While Baltimore's Latino population remains relatively small, the city's first - and only - Latina councilwoman believes the community's political power will grow in the future.
According to the latest census data, approximately 5,252 people - approximately 3.6% - of Baltimore's nearly 594,000 residents identify as Latino. Local officials, however, note that the Latino population grew by more than 40% between 2010 and 2019.
In November 2020, Odette Ramos became the first Latina councilwoman to be elected to Baltimore's city council. A Puerto Rican who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ramos moved to Baltimore to attend university in 1991 and has lived in the city ever since. She represents District 14, an area which encompasses neighborhoods including Guilford, Stone Hill, Wyman Park and Clifton Park.
In an exclusive interview with LPO, Ramos said she'd witnessed the importance of the city's Latino community grow over time.
"In 2009, I was the chair of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce," she said. "We certainly didn't have the same numbers that we do now. We have whole neighborhoods of Latinos now, which is great. We have way more businesses from people who actually live in the city. We're starting to be noticed and make a difference because our numbers are getting greater."
Over the last several years, Ramos explained, several Maryland-based political organizations have been active in the community on issues ranging from Covid-19 testing and vaccines to eviction and police reform. Latino organizations have successfully, for example, lobbied Baltimore Police to agree to not cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when immigrants are detained.
"But we haven't had a lot of Latinos run [for political office]," she added. "There was one young woman running in another district in the last election. I suspect that's going to change."
"I hope that by my being the first one, I certainly am not going to be the last one," Ramos added. "There are a lot of young people rising up at the community levels and want to be involved in the community. We also have a very strong business sector that works hard to improve the communities around where they have their businesses."
Ramos added that among the primary issues she deals with in Baltimore is a lingering mistrust of the police among African American and Latino communities. In 2015, Baltimore made international headlines after riots swept across the city following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American who died from injuries sustained during an arrest by Baltimore police.
Odette said the police "are making strides" and that "hopefully we won't have the same issues again."
She added that the need for police reform must also be balanced with a need for public safety in the city, where local disputes often end in violence.
"You can't arrest your way out of the problem. It's got to be around prevention, about opportunities and around addressing the trauma we have," she said. "There is so much trauma in the city, and we want to make sure folks are getting the help they need instead of taking it out with a gun."
As far as the Latino community is concerned, Ramos said there is a "long way to go" in terms of improving relations with the police. In the past, for example, she said that a concerted effort had been made to recruit Puerto Rican police officers that are bilingual and can better build ties with Latino communities in the city.
"That worked out pretty well, but there are other issues that are coming up," she said. "There's still not enough and the Latino population is growing so fast."
As an example, she said she believes there are not enough Hispanic officers who can address issues of domestic violence in a "culturally competent way".
"That's still a challenge," shea added. "In general, it's not good enough to just have a Spanish-language [phone] line to help accessing city services. We actually need to hire Latinos in city government so that our government looks like those that it is serving. We've got a lot of work to do in the city on that."
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