candidates' forums have drawn large numbers of candidates, and Hispanic businessmen in unprecedented numbers have had fund-raisers and rallies for mayoral candidates.

But presenting a united front is a tall order, activists say, for a community that represents virtually every Latin American country and remains passionately loyal to those cultures.

Leaders say the stakes have never been higher. The Hispanic community remains one of the least understood and most disenfranchised in the city.

Thirty-five percent of the District's Hispanics live below the poverty level, twice the rate of blacks.

Problems of housing remain critical for a community that is 90 percent renters. Crowded living in substandard conditions remains a frequent complaint that has spawned a number of Hispanic tenant groups, some of which are participating in rent strikes to improve conditions.

Crime and substance abuse are becoming more troublesome. Fewer than 30 drug-related arrests involving Hispanics were made last year; there have been more than 300 this year, a police official said. Alcoholism remains rampant, while treatment facilities for Spanish-speakers are virtually nonexistent.

Though community activists aspire eventually to make Hispanics a pivotal voting bloc in Washington, Hispanics for now are largely a nonvoting constituency.

Hispanics now number more than 85,000 and make up 14 percent of the District's population, yet the 4,000 registered Hispanic voters represent only about 1 percent of the city's 300,000 registered voters.

"That's not terribly sophisticated," said Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University and a specialist on the political empowerment of immigrants.

"One critical sign of a very immature community is when they don't go to the polls," Kraut said.

However, Ramirez believes small numbers could play a crucial role in a closely contested election, such as the Sept. 11 Democratic mayoral primary.

"That may not sound like a lot," he said of the number of registered Hispanic voters, "but Barry was elected by 1,500 {primary} votes in '78."

An examination of registered Hispanic voters suggests that a candidate would need near-unanimous support before the community could play a similar role this election.

Only 2,500 registered Democrats are Hispanic, said Ramirez, who has studied the voter rolls.

Independents make up the bulk of the rest of the Hispanic voters, trailed by Republicans, he said.

Of the 96 percent of the Hispanic residents who did not register, a large number are not citizens and do not qualify.

The rest "have to reach a point where . . . they perceive they have a stake in the community before they'll bother to go to the polls," Kraut said.

For all of those shortcomings, Hispanic activists remain confident their community is coming of age politically.

Lawyer Jose Lopez was recently nominated to be the second Hispanic D.C. Superior Court judge. For the first time, a Hispanic, Jose Bright, is running a major political campaign: Democrat Betty Ann Kane's bid to become D.C. delegate.

Hispanics organized an issues forum, inviting candidates in the mayor's and delegate's races and commiting several key issues -- and the candidates' positions -- to paper.

A second forum is scheduled after the primary.

And the community is laying plans to field its own candidate in an upcoming school board election.

"We now have a generation that grew up here," said B.B. Otero, head of the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center. "We now have the skills and training to tackle broader community issues."

Otero said the Hispanic community has always been politically active, "but we're more visible now because our numbers have increased."