The Latino community in Washington, swelled in recent years by the ranks of Central Americans seeking escape from war and revolution, is looking for clout commensurate with its numbers. But community leaders say that despite Mayor Marion Barry's public commitment to Latino issues, Hispanics remain outsiders when it comes to the city's budget and power structure.
Hispanics can point to clear signs of progress in recent years, such as the existence of a special Office on Latino Affairs and the appointment last week of a Latino, Maria Otero, to the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights, but they charge that on issues involving jobs and city service, Washington's fastest-growing minority is often at odds with the city administration.
"The concern and need for equal opportunity for Hispanics in the District government is something that needs attention and focus," said Dick Clark, executive assistant to City Council Chairman David A. Clarke.
Alberto Gomez, executive director of the Council of Hispanic Community and Agencies, is more direct, declaring: "This administration is fast to talk, but slow to act."
In Washington, a majority of Latinos are recent arrivals, in many cases are unskilled and, because they lack legal immigrant status, officially invisible. The 1980 census listed 18,000 people of Hispanic descent living in the District, but most human services agencies and Latino community organizations agree that the true number is between 50,000 and 75,000.
Gomez said the Hispanic community has acute needs, but little access to services.
"We've asked repeatedly for a D.C. Department of Human Services outreach center in the neighborhood and haven't got it," he said. "We've asked for a more aggressive housing policy and seen how one building after another is lost to us. In education and mental health there's been cutbacks in deeply needed, and insufficient, programs."
Latinos' representation in the city's power structure is not proportional to the contributions they have made to the city's politics, especially to both of Mayor Barry's election campaigns, Gomez insisted
"Even if you took the 18,000 census figure as valid, we should have 13.8 percent of all the civil service jobs," he said. "We don't even have the .8 percent."
Jose Gutierrez, who as D.C. director of personnel is the city's highest-ranking Latino, denies that Barry's administration is negligent toward Hispanics in its hiring policies.
Gutierrez confirmed that of approximately 4,000 new hires in the past five years, only about 150 jobs had gone to Latinos. But he said that this represents progress.
"We're not saying the situation is perfect," Gutierrez said. "But you have to look at the fact that there are now more Hispanics than ever on the boards and committees of a number of city agencies. Barry has shown he is in the business of fulfilling his campaign promises towards Hispanics."
Gutierrez, a department head, pointed to himself as a symbol of Latino progress. "You have to remember that five years ago Washington's highest level Hispanic was a GS-13," he said, referring to a civil service level that is below the top rungs.
Jose Lopez, who often provides liaison between the mayor's office and Latino agencies, said he believes the emphasis on jobs may be misplaced.
"I get hell for saying this," he said, "but we are missing the skilled and trained people to take positions that the mayor would be happy to make available to us. Perhaps his effort is misplaced. The need may be not so much for jobs as for education."
Recently, the city's most serious effort to recruit Latinos has forced Gutierrez's department to look outside the District for candidates. The corrections and police departments are each trying to hire more than 100 Hispanic officers, and last month they went to Philadelphia and New York to interview potential hires.
"The Latino community here is fairly young," Gutierrez said. "It's primarily first-generation. The communities with oldest roots in the United States are the Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, but in the District the largest groups are Salvadoran and Nicaraguan. There aren't enough Latinos here with U.S. citizenship, and those that there are are too old."
Although more Latinos arrive every day and their needs and problems multiply proportionately, they have few ways to press their demands. Latinos clustered in dilapidated row houses in Shaw who complain to the landlord are threatened with a visit from an immigration officer, say those familiar with the community. Latinos seeking jobs in the civil service must produce the requisite "green card" or certificate of legal immigrant status.
Latinos who press for greater budget allocations from the city sometimes have been told bluntly that they do not have the votes.
"I really have problems with you even suggesting that our black programs and activities should be cut or that your Latino priorities should become our priorities," school board member John Warren (Ward 6) told Gomez at a budget hearing two years ago in an exchange that is well remembered in the Latino community.
Gomez had been asking the city not to close a bilingual education center and Warren indignantly reminded him: "The city is 75 percent black, and in a democracy those who vote, in terms of the majority, make the difference, okay?"
Warren said recently that his remarks have been taken out of context.
"My record on the board is clear," he said. "I have voted funds for Latino education programs every time the issue has come up . . . but it is not racist to look at the demographics of the city in looking for priorities within the school system."
At the United Planning Organization, the city's federally funded community action agency, the Hispanic community received barely $26,000 in direct grants from the agency's more than $12 million budget for fiscal 1983.
"We do serve Latinos through our child-care services and Neighborhood Center programs," UPO spokesman Joseph Klippel said. "We are not averse to providing Latinos with more assistance by any means."
Klippel said, however, that budget allocations are decided by the board of trustees, and that Hispanics are not a specifically designated priority. Only one of the board's 32 members is Latino. He is Wille Vazquez, head of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs.
"We target all of the low-income population as our concern," Klippel said. "Latinos who live in the neighborhood of one of our community centers are just as welcome there as the Chinese or anyone else."
Klippel said that programs such as Head Start, which have been in place for years, would have to be "defunded," or stripped of funds, to provide money for programs aimed specifically at Latinos.
"Defunding an organization that is doing good work is an awkward thing to do," he said.
Policy toward Latinos appears to vary from one department of the District government to another. Father Jose Somoza, who has worked in the city's bilingual education program for more than 12 years, for example, said that he has no complaints about the funding and cooperation his office has received.
"As a general rule, we always get the requests that we document and argue well for," he said recently.
But Latino agencies were up in arms earlier this year when the Health Department sought to cut funds for two clinics largely used by Spanish-speaking residents of the city. Privately, several community leaders blame health commissioner Ernest Hardaway for that decision, charging that he is insensitive to Latinos' needs.
"You have to start off by recognizing that this administration has real economic problems, and that the limits are not always imposed by neglect," one Hispanic spokesman commented. "But I do definitely believe that some people there need a reeducation, and Hardaway heads the list."
Hardaway declined to comment.
Latinos recognize that solutions are not automatic, and that not all fall within the city government's perview.
"At least, this administration is beginning to recognize our diversity and our numbers, and the fact that we are part of this community to stay," says Maria Otero.
"We are a tax base and an economic power," says Gutierrez. "Our first concern now has to be to organize, and to speak with one voice. Our clout will come from an increase in voter turnout."
A story yesterday on Latinos in Washington incorrectly quoted a percentage in a statement by Alberto Gomez, executive director of the Council of Hispanic Community and Agencies.
The quote should have read: "Even if you took the 18,000 census figure as valid, we should have 3.8 percent of all the civil service jobs. We don't even have the .8 percent."