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Baltimore's growing Latino community watches tensions unfold with empathy, sadness

Latinos and those who work with the immigrant community in Baltimore say they are watching the tensions between police and African-American demonstrators unfold with a mix of sadness and empathy.

Latinos have had their own concerns about police in the city, community leaders say, and Baltimore’s mayor and other officials have met with them over the years to discuss and address them.

“We are very concerned,” said Maria José Sandoval, communications specialist for Casa de Maryland, a service organization that advocates for immigrants and provides them with assistance. “The African-American and Latino communities have had their differences, but in times of crisis we’re there to support each other.”

Casa de Maryland’s Baltimore office is located in the area of where riots broke out Monday hours after the funeral for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man who died of a spinal injury days after being taken into police custody.

“We’re not open today [in Baltimore] for obvious reasons,” Sandoval said.

Father Robert Wajtek, known as “Padre Roberto” in the Latino community, said people who attend his church’s English-language classes called to see if they should still go, and if the class was still going to be held.

The church’s cook also called, he said, worried about venturing outside in the city today and waiting for public transportation.

“I said ‘Stay home’ so they could avoid public transportation that goes through downtown,” Wajtek said.

Wajtek said his congregants are “disheartened, and feeling disbelief that his happening.”

“Certainly with the African-American community, and with the Hispanic community in Baltimore, it’s been a struggle to build trust with the police,” he said. “With Latino immigrants, because of the situation in their own countries, where police are the oppressors, the police look for bribes; it’s been a tough road to build trust between them and the police.”

“But with-African Americans, there is a history [of lack of trust and tension] between them and the police,” Padre Roberto said.

Wajteck said he and other faith leaders from around the city will be meeting today to plan a rally or vigil to call for peace.

“We’re trying to figure out what to have and when to have it,” he said, “for peace.”

Hispanics have accounted for much of the city’s growth.

Hispanics, in fact, doubled their numbers, from 11,000 in 2000 to 26,000 in 2010. They helped stem the double-digit population decline the city had seen in previous decades, reducing the drop between 2000 and 2010 to about 4 percent – the smallest rate in a long time.

But there were problems and concerns among Baltimore’s Hispanics that threatened the city’s ability to continue drawing them.

In the summer of 2010, five Honduran men were attacked; two fatally. The attacks, Latino community activists said, appeared to be hate crimes. In at least one of the killings, the perpetrator, an African-American, called the victim “a dirty Mexican,” according to published reports.

And many immigrants were not turning to police about crimes they had witnessed, or of which they were victims – community leaders and city officials say – for fear it would land them, or someone they cared about, in deportation.

They said Baltimore police were stopping Latino motorists for such things as broken headlights and not using signals and reporting them to immigration officials.

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