Nicolás Ramos left Coahuila, Mexico to come to the United States in the '70s, when he was 16, picking broccoli and cauliflower on a Texas farm, and loading boxes of cucumber, squash, cantaloupe and watermelon into refrigerated trucks.
Ramos, his brother Carlos, and five other friends, each saved $100, enough money to buy a wood-paneled Ford station wagon from a nearby junkyard. The group of seven piled in, leaving the farm in search of better prospects. Soon, they discovered a different group of Latinos in San Antonio—established middle-class families.
"I met people who looked liked me, but I didn't understand why they didn't speak Spanish," laughs Ramos, now 52, and the owner of South Broadway's well-regarded Arcos Restaurant. "It was disarming. I said, 'We've got to go North where there are more white people and better economic chances.'"
The group headed for Memphis, then east to Georgia, South Carolina, and finally, Laurel, Maryland. "We were day laborers, standing outside the 7-Eleven," he recalls.
Hired for Route 1 construction gigs, genuine opportunity arrived. "A lady showed up one day and said, 'Hey guys, we want to get you worker's permits,'" Ramos says. "We came in from the shadows."
He and Carlos, who died in 2004, purchased a pickup and took English classes. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, giving some immigrants amnesty and a path to citizenship. Four years later, Dry Wall and Painting by Ramos opened in Upper Fells Point at a time when the Latino community barely registered a blip on Baltimore's radar.
"When I came to Baltimore there were two Latino businesses on Broadway, La Botanica, a tiny, pharmacy/convenience store, and La Internationale, a grocery/discount store," Ramos says. "Since 1990, we did a lot of construction work."
Married at St. Michael's Church on Wolfe Street—a longtime home for Baltimore Latinos before it was closed due to age—Ramos bought his first home at 17 South Ann Street with a personal loan from Deacon Pablo Osorio. Eventually, Ramos bought 10 buildings, including the one at 129 South Broadway that houses Arcos.
Recycling heavy beams and hardwood from Fells Point and Canton homes, plus pews and frosted glass from a Washington, D.C., church that he rehabbed, Ramos spent four years crafting the bar, tables, chairs, doors, and patio inside the restaurant. He added authentic Talavera tiles, Mexican artifacts and photographs, finished the original brick interior, and launched Arcos for Cinco de Mayo in 2005.
"Arcos means arches," Ramos says. "Arches connect two points. I wanted to bring a little of the culture, food, and ambience of Mexico to Baltimore.
"I saw the potential and fell in love with Baltimore," he continues. "Looking down from Johns Hopkins to Fells Point, I could see the possibilities. But on Broadway there was prostitution, crime, and drugs [in the '90s]. You couldn't walk the streets at night. Now, we call it Latino town or Spanish town and everybody sees what I saw."
Today, Ramos has four children, including a daughter at Dickinson College, and lives in Baltimore County. He's served on the Governor's Hispanic Affairs Commission, as president of Baltimore City's Hispanic Business Association, and as part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's transition team. He's hosted events for Gov. Martin O'Malley, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rawlings-Blake, and Odette Ramos (no relation), who ran for City Council this year. As much as anyone, his story highlights Baltimore's fast-growing and increasingly influential Latino community, which expanded, officially, by almost 150 percent in the last decade.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in September, Latino soccer games fill several fields at Patterson Park, as they do almost every day. Nearby, the young, urban adult kickball leagues are in full swing, but the soccer fields are more of a family affair. Latina moms push strollers, and Latino dads in lawn chairs talk and watch their kids in a Friends of Patterson Park youth program, sometimes jumping in to kick around the ball themselves.
Isabel Chávez lives on S. Clinton Street in Highlandtown and has four kids, Guillermo, 11, Edgar, 9, Abigail, 7, and Elizabeth, 4, scampering about. They're at the park almost daily for one activity or another, whether its karate at the recreation center, tennis, or soccer.
"I want the kids to be healthy and active and not sit in the house bored all day watching TV," says Chávez, originally from Mexico, in Spanish. Chávez doesn't sit on the sidelines, either, participating on various days in a walking group, Zumba classes, and the Friends of Patterson Park-sponsored family soccer program where she's met several other Latina women.
Similarly, Ana Andino's three daughters, ages 12, 10, and 9, have participated in soccer, basketball, karate, and tennis at Patterson Park. She works at John Ruhrah Elementary School and puts up fliers at school about the programs to help get the word out to other Latino families.
"Fitness is important for the kids," says Andino, a Honduran immigrant. "It's a good place to meet parents, too."
Trevor Woodward, 35, a volunteer Friends of Patterson Park youth soccer coach who grew up directly across the street from the park and still lives close by, finds the demographic change remarkable.
"I went to St. Elizabeth's elementary, which today is where the Patterson Public Charter School is located," he says. "I'd guess that the school is majority Latino today, and I can't recall going to school with one Latino kid."
If the weekday soccer scene in Patterson Park seems vibrant, it's nothing compared to weekends, when the adult leagues are in full swing. Starting early Sunday morning, grown men in full uniforms and metal cleats compete in organized leagues, with hundreds of spectators. Near the sidelines, smoke billows from big grills beneath tents where vendors serve eggs, fried plantains, and beans for breakfast plates, and chicken tacos, ribs, rice, refried beans, pupusas with cabbage, and mangos for lunch.
Ramos and other Latino leaders say Baltimore has always been welcoming to new immigrants, but for a long time Charm City was an anomaly on the East Coast. New York, Philadelphia, Boston—and Washington, D.C., with an influx of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s—had significant active Latino communities for decades before Baltimore's recent growth spurt. In fact, Baltimore City's 1990 Hispanic population of 7,600 was slightly lower than it had been a decade earlier, according to The Sun.
As recently as 1999, The Sun still referred to the city's "small" Latino community in Upper Fells Point. The latest U.S. census puts the city's Latino population, generally considered undercounted, at 25,960 or 4.2 percent. Driving the growth, according to Latino leaders, is Maryland's relatively stable economy and hospitable laws, such as driver licensing for non-citizens, and favorable immigration polices, especially in comparison to Arizona or Northern Virginia, for example.
Historically, previous generations of Baltimore Latinos were Puerto Ricans and Cubans, many from educated, middle-class backgrounds, not the Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Ecuadorians, and Guatemalans that make up the bulk of arrivals today. Still, there's long been a hidden population of Latino immigrants in East Baltimore, struggling to find work, access health care and support systems, and ensure an education for their children. It was into this mix that José Ruiz, self-described "Nuyorican," (i.e., a Puerto Rican New Yorker) arrived, following his girlfriend and future wife, Claire Hollister, a native Baltimorean.
An activist for Manhattan's Lower East Side Latino community, Ruiz saw the needs of the small community here and dove in. If Ramos's story represents the rise of the Latinos' business and economic power, local Latinos credit Ruiz, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, for launching crucial communal and cultural institutions.
Ruiz, with Hollister, founded Education Based Latino Outreach (EBLO) in 1980, creating a Saturday school and mentoring program for underserved Latino kids in O'Donnell Heights, efforts that continue among EBLO's numerous other projects today.
That same year, Ruiz put together Baltimore's first annual LatinoFest as an EBLO fundraiser. Then a small South Broadway event, it's evolved into one of the city's largest and most diverse festivals, attracting 30,000-40,000 people to Patterson Park over two days this summer, according to current EBLO executive director Miguel Vicente.
Active politically, Ruiz approached William Donald Schaefer about Latino issues and was named Baltimore City's first Hispanic liaison to the Mayor's office. He also initiated the first Mayor's Advisory Committee on Hispanic Affairs and was appointed director of the Governor Commission on Hispanic Affairs in 1988.
Known for his love of Latino music and culture as much as his passion for his community, Ruiz founded "Fiesta Musical," Baltimore's first bilingual Latin music radio program, in 1997. It continues on Morgan State's public radio station, WEAA. In 2000, he helped produce the first La Plaza Hispana at the annual Fells Point Fun Festival, a celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month sponsored by EBLO in partnership with Fells Point Preservation Society. Among his last achievements was overseeing the acquisition of a permanent building for EBLO on South Ann Street, now named the José Ruiz Community Center.
"He had the ability and the gift to perceive what each person's talent was and connect them to the right people and make things happen," says Guillermo Brown, who volunteers with EBLO and took over Ruiz's radio show when he became too sick to continue.
"José was the consummate people person," says Hollister, who remains on EBLO's board. "When he asked someone to do something, they couldn't turn him down," she says. "People would tell me, 'You can't believe what José has me doing.' But they would do it."
While Brown, a Baltimore-native and high school Spanish teacher, reveres Ruiz for his contributions to building local Latino institutions, he's quick to point out that the community has been through drastic changes in the five short years since his passing.
For years, he notes, Baltimore City's Latino community remained concentrated in Upper Fells Point. "But then, suddenly, you started to see it grow, the small grocery stores, the restaurants, more and more life," he says, his eyes widening. "Music, clothing stores came, and the cultural experience changed—and no longer was it just Broadway, but all of Eastern Avenue, into Highlandtown, Greektown, and Bayview."
Eventually, Brown adds, as more Latinos acquired a level of economic security and gained access to driver's licenses and automobiles, they moved to the Pikesville, Owings Mills, Reisterstown corridor. In essence, Latinos have followed the traditional journey of the German, Polish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants who preceded them from Fells Point to nearby neighborhoods and then Baltimore County, says Fernando Parada, a former Baltimore City school teacher and now owner of Central Realty.
Tellingly, Parada, who used to rent office space above Arcos from Ramos, recently shifted his company to Perry Hall, and Baltimore County's Latino population more than doubled in the last decade to 33,735, according to the 2010 census.
In the city, the Latino community has, ironically been a victim of its own success: After Latinos built up and developed Upper Fells Point for years, higher real-estate prices have sent many families looking for less expensive homes in Highlandtown, which has become the new center of Hispanic life and culture. It's been built and developed around Patterson Park, the Southeast Anchor Library, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, and Archbishop Borders Elementary School, which began a unique dual-language curriculum two years ago, as well as mom-and-pop stores, barber shops, salons, and, of course, bars and popular restaurants like Mi Viejo Pueblito, La Sirenita, and Carlos O'Charlies.
Chronicling the Latino explosion for the last seven years has been Latin Opinion, Baltimore's locally owned Spanish-language weekly newspaper. An upstart Spanish language website, Somos Baltimore Latino (somobaltimorelatino.com), has begun covering Baltimore for the Latino community as well.
Especially on the southeast side of town, it's hard to imagine an institution that's been unaffected by the burgeoning numbers. In 2007, the Baltimore City Police Department, for example, recruited 23 police officers from Puerto Rico to bolster its ranks and increase the number of bilingual officers. While Baltimore County Police have admittedly struggled with attracting Latinos, it's committed to the effort, says employment commander Andre Davis.
Highlighting Latino growth in the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Baltimore now has 20 parishes with Spanish Masses, led by native-language or trained priests, including some who have completed inculturation programs in Spanish-speaking countries like Colombia. Parishes in counties like Frederick and Anne Arundel also serve large Spanish-speaking communities.
Through Catholic Charities, the Church also provides many services beyond those available through parishes, Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine says. Medical, legal, and immigration services are available for free at the volunteer-based Esperanza Center in Fells Point.
Likewise, Baltimore City Public Schools have seen a dramatic increase in Latino populations, especially at schools like John Ruhrah in Greektown, which sends out its newsletter in English and Spanish, as well as at Highlandtown Elementary-Middle, Graceland Park Elementary, Holabird Academy, Patterson Park Public Charter, and Patterson High School. Seth Hedderick, admissions director at one of the oldest Baltimore institutions, City College High School, has taken notice. City College boosted its Latino population from 1 to 3 percent in the last year.
"We are definitely reaching out to the Latino community. I visited John Ruhrah last year and I've done Highlandtown Elementary-Middle," Hedderick says, mentioning Armistead Gardens as another East Baltimore school with a significant Latino population that he has visited. "Our goal is at least 5 percent [Latino student body]. Plus, we are planning an open house for Spanish speakers."
Meanwhile, anyone driving past Patterson Park on a regular basis knows that Latino pick-up and rec-league soccer run almost daily. Ecuavolley, an Ecuadorian volleyball variation, is played regularly. In fact, Katie Long, the Friends of Patterson Park program coordinator says Latino programming, including a Latina women's soccer league this fall, is booming across the board. Tennis lessons and karate classes at Patterson Park's recreation center are increasingly filled with Latino kids. The Latin-fused Zumba dance/exercise classes have been popular from their start several years ago.
Further down Eastern Avenue, the Southeast Community Development Corporation operates the Highlandtown Main Street program and provides links to housing and community resources in English and Spanish on its website. They also partner with local nonprofits, as well as the Creative Alliance and their Latino outreach coordinator, Maria Aldana, on numerous events throughout the year. Originally from Nicaragua, with an M.A. in Community Arts from MICA, Aldana notes that several art organizations in the city, including Access Art in Pigtown, The Walters Art Museum in Mt. Vernon, and the National Aquarium have partnered with organizations on Latino-themed projects as well.
None of this is to say an enormous segment of the Latino community doesn't still struggle with basic health, education, employment, legal, and immigration issues. They obviously still exist and affect large numbers of the Latino population, as Casa de Maryland, EBLO, Centro de la Comunidad, and other groups remain busy with clients in need of assistance and access to resources.
The Latino Providers Network, established in 1992, coordinates partnerships with dozens of organizations that provide direct services—such as counseling, education, health care, and job training—to the Latino population in Baltimore City and surrounding areas.
The stereotype of all Latinos as day laborers on South Broadway is not accurate, but it remains, says Parada.
"It's a misconception," he says, adding that the misrepresentation of the Latino community as largely undocumented workers—unable to vote—hurts Latino efforts to access local and state government, and, therefore, economic capital. While still acknowledging the lack of a large voting bloc, Parada says the Latino community can make its presence felt through other means, such as campaign contributions.
For example, Baltimore's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which is affiliated with the larger Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, now counts 250 members, and more than 750 business people—a record number—turned out for the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce annual conference in early September.
Politically, the Latino community has begun to win its first significant battles. In Baltimore City, for example, the City Council unanimously declared its support for the Maryland Dream Act, which allows the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges, and it passed earlier this year in the General Assembly despite just a handful of elected Latino state legislators.
Ironically, some of the biggest challenges to the Maryland Dream Act—a key issue mentioned by many of the Latino leaders interviewed for the story—came from Eastern Avenue-area districts over the border in Baltimore County, including Dundalk and Essex, where state delegates and senators, particularly Del. Pat McDonough, voiced public opposition to the legislation. The county actually collected the most signatures of any Maryland jurisdiction on the petition to put the measure back to referendum.
Baltimore County officials' opposition to the Maryland Dream Act stands in stark contrast to general support of the Latino community, leaders say, that has been evident in Baltimore City during the recent population growth during the O'Malley, Dixon, and Rawlings-Blake administrations.
"Governor O'Malley, I know, looks to his Irish roots when considering Latino issues—he has an old sign in his office that says, 'Irish Need Not Apply,'" says Maria Welch, founder and CEO of Linthicum-based Respira Medical, and chair of both the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "When Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was president of the City Council, she was making sure that an Arizona-style immigration law would not come here."
Longtime Baltimore NAACP president Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, who spoke out against immigration raids in the city, and current Baltimore NAACP president Tessa Hill-Aston, have also been supportive of the Latino community.
A critical milestone for the Hispanic chambers of commerce and business associations last year was earning—for the first time—state Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) aside goals for Latino-owned construction, engineering, and HVAC businesses.
"It's a small percentage," Welch says, "but that's a huge step."
The big hurdle to local, state, political, and economic levers is a lack of elected officials. Currently, there are no Latino legislators on the Baltimore City Council, Baltimore County Council, or Latino state or federal legislators from Baltimore City or Baltimore County.
Yet, there was also a small sign of progress this year. While Odette Ramos, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, lost to 12th District City Councilman Carl Stokes, an African-American, in September's primary while vying to become Baltimore's first elected Latino leader, she did earn endorsements from The Baltimore Sun, City Paper, and, perhaps most notably, The AFRO.
"I think that our community has definitely gotten a lot more influential recently," said Ramos, a Puerto Rico native who graduated from Goucher College in 1995. "When Mayor Dixon was around, she was very conscious of what we needed to have a good business environment."
She adds that Latinos, once they have gained the right to vote, do so in large numbers. "Culturally, it's very important," Ramos says. "In democratic Latino countries, voting tends to be very high. As the population grows, more people will be voting."
City Councilman Jim Kraft, who represents the heavily Latino southeastern parts of Baltimore, is a "very good" representative for the Latino community, she says. However, "if he ever retires, I think a good Latino candidate will take that seat."
"Not just a Latino," Ramos stresses, "but a good, qualified person who will be a good City Council member for the entire city."
Welch points to statewide data indicating that nine percent of the school children in Maryland are now of Latino-origin and to the 27-year-old median age of Latinos overall, as evidence the cultural, business, and political influence of Latino community is bound to rise statewide and in the Baltimore area.
And Nicolás Ramos, the former Texas farm worker, says the next generation of influential Baltimore Latino leaders is closer at hand than most non-Latinos would imagine.
"The sons and daughters of those of us who were granted amnesty under Ronald Reagan, are probably three to five years away from making their mark—they were able to go to school and many are in college today," he says. "It won't take them as long to succeed as it did for us. They speak the language, they have help from their parents who have worked hard. They are starting out with the resources we have taken a lifetime to build."