Under a punishing summer sun, just beyond the shadow of the Capitol dome, Mexicans filled tacos next to Guatemalans preparing tamales, Chileans sold fried cheese empanadas elbow-to-elbow with Peruvians dishing out seco de rez, and Puerto Ricans served arroz con gandules across from Salvadorans peddling pupusas.

The pipe strains of the Ecuadoran Andes mingled in the hot, thick air with the syncopated rhythms of Central American cumbia, Bolivian ballads and Puerto Rican salsa along the four-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue NW yesterday, where tens of thousands of people took in the first day of Washington's 29th annual Latino Festival.

But they encountered more than a feast of food and music. There were also social workers giving out condoms, doctors distributing health care pamphlets, pollsters conducting surveys, U.S. Census and D.C. police officials hunting for recruits, and a local civil rights organization signing up volunteers.

"I like the food and the music, but sometimes Americans think Latinos only like to party. The truth is we're more than that," said Jose Juan Aguilera, 30, of Hyattsville, after signing up to join the D.C. Latino Civil Rights Center. "We need respect, and we need political power."

Washington's annual Latino Festival, which continues today with a parade and more food and music, has always served as a vehicle for political as well as cultural expression. It is one of the few events in the region that bring together a Hispanic community united by language but divided by national origin, income levels and legal status.

The festival's attendance became significant after the 1970 Census counted fewer than 20,000 Latinos in the District. Community leaders used the huge festival crowds to demonstrate that the population was actually much larger.

Organizers say more than 400,000 people attended the festival last year--and they expect a similar turnout this year. But census estimates put the region's Hispanic population at less than 340,000.

The enduring challenge has been finding a way to translate festival crowds into real political power, a difficult task because so many local Latinos aren't eligible or registered to vote.

"We know people will come out for the festival. The question is, how do we use this energy to develop a movement?" said Arturo Griffiths Jr., a longtime festival organizer who once ran for a D.C. Council seat. "How do we use this event to develop political action? We're still working on that."

Despite the Latino community's growing numbers--Hispanics make up at least 7 percent of the District's population and even greater proportions of the population of Alexandria and Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties--a School Board member in Alexandria is the only Latino who holds a major elected post anywhere in the region.

Mario Acosta-Velez, executive director of the D.C. Latino Civil Rights Center, said the lack of political power means that many local agencies continue to neglect the Latino community.

In the District, he said, less than 3 percent of the police force is Latino or speaks Spanish; less than 2 percent of all city employees are Latino; and no Latinos have been appointed to Mayor Anthony A. Williams's cabinet so far. Also, he said, the city's public schools and other agencies are not complying with federal laws designed to ensure equal access to benefits for residents who don't speak English.

But he and others say Latinos have scored some victories.

Eliana Roman, a retired D.C. schoolteacher and one of the festival founders, recalled how the school system began hiring bilingual teachers shortly after the city's first Latino Festival.

And D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose ward includes the bulk of the city's Latino population, said the community has established a network of nonprofit institutions that offer a variety of services.

"There's an infrastructure that is getting stronger every single day, and there's political influence that comes from having such strong organizations doing good work," he said. "Are they getting all the resources they need? Absolutely not. But has the situation improved? Absolutely."

In many ways, these community organizations have made the annual Latino Festival less important. Its weakness as a political tool became especially clear, some activists say, after the 1991 disturbance in Mount Pleasant.

"The Mount Pleasant disturbances did something the festival was never able to do," said Pedro Aviles, a Salvadoran community organizer and former festival president. "The festival said, 'Here we are. We have wonderful food . . . wonderful artists. Pay attention to us.' But the disturbances resulted in additional public awareness of the political and socioeconomic needs of this community."

In addition, feuding among the festival's leadership in recent years has alienated many residents and weakened the event's ability to serve as a unifying force in the Latino community. This year, for example, the festival has two presidents--Carlos Perdomo and Francisco Pizzi--because competing leadership groups failed to get together until a month ago.

Both Perdomo and Pizzi said Washington's Latino community has not achieved true political power partly because it is more diverse than those in Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami--and thus more difficult to organize.

In addition, many Latinos here are recent arrivals, some of whom fled nations in which political activity was repressed. Others simply have not let go of their ties to their communities, and because of the millions of dollars they send home in remittances, some have more power abroad than here. "Yes, we have a ways to go, but it's not a long ways to go," said Hugo Medina, one of the festival's officers. "For our parents, it was just work, work, work, and they focused on the old country. For us, it will be different, and it will be a lot easier."

CAPTION: Latino Festival (This graphic was not available)