THE GAME of city politics as played in the District of Columbia has historically had only two major ethnic groups -- blacks and whites. In the tradition of most southern cities, the blacks were poor and the whites were generally well-to-do. For years, the whites ran what there was of a city government. Then the game changed, with blacks -- no longer always poor -- being elected to office. And now the game is changing again. No longer are blacks necessarily on the bottom of the totem pole. More often now the low man is a Latino. A larger proportion of Latinos have trouble with crucial areas of city life, from housing to employment. And now it is the Latino who has little voice in the city government.

In the past year, however, there have been signs of growing political activism by Latinos. The primary result so far has been a city-sponsored study, which shows that Latinos have the worst housing and the highest unemployment. Those who do have jobs earn substantially less than blacks or whites. The report focused on the Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant areas, long the city's principal Latino neighborhoods. In its conclusion, the study indicated there are "two geographically close but separate communities" in which Latinos live with blacks and whites, but face different, more difficult obstacles to living well.

Despite these great needs, the city's Latinos have remained nearly invisible. Many of these households include illegal aliens who live in fear of discovery. Further, the study found that "most Latino families seem unaware of the social services provided by the District of Columbia government." Even more serious, their children lose out on educational opportunities, job training, food supplements and even summer jobs because of their parents' failure to take part in the city's social services programs.

Still, the city's Latino population continues to grow, according to community workers. The Latinos are drawn to Washington by friends or relatives who have already settled here, as well as by this city's status as the nation's capital. For the city and the region -- which is experiencing an influx of Asians as well as Latinos -- it is essential that these newcomers become part of the larger community instead of entering a separate world of grievance and deprivation.