The chest pains were so sharp that autumn Sunday, they left Maria Rubio unable to walk and struggling to breathe in the emergency room of Inova Alexandria Hospital. She still could speak, but panic engulfed her when she realized her words were of no use. She was helpless--until her 19-year-old son arrived to translate.

So began Rubio's trying journey through the health care and social service bureaucracies of Northern Virginia. Rubio, who works in a used-clothing store, received an $11,000 bill for her three-day hospital stay. Ever since, she has tried in vain to obtain Medicaid or a partial-payment plan. Social workers fluent only in English visit her to ask for statements to a checking account she doesn't have and proof of insurance she can't afford.

"It costs to get help here," Rubio, 49, complains in Spanish. Then, reflecting on the war-ravaged rural village that her family fled nearly a decade ago, she adds: "It's hard here, but it's different than in El Salvador. . . . There is no way to live over there.

"Here, there is a little hope."

Shaped by the crosscurrents of hardship and optimism, Rubio illustrates a central element of the Latino experience in the Washington region: Though they often cannot communicate with teachers or police or doctors, though many must juggle two or three jobs to support children they worry are picking up the worst of American values, though getting a driver's license--much less health insurance--can be a struggle, area Latino residents are remarkably upbeat about their lives and their children's prospects.

An in-depth survey of the area's fast-growing Hispanic population, conducted by The Washington Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, shows that it is a community dominated by newcomers who continue to compare their new life--la nueva vida--with the more desperate ones they left behind.

Nationally, 60 percent of Latino adults are immigrants, but the survey shows that three of four Latino adults in the Washington area were born outside the United States. In addition, they are recent arrivals, most having settled in this country within the past dozen years.

The total Hispanic population in the area has grown by more than 50 percent in the past decade and, according to the latest census survey, now totals more than 350,000, or 7 percent of the region's population. Other estimates place the total as high as 500,000. Asians account for about 6 percent of the population, and non-Hispanic whites and blacks about 63 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

Although the Washington area's academic, international finance and diplomatic communities have long attracted professional Latinos, the survey shows that area Hispanics as a whole are less educated and make less money than the population at large.

They are twice as likely to say they have trouble getting medical care or that a family member has had to take a second job to make ends meet. Nearly half say they or someone they know has experienced discrimination--more than among Latinos nationally, according to the study. And Hispanic students post the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group at many area schools.

A review by The Post indicates that the region's public institutions, from police departments to schools to social service agencies, have responded unevenly to the challenges posed by a Latino community in which more than two in five communicate primarily in Spanish. The market for Spanish-speaking employees is tight, and local officials say they are losing ground in making their agencies look more like the increasingly Hispanic populations they serve.

Still, a majority of area Latinos surveyed say they have a favorable view of government, police, schools and other institutions here. And nearly 75 percent are confident that their children will lead better lives than they have--a far larger share than among the Washington area's overall population, according to the survey.

"Over there, life is hard," said Marvin Giovanni Majano, 23, of Alexandria, who emigrated three years ago from Honduras and has saved enough to buy a $6,000 used car. He removes asbestos for $11 an hour and receives no health insurance or other job benefits for the dangerous work he performs.

Still, he makes almost 20 times more than he would in Honduras. "I don't see going back."

A Closed Circle

The men start lining up before dawn at Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit employment agency in Silver Spring. By daybreak, more than 50 have arrived, each waiting for a chance to turn a small wire basket, reach in and pull out a little plastic ball. The numbers on the balls will determine whether they work today.

Arnoldo Gonzalez, 45, has spent many hours in line since emigrating from El Salvador a year ago. Despite an agronomy degree, he has worked here as a landscaper, a painter, a carpenter. He shares an apartment with seven other men, an economic calculus to dilute the rent and increase the monthly money order home. He pays $175 a month toward rent and sends $250 to his family.

His prospects for steadier, better-paying work are limited by his inability to speak English. It is a deficiency at the heart of what his friends on the employment line call the circulo cerrado, or closed circle, confronting the majority of new Latino immigrants in the area.

It is a struggle for them to attend English classes, usually held at the end of their dawn-to-dark workdays in the yards and restaurants across Washington. But without English, they often cannot communicate with their children's teachers, or attend job-training classes, or explain an ache to a doctor--or obtain a driver's license.

"The classes are at night, but it depends where you live to be able to get to them," Gonzalez said. "Me, I can't."

About four in 10 Latino residents in the region say they are able to read English only a little or not at all, according to the survey, and about the same number say they communicate only in Spanish.

Almost every local jurisdiction has boosted spending on adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and similar classes are among the most popular offerings at community colleges in Maryland and Virginia. But hundreds of students are turned away each month for lack of space and, in some places, forced to wait as long as a year for a seat in a class.

During the past decade, public school systems across the region also have doubled or tripled spending on ESL programs for the children of immigrants, and many schools have hired Spanish-speaking counselors or parent liaisons. But services for Spanish-speaking students vary widely, in part because schools also must deal with many students who speak other languages.

In the District, where the number of Hispanic students in public schools has nearly quadrupled since 1981, the school system remains under federal scrutiny after parents accused it three years ago of violating the civil rights of Spanish-speaking children by failing to provide them an equal and adequate education.

But it is in the suburbs where the growth in Hispanic students has been most pronounced. In Alexandria, Hispanic students now outnumber non-Hispanic whites. In Prince William County, Latino student enrollment jumped 16 percent last year.

"We feel challenged that we have a limited number of bilingual counselors, psychologists and teachers in our classrooms," said Carol Bass, the county's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) supervisor. "They are a limited applicant pool to begin with, and most other school districts are also looking for them. We're all in competition."

Even in Arlington County, where officials have established an extensive network of bilingual parent liaisons, some parents are frustrated when they try to navigate the school bureaucracy.

Socorro Asensio, 37, said she pleaded with Arlington school officials to do something about youths hanging around her daughter's middle school whom she suspected to be gang members.

"They said, 'Senora, there are no gangs here,' " she recalls. "I'm a mother who's fighting, trying to help the police. They try to make me think the school is secure, but it is not." She ended up sending her daughter to Peru for a year to get her away from what she considered bad influences at the school.

Police agencies also are struggling with the language barrier. Many Latinos say they don't bother to report crimes because they can't communicate with officers, while Spanish-speaking officers often complain that they must act as translators for colleagues, often without compensation.

In the District, where 7 percent of the population is Hispanic, only 63--or about 2 percent--of the department's 3,500-plus officers have asked to be certified as fluent in Spanish.

In Arlington, where 19 percent of the population is Hispanic, more than anywhere else in the region, 6 percent of officers are fluent in Spanish. An even smaller fraction of the police force in Montgomery and Fairfax counties speak Spanish.

Santiago Perez, 52, arrived a year ago from El Salvador to help support a wife and four sons. But on the Fourth of July, a patrol car stopped him along University Boulevard. Neither of the officers could speak Spanish, and the day laborer never understood why he had to appear in court a month later. He hired a lawyer at $60 a day, and lost a half-week's wages waiting for his hearing.

"It's a very common problem," said Perez, who believes he was charged with littering and loitering but still is not sure. "In this neighborhood, they seem to have very little respect for us."

Prosecutors are grappling with similar problems preparing for trials. Although the District and Montgomery County have hired Spanish-speaking prosecutors and witness coordinators, some localities have none at all and rely on court-appointed interpreters, who are not always well trained.

In Prince George's County, State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson has been castigated by the Hispanic community for failing to win murder convictions against those charged with killing Gilberto Hernandez, a Salvadoran restaurant worker who police said was tackled and kicked to death in Laurel. Latino activists complain that his office has only one prosecutor who speaks Spanish and no witness coordinators who do. Johnson's top deputy declined to answer questions on the subject.

"In order to communicate, we need interpreters, and sometimes we find they are lacking in their abilities," said Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who has no prosecutors who speak Spanish.

The lack of English also has rendered many Latino residents dependent on a mass transit system that doesn't always accommodate their late-night and early-morning schedules. About three in 10 Washington area Hispanics do not have a driver's license, the survey found.

Some local governments have tried to offer services to help. In Montgomery, officials recently extended the hours and number of stops along five bus routes serving largely Latino neighborhoods in Wheaton and Silver Spring.

Health care is another concern for the region's Latinos, who are at greater risk for diabetes, on-the-job injuries and other illnesses that develop over time through lack of preventive medicine. The health departments of many local jurisdictions have increased outreach and education efforts in Spanish, and there are a few clinics in the region that focus on serving Hispanic communities.

But Spanish-speaking staff is limited at many area hospitals, and doctors often must rely on a patient's child or other relative to translate, which raises questions of both privacy and the patient's understanding of medical advice.

Even those eligible for Medicaid, including legal residents such as Maria Rubio, can find it difficult to get help. Three months after she was hospitalized for high blood pressure and intestinal ailments, Rubio continues to receive bills that she doesn't know how she will pay.

Nearly two in five Latino immigrants in the survey reported difficulty getting medical care. And a 1996 survey of more than 4,000 Spanish-speaking residents in Montgomery concluded that 86 percent of Hispanic residents do not have health insurance and use emergency rooms for primary care.

"These people are brought up to think that they don't go to a doctor unless they are sick. They just go along with these illnesses and injuries until they become too painful," said Pilar Mollish, the nurse administrator of a tiny Wheaton clinic known as Proyecto Salud.

Still, most Latino immigrants in the region believe they are far better off here than in their native countries--safer from crime, better served by government and schools and presented with greater opportunity for a better life.

Those attitudes pose a delicate question for policymakers: If Hispanic residents appear satisfied with public institutions, to what degree should government adapt--and spend taxpayer money--to serve their needs?

Quality of Service

In the early 1990s, a young mayor of Rockville was planning a new city park. Almost at once, civic groups peppered him with ideas.

Lots of tennis courts, some said. Softball diamonds, said others.

"Finally, someone raised their hand and said, 'What about soccer fields? Do you know who will be using this park?' " recalled Douglas M. Duncan, now Montgomery county executive, referring to the city's growing Hispanic community. "Those decisions, as simple as they seem, are the kind that position a county for the future. The key question you have to ask yourself is: Are you serving today's population? Or still yesterday's?"

Public officials across the Washington region are asking similar questions--and being asked to take sides. In one camp are those who fear that too much money is being spent to accommodate the new Latino arrivals. In the other is an increasingly vocal group of Hispanic residents, many of them born or raised in the United States, seeking services that would make it easier for the immigrants to adapt to American life.

Many officials simply argue that governments have a moral responsibility to provide the same quality of services for the Latino community as they do other segments of the population. Immigrants may not always be voters, the argument goes, but they are taxpayers.

"If you're not supporting a large part of your population, you're not doing your job," said Duncan, who also sees the potential political power of the new community and advertised on Spanish cable stations during his reelection campaign.

In Alexandria, officials hired a single part-time outreach worker for the Hispanic community 15 years ago. Today, there's a director of "orientation and education programs" who runs a program offering classes and seminars designed to "ease the process of assimilation into the mainstream."

"You don't want pockets of the city where people can't be employed because of language skills or documentation," City Manager Vola Lawson said.

In some cases, private businesses and nonprofit organizations have stepped in. A group of nurses opened the Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services clinic in Arlandria in 1993 after noticing that Latino children were arriving in school without immunizations and uninsured Hispanic women were delivering babies at home without prenatal care. In some cases, children were born with birth defects that could have been prevented.

"I don't see what we do as charity, and I don't see the city's role as providing charity," Executive Director Susan Abramson said. "I do see our role as investing in a population that needs investment. To protect and promote its own welfare as a city, the city needs to help its citizens be productive, healthy residents."

But even the most committed of public servants run into obstacles. Indeed, the area's vibrant economy has complicated efforts. The Latino population in the area is growing faster than government agencies can find Spanish-speaking employees in an extraordinarily tight labor market. As a result, some public agencies are actually slipping.

Only six of 189 principals in Montgomery are Hispanic, though about 15 percent of students are Hispanic.

School officials say that they must add 50 to 100 teachers each year to keep pace with the growing student population and that finding enough new Latino teachers to mirror the proportion of new Latino students is next to impossible.

"You want role models in many ethnicities," said Elizabeth Arons, director of human resources for Montgomery schools. "But we are growing so quickly, it's hard just to keep up. Even though the numbers [of Latino staff members] are growing, the percentages are not growing as fast as I would like."

At the same time, government efforts to help Latino communities sometimes have run into resistance from other residents.

Robert Denny, a columnist for the Montgomery Journal newspaper, has written several times about the burden that undocumented Latino immigrants place on county schools. The school district estimates that 2 percent of its students--about 2,600 children--may not be in this country legally.

"The changing demographics are inevitable and have to be acknowledged and accepted, but the thing you have to oppose is the influx of illegal aliens," Denny said. "They are undesirable and place an enormous burden on public services and taxpayers."

In Arlington, residents recently battled over a plan to demolish the Arna Valley apartment complexes, home to nearly 3,000 low- and moderate-income Latinos, and replace them with luxury town houses. Latino advocates said that would destroy a vibrant ethnic neighborhood and force hundreds of struggling families out of a county that offers no public and little affordable housing.

But other residents described Arna Valley as a crowded, dangerous, "culturally and linguistically isolated" complex that the county had allowed to become a "dumping ground" for the poor. The County Board approved the redevelopment plan unanimously, and the evictions went forward.

"No matter what position we took, we were going to be cast in the position of being against Hispanics," said Allen Blume, chairman of the Long Branch Park Neighborhood. "But I do not believe government has an obligation, let alone a right, to create particular neighborhood enclaves for any particular group."

In the middle are the Latino immigrants themselves--growing in number, striving, planning for a future in a country that has for centuries adopted and adapted to waves of immigrants.

On a cold, gray day, Evaristo Hernandez, 27, toils in a Northwest Washington neighborhood, a small man with a leaf-blower strapped across his chest. Around him are the rolling lawns and large homes of the wealthy.

Since arriving from El Salvador nine years ago, Hernandez has climbed from minimum-wage dishwasher to fledgling entrepreneur. He had a scrape with the law after driving drunk, but he doesn't drink any more. His days and nights have been spent making money for his family, so he has had little time for English classes. He still relies on his 8-year-old daughter's command of English for help in writing out his bills.

He dreams of home--the distant village of Zacatecoluca--but knows his life now is here. "This is a country for advancement," he said. "You kill yourself in your own country, and you can't excel."

Two employees sweep leaves onto a plastic tarp that they then take to a gleaming cherry-red pickup parked by the curb. A sign on its door announces his accomplishment and his dreams: "Hernandez & Daughters Landscaping." One day, he said, his three daughters will take over the business he is building house by house.

Latino Growth

The Washington-area Hispanic population has grown dramatically since 1970.

1970: 70,904

1998: 354,975

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Claritas

The Post/Kaiser/Harvard Latinos Survey; Area Latinos See Strengths, Weaknesses of American Life

Local Latinos who came to the United States perceive their new home as strong on: economic opportunity, the treatment of the poor, political freedom and school quality, according to a Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll. But America doesn't do as well when it comes to the strength of the family and race relations, and opinions are mixed on morality.

Better:

Opportunity to get ahead

Better in the U.S.: 94%

About the same in both: 5%

Treatment of the poor

Better in the U.S.: 62%

Better in native country: 7%

About the same in both: 30%

Amount of political freedom

Better in the U.S.: 62%

Better in native country: 8%

About the same in both: 26%

The quality of schools

Better in the U.S.: 59%

Better in native country: 21%

About the same in both: 17%

Safety from crime

Better in the U.S.: 53%

Better in native country: 8%

About the same in both: 39%

Worse:

The strength of the family

Better in the U.S.: 20%

Better in native country: 58%

About the same in both: 22%

Relations between races

Better in the U.S.: 22%

Better in native country: 48%

About the same in both: 26%

The friendliness and openness of the people

Better in the U.S.: 29%

Better in native country: 40%

About the same in both: 30%

The moral values of the society

Better in the U.S.: 34%

Better in native country: 35%

About the same in both: 29%

Faith in Children's Future

Q: Do you feel confident that life for your children will be better than it has been for you, or don't you feel this way?

Area Latinos

Life will be better for children: 74%

Not confident life will be better: 21%

Whites

Life will be better for children: 52%

Not confident life will be better: 43%

Blacks

Life will be better for children: 63%

Not confident life will be better: 32%

Ties to Home

Many Latino immigrants maintain strong ties to their native countries; more than half say they regularly send money home.

Still legal citizen of native country: 84%

Regularly send money back to native country: 55%

Have voted in native country since coming to the U.S.: 35%

For Many, Spanish Still the Language of Choice

Q: What language do you usually speak at home?

Only Spanish/More Spanish: 53%

Only English/More English: 25%

Both equally: 21%

Nearly Half of Area Latino Adults in Households With Income Under $30,000

Compared with other area residents, Latinos are less well off economically, reporting lower annual household incomes and less education. These differences are driven in part by the newness of the Latino population. The region's American-born Latinos are much better off financially.

Education

All Latinos

Less than high school: 42%

High school graduate: 19%

Some college: 18%

College graduate: 22%

1st Gen.

Less than high school: 52%

High school graduate: 21%

Some college: 14%

College graduate: 3%

Born in U.S.

Less than high school: 12%

High school graduate: 13%

Some college: 28%

College graduate: 47%

Non-Latinos

Less than high school: 11%

High school graduate: 27%

Some college: 22%

College graduate: 40%

Income

All Latinos

Less than $20,000: 26%

$20,000 - $30,000: 22%

$30,000 - $50,000: 19%

$50,000 - $75,000: 15%

More than $75,000: 13%

1st Gen.

Less than $20,000: 32%

$20,000 - $30,000: 24%

$30,000 - $50,000: 19%

$50,000 - $75,000: 12%

More than $75,000: 8%

Born in U.S.

Less than $20,000: 7%

$20,000 - $30,000: 16%

$30,000 - $50,000: 18%

$50,000 - $75,000: 25%

More than $75,000: 28%

Non-Latinos

Less than $20,000: 7%

$20,000 - $30,000: 11%

$30,000 - $50,000: 21%

$50,000 - $75,000: 20%

More than $75,000: 34%

Economic Troubles

Q: Have you had trouble getting or paying for medical care for self or family?

Percentage who said yes

All Latinos: 32%

1st Gen.: 37%

Born in U.S.: 20%

Non-Latinos: 13%

Q: Have you had to start working or take on an extra job because you needed the extra money?

Percentage who said yes

All Latinos: 41%

1st Gen.: 41%

Born in U.S.: 41%

Non-Latinos: 19%

Economic Victories

Q: Have you been able to save money for the future?

Percentage who said yes

All Latinos: 56%

1st Gen.: 51%

Born in U.S.: 71%

Non-Latinos: 78%

Q: Have you invested in the stock market?

Percentage who said yes

All Latinos: 30%

1st Gen.: 22%

Born in U.S.: 55%

Non-Latinos: 57%

Note: Numbers may not add to 100 percent because percentage with no opinion is not shown.

About the Latinos Survey

The Washington Post/Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University survey of Washington area Latinos was conducted by telephone between June 30 and Aug. 30. During that period, 603 Latino adults across the metro area were interviewed in their choice of English or Spanish, along with 309 non-Latinos. The local survey was accompanied by a national Latinos survey, which included an additional 1,814 Latinos and 1,888 non-Latinos.

Respondents were selected at random. Individuals were identified as "Latino" if they answered "yes" to the question: "Are you yourself of Hispanic or Latin origin or descent, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or some other Latin background?"

The final results were weighted to the national Latino population, so that states and nationalities are represented in their actual proportions (as estimated by the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey). The margin of error for results based on all Washington Latinos is plus or minus 4 percentage points, and plus or minus 6 percentage points for non-Latinos. The margin of error for results based on the national Latino sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa.

The survey is the sixth in a series of Post/Kaiser/Harvard projects on contemporary issues. Representatives of the three sponsors worked together to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results. The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, with Harvard University, are publishing independent summaries of the findings; each organization bears the sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name. The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Post paid for the surveys and related expenses. The survey data will be sent to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, where copies of the survey questionnaires and data will be available.

The project team included Richard Morin, Post director of polling, and Claudia Deane, assistant director of polling; Drew E. Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Mollyann Brodie, vice president and director of public opinion and media research at Kaiser, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on health care and other public policy issues; and Robert J. Blendon, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health and Kennedy School of Government, and John Benson, deputy director for public opinion and health/social policy at the School of Public Health.