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The Washington Post

In Annapolis, Latinos Inch Into Lobbying

March 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post. All rights reserved. 

At 4:30 a.m., Francisco Aguirre switches on a lamp against the pre-dawn darkness of his basement living room and settles on a blue sofa with missing back cushions.

This is the time of morning he usually pulls on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and his paint-spattered boots. But today will involve a white button-down shirt, neatly pressed pants, a trip to Annapolis and -- before any of that -- a quiet hour reviewing the contents of a pale, yellow booklet.

He turns to a page entitled "key words."

"Delegate," the Honduran reads, for the English translation of the word he better knows as "delegado."

"Senator," he reads for the word he first learned as "senador."

These are the people he and several busloads of other Latinos will be meeting in a few hours.

"Lobbying," for "cabildeo." That is what they will be doing. Cooks, construction workers or house painters like Aguirre, their cause is a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

In a nation bracing for war, in a state confronting a billion-dollar-plus budget deficit, it is not the most pressing of issues. Yet for this slender 32-year-old and his fellow cabilderos , the afternoon in Annapolis will mark an important milestone in the journey from immigrant outsider to political player.

Eight years in the country, but this is the day Aguirre will start feeling like he is part of the system.

"If you care about keeping this job, you'll reconsider that," the foreman had cautioned the week before, when Aguirre announced that he would be taking a day off from painting an Arlington hotel to visit the lawmakers.

This is more important, Aguirre had thought. I'll risk it.

Like Aguirre, many of the lobbyists have not been in the United States long. Their paychecks are modest, their English shaky. But not so their faith in a simple proposition: In their nations, power rests with the wealthy, but as Aguirre puts it, "In this country, even ordinary people can make changes." When a coalition of Latino advocates offered a series of classes to train activists for the lobby day and an evening rally -- held last Monday -- they signed up readily.

In the past 10 years, the number of Latinos in Maryland has nearly doubled. Latinos account for more than 4 percent of residents statewide, 7 percent of the population in Prince George's County and 12 percent in Montgomery County. While it might not be California or Texas, where decades of Hispanic immigration has reshaped the political landscape, Maryland is witnessing the effects of an awakening among these newcomers.

Hispanic activists persuaded the legislature last year to require state agencies to translate important documents into Spanish. In November, Hispanic voters in Prince George's and Montgomery helped elect the first two Latinos to the House of Delegates, Victor R. Ramirez and Ana Sol Gutierrez, both Democrats.

Now the state's Hispanic leaders have set their sights on more ambitious goals -- pushing through the driver's license bill, for a start, as well as a proposal to let illegal immigrants who have grown up in Maryland pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. To do that, the advocates say, they are building an army of savvy constituents -- the sort of grassroots network that leaders of other influential minority groups routinely call on for support. Across Virginia and in the District, similar forces have been mobilizing.

"The echo of the community," Gutierrez calls it: "And it is absolutely essential. Without it, I'm just a lonely voice."

At the first training session last month, Aguirre, a cheerful former schoolteacher, seemed a model recruit.

"Who can list the three branches of American government?" an instructor asked. Up shot Aguirre's hand.

"Who will collect signatures for this petition?" Aguirre, again.

Yet also apparent that February afternoon was a gulf that lay between a man who had to cross the Texas border at a sprint and the ladies and gentlemen of Maryland's General Assembly.

Could he cite any state politicians? Aguirre had shaken his head, then cried out, "Si! Lyndon LaRouche!" -- gleefully rolling his r as he named the Virginia-based perennial fringe presidential candidate.

What did he think the lawmakers' offices would look like? "Very luxurious -- pure gold."

Aguirre's review session is complete. He puts down the booklet and walks into the bathroom to take a shower.

Possibly, the legislators of Annapolis still will guess that he was born in a village with no electricity and only two dirt roads. Perhaps they will never imagine that he nonetheless managed to pass the entrance exam of one of Honduras's top public high schools.

Maybe the lawmakers will even discover that he is not technically a constituent -- that he doesn't have a green card, just a temporary work permit.

But at least, Aguirre says to himself, "the people of Annapolis won't think, 'Oof! These Hispanics are so dirty.' "

By 2 p.m., he is in his weathered Mazda pickup, halfway between his rented basement in Lanham and the meeting point in Takoma Park, where a fleet of buses waits to take him and the others to the State House. On the seat next to him, a prized possession: his Sony Hi8 video camera.

"I film all the most important events of my life," he explains. "I'm addicted to this thing."

Its purchase was an earlier step toward becoming an American -- except that so far, his videos depict an outsider's life.

There are the oldest ones featuring sights that once seemed exotic: wide freeways in Dallas, snow in Louisiana.

More recent is the shot of his sister-in-law walking out of a Texas jail last spring, her smile a mix of relief and embarrassment. She had been arrested days after slipping across the border, and Aguirre had to plunk down $750 to bail her out.

He did not mind; his brothers are his closest friends. A year ago, he gave up the Texas sun for Maryland's winter winds to live closer to them.

Then there are the videos of Aguirre at work -- taken, he says, so that relatives in Honduras would be more appreciative of the earnings he wires back and understand how hard life is up North.

He says he wishes that those who had gone before him had made that more clear. Instead, they spoke of raking in bags full of dollars the way groundskeepers gather leaves.

It was a tempting image to someone peddling everything from credit cards to potatoes to supplement his schoolteacher's salary.

"I thought, I'll go for a few years, gather up my three sacks of money and come home," he says. "But life in this country is so expensive, you end up spending most of what you earn over here."

Aguirre is on the bus, shivering a little as he looks out at the snowdrifts lining the highway.

"Que queremos?" -- What do we want? -- shouts one of the training program instructors from the front of the bus. "La licencia!" Aguirre and about 50 other passengers yell back.

He means it, he says. He knows lots of people who don't have the proof of legal status needed to get licenses. They drive anyway, risking massive fines, even arrest and deportation. But how else do you get to work where there's no public transportation?

The bus turns onto a narrow street, and suddenly the State House is in view.

On the sidewalk, the lobbyists are divided into small groups, each assigned translators. Aguirre's team will meet representatives of the 21st District in Prince George's. Aguirre will be the chief spokesman. He hands his Hi-8 to another man in the group.

The first encounters are easy. Sen. John A. Giannetti (D) is a big supporter of the driver's license bill. In fact, he says, he's a little peeved that he wasn't asked to sponsor it. Del. Barbara A. Frush (D) also has been briefed, and she is favorably inclined.

Then Aguirre faces a lawmaker who has never heard of the license proposal, Del. Brian R. Moe (D), and there's a slight hitch. The group's appointment with Moe and colleague Del. Pauline H. Menes (D) was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. But by the time the Latinos make it past security, it is 6 p.m.

Moe and Menes also are running late -- for a dinner with the governor. They agree to a quick chat in the foyer of their suite. It is a cramped space, with no gold decorations.

"Buenos dias or buenos noches!" booms Menes as Aguirre and the others crowd in.

Moe nods in greeting.

Aguirre launches into a hastily compressed version of the pitch he has rehearsed for weeks. "This problem affects all residents," he notes in Spanish, "because without a driver's license, you can't get car insurance."

Menes nods her head vigorously at the translator's version and wags her finger at the group as she says, "Oh yes, you have to have car insurance."

Moe smiles. This is his fifth meeting with an interest group today, and it will not be his last.

Aguirre makes a few more points, then gets to the clincher. "So, we thank you for your time and want to know if we can have your support."

That question is left unanswered. Instead, Menes and Moe shake everybody's hands. "Muchas gracias," Moe says. "We really appreciate your coming down here to see the legislative process -- and to be a part of it."

As the Latinos file out the door, Menes turns to Moe.

"Well that was a new experience," she says.

"Yeah," he replies. "It was interesting."

Back on the street, Aguirre is elated.

"I thought the delegates would be really snooty," he says. "But look how well they received us. This shows that Latinos are really accepted in this state."

The following afternoon, he has cause to doubt that: He has been fired from his job.

"I warned you," the foreman said when Aguirre showed up for work in the morning.

Aguirre's eyes moisten as he says, "It doesn't matter. Really. It's not important."

Then he pops in the tape of the previous day's adventure and sits on his blue sofa to watch.

On the television screen, a slim man in a white button-down shirt is speaking intently to a delegate of Maryland's General Assembly.

"Hoo! I sound nervous," Aguirre says. "Still," he adds. "It's not bad."

Now the man on the screen is nodding as the delegate politely thanks him for coming.

"Yes, that was a good day," Aguirre says.

The man on the screen shakes the delegate's hand.

The man on the blue sofa leans back a little and smiles.

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