Whenever someone stares at Billy Paz, he swears he can feel it, even if it's from behind his back. That's what happened, he said, when LaTonya Young stole an awfully long look in the Martha's Table community center last year. He felt a sensation deep within his soul.
Billy turned and saw her, a pretty girl with bon-bon brown eyes and relaxed, shoulder-length hair. "I thought she was really beautiful," 16-year-old Billy said of 14-year-old LaTonya, "but I'm not really into that beauty stuff. I needed to know how she was inside. I found out that she was really nice, and smart, and I liked that."
That LaTonya is African American and Billy is the son of Salvadoran immigrants matters to neither of them. And that's where things get interesting in the Mount Pleasant area of Northwest Washington, where they fell for each other.
A black person dating a Latino in Mount Pleasant and the communities around it is almost unheard of, even though Latinos and African Americans often live close enough to hear each other's voices through thin apartment walls.
In fact, Spanish-speaking Latinos and English-speaking African Americans barely muster a hello. "There's minimal contact. The dialogue is nonexistent," said Omar Zavala. A Salvadoran activist, Zavala said he's tried for years to bridge the gap between Mount Pleasant's Latinos and African Americans. Now he talks like a man who is about ready to give up.
"We know each other only through stereotypes," he said. "There have been conferences to address the problem, but they are too minimal. Right now, the way things are, there's this vacuum of cynicism."
With its dynamic black and Latino mix, Mount Pleasant is a model for how much of the city will look in the not-so-distant future. But little has been done to promote a dialogue that might ease tensions between the city's majority-black population and its biggest, and most visible, minority.
And that's a problem, some say, because Mount Pleasant is also the city's one proven sore spot--the site of the city's only major civil disturbance in decades. It erupted in the heart of Mount Pleasant in 1991, when a Latino immigrant was shot and wounded by a black D.C. police officer.
The problem now is so pronounced that a trio of Latino and African American theater groups recently tried to capture it in an African American-boy-meets-Latino-girl play called "The 13th Summer of William and Pilar."
William, a new kid in town, befriends Pilar, a Latina without friends. When their friendship is discovered, friends and family rush to pry them apart. The GALA Hispanic Theater, African Continuum Theater Company and Young Playwrights' Theater produced the play, hoping to generate discussion about racial attitudes among the audience.
But only a few people in an area of 70,000 showed up, and many questions went unasked.
Question such as these: Why is living together such a major challenge for Northwest Washington's African Americans and Latinos? Why do they view each other through worn stereotypes rather than learning more about each other's core values and customs?
And why won't they even speak?
A Mother's Decision
Billy and LaTonya face these challenges every day. It's in their homes, their school and especially in people's prejudiced attitudes.
Billy's mother is Maria Gutierrez, a Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in Washington from El Salvador when she was 19. Gutierrez works hard as a cleaning woman--day and night--so that her children can get a decent education. Part of what she asks in return is that they carry on their heritage.
That's why she'll have nothing to do with LaTonya, Billy's black girlfriend.
"I want to be sincere," Gutierrez, who speaks only Spanish, said of her feelings when Billy first told her about LaTonya. "I told my son it was not good. I told him that the majority of black girls go with one and then the other, and that causes problems.
"My son," she pleaded in an effort to change Billy's mind, "I don't understand her language. I would like someone who speaks the same language."
Gutierrez's feelings didn't develop out of the blue. El Salvador has very few people with black skin, yet the nation's airwaves are filled with American media portrayals of African Americans as criminals, Salvadoran immigrants said.
Two years ago, Gutierrez faced more than just an image. She said she was robbed on her Mount Pleasant street by a black man who grabbed her purse and punched her in the stomach. Gutierrez was pregnant at the time, and she had to be rushed to the hospital.
She was quick to point out that her attacker wasn't from her neighborhood. Gutierrez said she likes her black neighbors. "I know them, they know us. We get along well, even though we don't speak the same language."
Billy's father, Juan Francisco Paz, bolted from their house and searched for the assailant but failed to find him. That night, Billy said, the family was overcome with concern for Gutierrez's unborn child and with anger at the black man who committed the crime.
Months later, they were forced to deal with another crime with results that were far worse. During a visit to La Union, El Salvador, to inspect several stores he owned, Juan Francisco Paz was attacked and killed by Latino robbers wielding machetes, Gutierrez said.
Billy, swayed by profound grief, had an epiphany about skin color and character. Black or Latino, he said, "There are good people and bad people in all races."
The awakening is the main reason Billy did what most Latino children find especially hard to do--take a stand against the heartfelt wishes of a parent.
"Now I leave him alone," his mother said. But that in no way means she tolerates LaTonya. "I do not see her. I do not know where her parents live," Gutierrez said. "I know her because at Martha's Table, some of the other women pointed her out and said, 'That's Billy's girlfriend.' "
LaTonya's father is George Young, an African American who said his daughter's choice of a Latino doesn't bother him. "A human being is a human being," he said. "As long as people care about each other, that's the important thing. I don't have the right to judge color."
His daughter is free with Billy, inviting him to church and holding his hand. She said the congregation accepts their relationship, as long as they're not fresh with each other. LaTonya said her pastor pulls her aside for chats about boys.
But all is not perfect in LaTonya's African American world. In the privacy of their home, LaTonya said, her father, in joking with Billy, "calls him a wetback."
As a racist term, that word is roughly equal to the worst thing a non-black person can call an African American. It certainly didn't go over well with LaTonya and Billy when they talked about it. They squeezed each other's hands and fidgeted on a worn old sofa at Martha's Table, where they go for after-school tutoring and other programs.
Billy didn't crack a smile. He stared ahead. LaTonya leaned on his shoulder. As they talked about their year as an interracial couple, their grip grew tighter. And when they spoke about what it's like to hold hands in public, their two hands appeared to have forged into a fist.
"They hate us," Billy said of black and Latino students. "You can feel them looking."
Especially at their high school, Cardozo.
"Whew!" said LaTonya. "When we went to Cardozo, it was there. I would talk about him and my friends would say, 'Where is he? Where is he?' When they saw him, they would say, 'Oh, that's him?' And you could tell by the way they said, 'That's him' how they felt.
"Some of my friends didn't care," LaTonya said. "But my cousin said I should date somebody in my own race, not the Spanish."
In Mount Pleasant, many black people call Latinos by that name, identifying them by the way they speak. They see differences and not similarities. While language and religion separate them, the gulf between them is not as wide as the gulf that separates both from white Americans.
Both are large minority groups facing racial discrimination. The marginal difference is the reason some find it so hard to understand why the two groups don't get along.
But some scholars say there's a simple explanation.
"African Americans don't make an effort to learn the language so they can learn about other people," said Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's Department of Afro-American Studies. "There's very little curiosity about the sociological background of the newcomers."
Having fought long and hard for basic civil rights and home rule in Washington, others say, African Americans react with alarm to what they feel is an invasion of Latinos from Central America.
"Our gains have been so marginal, and people feel jeopardized," said Sherry Brown, who is black and the vice president of the Greater Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. "We fought for home rule, and recently that was jeopardized by the control boards," he said, referring to federal role in the wake of the city's fiscal woes. "People were saying that we can't be doling out things to other folks. We have our own battles to fight."
Many black people believe that Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Jews and other non-black people immigrated to America and passed them economically because skin color didn't stigmatize them.
"What I hear from African Americans a lot is that only by necessity are lower-income Latinos even near black people," Adams said. "If the person is from a South American country and is not too tan, or if the person is white in appearance and speaks Spanish and will eventually move rapidly into the system, black people resent that flexibility, and we say wherever they came from, they'll do better than us."
But to Latino immigrants arriving to Washington from impoverished countries, black people seem to have it made. They control city hall, the police force and the Department of Motor Vehicles. They drive fancy cars and, in many cases, live in fine houses that Latinos sometimes clean.
"Honestly, sometimes African Americans think that because of their history, they don't see themselves as an oppressor," said Abel Nunez, president of the Organization of Salvadoran Americans. "But unfortunately, that's the position they're in here in Washington. Sometimes it's the system that's oppressive, and it's their face on the system.
"When we went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, because of the language barrier, the anger we received was African American. So we would come home and say, 'Watch out, they're out to get us.' "
Nunez believes black Americans see Latinos as enjoying the civil rights and advancements for which black people fought so hard and don't recognize the hardships of being a poor immigrant, a refugee from war who doesn't speak the language.
"It's a funny experience when you have money in your pocket and can't get to where you need to go" because you don't know how to say it in English. "You're an adult. You're embarrassed. You can speak, but you can't communicate. That's what it's like to be an immigrant."
Patricia Campos was one of the thousands of poor immigrants who fled a civil war in El Salvador. For Campos, then 15, arriving in a majority-black city like Washington in 1988 was a culture shock. "We didn't grow up around African Americans, and we felt this hostility and rejection coming from the black community," said Campos, who now works for the AFL-CIO Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
Race relations was the last thing on their minds, she said.
"We took jobs cleaning, working hand-to-hand, and it seemed like we were taking jobs from African Americans."
Campos didn't talk to her neighbors, not even a hello, mostly because her poor English embarrassed her. "I didn't want to sound like a fraud," she said. "It wasn't because I didn't like people."
At school, well-dressed black students "picked on us," she said, because she and other poor immigrants wore ragged clothes. Without bitterness, she added: "In the cafeteria I remember being pushed around. We couldn't defend ourselves. Kids can be cruel."
But kids, as Billy Paz shows, can also be a symbol of change. He is definitely not your average Washington Latino. He grew up in a black neighborhood and swears allegiance to his black friends.
In the language of hip-hop, a culture Billy strongly embraces, he is "ghetto fabulous," and can bust rhymes, he says, "Like my boy Snoop"--hard-core rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Billy stuck with his friends at the Martha's Table teen program, where he and LaTonya go for tutoring and college training, long after most Latinos his age leave for the nearby Latin American Youth, said Jennifer Thomas, the program's director.
Leaving Martha's Table, Billy said, would be like leaving his family. One day, he pointed to a black kid his age and said, "That's my brother there." He did the same with a Latino friend. "That there is my cousin," he said. "And him over there, he's my brother, too."
The way Billy identifies with dark-skinned people is dramatically different from most Latinos, who prefer calling them "los negros," which translates as "the blacks." But it has a nasty connotation for African Americans who heard white people sneer "Negro" for hundreds of years.
Not to mention Afro-Latinos. When he was growing up near Mount Pleasant, E. Francisco Lopez had an eye for pretty Latinas, white and black. But he said he had to focus on those with darker skin.
"I'm an Afro-Latino, and for some Latino parents it wasn't good enough," said Lopez, the National Institute for Latino Development director. "What the parents said always came back to me through the kids. I was always a spectacle.
"I don't want to make them seem very racist," Lopez said, "but internally they are, especially with African American people, but they wouldn't tell you that. It's not politically correct."
Roland Roebuck, an Afro-Latino who is Hispanic program manager for the District's Department of Human Services, has a theory to explain why Salvadorans don't feel comfortable around dark-skinned people.
"We have to take into consideration the fact that Salvadorans in their own country don't have a large Afro-Latino population," he said. "As a result there is no experience of dealing with people of color."
That's bound to change. But whether the change will be good or bad, activists and residents say they don't know. Many are waiting to see how black and Latino children who study side by side will get along.
When the final school bell sounded recently at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, Latino and black students mixed outside in the narrow street--like oil and water. Only a few spoke to each other before walking toward home.
Even the youth play, "The 13th Summer of William and Pilar," left the question unresolved. William and Pilar argued near the end of the play. But when their emotions died down, they looked at each other with hope in their eyes.
But a greater hope rests in Billy Paz and LaTonya Young. For them, togetherness is a concept the rest of Washington has to work out.
She leaned on his shoulder and looked toward him with the brown eyes he likes so much. His neck was covered by her soft hair. Billy let loose the toothy smile of a satisfied young man.
And LaTonya? She was halfway to bliss. "I like him a lot," she said, gripping Billy's hand.
"We've told each other that we love each other." And that, she said, was pretty much that.
CAPTION: Billy Paz, 16, and LaTonya Young, 14, of Mount Pleasant, have met resistance since they began dating. Billy's mother refuses to have anything to do with LaTonya.
CAPTION: Billy Paz and LaTonya Young pause on 14th Street as LaTonya's friend Tia Ingram, 13, waits.
CAPTION: Jennifer Thomas, center, of the Martha's Table community center's teen program, visits with LaTonya and Billy.