WASHINGTON – Even Sonia Quezada’s experience as a bilingual secretary in Guatemala didn’t prepare her for life in the United States.
“The language barrier was the first thing, even though I studied to be a bilingual secretary, they don’t teach the right sound,” she said recently, in slightly accented but flawless English.
Despite her education, when Quezada came to this country in 1991 she was offered only cleaning and cooking jobs. She is now a successful community health worker in Baltimore, but it took her longer than she expected to get to that level.
“It’s a frustrating process, because you cannot command the knowledge that you have. People don’t give you the time,” she said.
Quezada’s experience is only an inkling of what awaits Maryland over the next three decades, when the Hispanic population is expected to grow from the current 3.5 percent to 7 percent of the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bureau does not have estimates on the how many of the new Hispanic residents will be native-born and how many will be immigrants.
But Latino outreach groups in the state say they expect most of the new Hispanic residents to be immigrants from Central and South America. And, unlike Quezada, few of them are expected to have the language skills needed to get a leg up in their new home.
In response, state and local governments around Maryland have expanded their services to address the needs of the community and reach out to Hispanics.
Prince George’s County Police have gone from only a handful of bilingual officers 10 years ago to about 40 on the force of 1,400 officers today, according to officials with the county’s Department of Public Safety.
“We’ve had a big recruitment … nine years ago, there were probably five Spanish-speaking officers,” said Sgt. Andrew Ellis, who is himself bilingual.
The number of Hispanic officers on the county police force has also grown to 58 today, Ellis said.
“We have community police officers who work with different Hispanic groups,” he said. Some of that outreach includes coordinating a local health fair and working at a local Hispanic festival.
The court system has also stepped up services for Hispanics.
That effort officially began in 1995, when the courts instituted standards for court interpreters for the first time, said Christine Howard, coordinator of interpreter services. To become a registered interpreter, candidates must now go through an orientation program with the court system.
It led to an increase in Spanish-speaking interpreters available for court proceedings: Maryland courts now have 213 interpreters of Spanish listed on the court system’s registry. The interpreters work at all levels of the court system.
The interpreters are present “in order to protect the rights of limited and non-English speakers,” said Howard.
“The court is always interested in expanding its pool of all interpreters. We need qualified interpreters in all languages. The most needed are in Spanish and Russian,” she said.
The interpreters may ease the transition for new immigrants who are not used to the American justice system, according to one Hispanic judge in the state and officials with community groups close to the courts.
“I think people from Central America, in part, come with a certain history in mind. They may have had horrible experiences with law enforcement, where people reaching out to law enforcement isn’t necessarily a good thing,” said Linda Estrada, former president of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association.
The state’s schools have also seen increased enrollment in programs for students whose primary language is Spanish. Enrollment in Limited English Programs across the state has doubled, from about 5,000 students in 1991 to almost 10,000 in 1997.
Hispanic community leaders generally give the state good marks for its efforts to reach out to the small but growing community.
“In general there is a welcoming atmosphere [in Maryland] … I think the community will continue to grow,” said Haydee Rodriguez, director of Centro de la Comunidad in Baltimore.
Hispanics are also beginning to find a place for themselves in Maryland public life.
Juvenile Justice Secretary Gilberto de Jesus is the first Hispanic member of the governor’s Cabinet. Ana Sol Gutierrez recently left a Montgomery County Board of Education seat for an unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates. There are two Hispanics on the bench in the state: Montgomery County District Judge Marielsa A. Bernard and Baltimore City District Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion.
But Hispanic community groups are doing what they can to help, in addition to the growing number of state programs.
The Hispanic Apostolate and the Education-Based Latino Outreach, both based in Baltimore, offer English programs, for example. Many immigrants “come in with very little education, even in their own language,” said Jose Ruiz, founder and director of EBLO.
Rodriguez’s Centro de la Comunidad is a multipurpose center that focuses on employment, social services and citizenship.
It was the Centro de la Comunidad that helped Quezada find and prepare for the community health worker job she now holds. Now, she comes back to volunteer there herself.
“I know I have the tools to do something … now I hope the access to better jobs is there for us,” she said.