With a population of 62.1 million, Latinos have undeniably made their mark on the United States — from its economy and workforce to its style and culture.

That is especially true in Baltimore and Maryland.

In Baltimore City, the Latino population has exploded, quadrupling from 7,638 in 1980 to 45,927 in 2020. Latinos have gone from being 1% of the city population in 1980 to 8% in 2020. In Maryland, Latinos represent the fastest-growing demographic.

But what are the people of this diverse community, which represents a myriad of ethnicities, countries of origin and identities, thinking about? And how do they feel that they are intertwined in the fabric of American society?

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The Baltimore Banner asked Maryland-based Latinos a variety of questions to mark National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Friday. Here is what some had to say. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Catalina Rodriguez Lima poses for a portrait in the City Hall rotunda with her left hand on the rail.
Catalina Rodriguez Lima, director of the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, poses for a portrait in City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Catalina Rodriguez-Lima

Rodriguez-Lima is founding director of the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MIMA), a role she’s held since 2014. She received her master’s degree in Global Affairs and Human Security from the University of Baltimore and a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Towson University, and in 2014 was named “Professional of the Year” by the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Age: 42

Born: Born and raised in Cuenca, Ecuador. Permanently moved to the U.S. at around 20 years old.

Ancestry: Like the majority of Ecuadorians, I am mestiza, which describes people of mixed ancestry with a Spanish and Indigenous background.

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How do you know that the Latino community has grown in Baltimore?

I see it when I drive through this city. And it’s not just Southeast. In West Baltimore if I see a bodega, I know there is a community there.

Why do you think population growth in the city and others is attributed to a favorable social network?

If a friend or a family member or another person is going to come to the city and they have a good experience, you might go to that city based on the friend or family member. It has a pull factor … It’s about them feeling that Baltimore has embraced them. It is a place where they can find work, where they can worship and buy a home. It’s a series of things that creates a social network and an enclave of people where they feel welcome and [where] they can raise their kids.

Why do you believe that school population is a good indicator of population growth?

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Take Lakeland Elementary/Middle School [in South Baltimore] for example. Visiting there 10 years ago, there were only a few Latinos. If you go there now, the majority of the school population is Latino. [The population there has grown] because of the school and how great the school is. It’s serving as an anchor population for the families.

What can be done to better help the Latino community in Baltimore thrive?

We need to strengthen the institutions that are meant to support them, help them continue to choose Baltimore. How do we make government more accessible? Approximately 12,000 Latinos in Baltimore cannot read, write English. They cannot access services. We need to work with city employees so they know how to work with a person who cannot speak English and [ensure] they are culturally competent. We also need to work with nonprofits.

What is the greatest contribution that Latinos make to America?

Our determination, ingenuity and resilience.

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Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland and is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

My neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore. I live across from Patterson Park and I really enjoy the number of events celebrating the city’s diversity, including our Latino communities. It may not be the most authentic Latino place, but it is certainly diverse and welcoming. I still recall one of my walks where I encountered an Irish marathon, a quinceañera rehearsal, a multinational pickup soccer game, softball and Ecuadorian volleyball games. All happening at the same time.

Who is a Latina you admire?

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Marco V. Ávila is board chairman and president of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. (courtesy of Marco V. Avila)

Marco V. Ávila, P.E.

The civil engineer has been the chairman of the board and president of the Mount Vernon-based Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since 2019.

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Age: 60

Born: Quito, Ecuador

Raised: Raised in Ecuador until 17 years old, and I have been in the U.S.A. for over 40 years.

Ancestry: Spanish

Currently resides: Hereford, in Baltimore County

The greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

Hispanic/Latinos have made significant contributions to American culture and the economy. Their entrepreneurship, with a high rate of Hispanic businesses being created (15-1 rate), plays a vital role in job creation and economic growth. Additionally, the substantial annual spending of $2.6 billion by Hispanics in the U.S.A. greatly contributes to the country’s economy. These contributions help shape the diverse and dynamic landscape of American culture and business. Certainly, in addition to their economic contributions, Hispanic/Latinos have enriched American culture in numerous ways. Their vibrant and diverse cultural heritage has influenced music, dance, cuisine, art and literature. The fusion of Latin American traditions with American culture has given rise to unique and celebrated expressions, from salsa music to Latin-inspired cuisine, contributing to the cultural mosaic that defines the United States, Maryland, and Baltimore.

What is the biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

The lack of recognition and support for Hispanic businesses in the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) sub goals is indeed a significant concern for the Latino community in Baltimore and Maryland. It highlights the need for equitable representation and opportunities for Hispanic-owned businesses, as they play a vital role in the local economy. Addressing this issue and promoting inclusivity within MBE programs can help foster economic growth and equality for the Latino community in the region.

What is the best way to involve the Latino community in the economy/business landscape in Baltimore and Maryland?

Involving the Hispanic/Latino community in the economy and business landscape in Baltimore and Maryland can be most effective by promoting inclusion and representation. This includes inviting Hispanics/Latinos to be part of decision-making teams and serving on boards. By providing opportunities for their voices to be heard and actively participating in key discussions, you can ensure that the diverse perspectives and needs of the Latino community are taken into account, fostering a more inclusive and equitable business environment.

Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland and is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

Maryland offers several vibrant locations where you can immerse yourself in authentic Hispanic/Latino culture. We can identify with Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, and even Annapolis — [all] have established Hispanic communities that contribute to the rich tapestry of Latino culture in the state. However, it’s worth noting that Hispanic/Latino communities are dispersed throughout Maryland, creating a diverse and welcoming environment statewide, where you can experience the warmth, traditions and flavors of Hispanic/Latino culture.

Who is the most respected Latino role model you had growing up?

Personally, I would say my parents. They have been extremely supportive and guided me to be who I am today.

Irena Stein smiles for a portrait in Alma Cocina Latina.
Irena Stein, founder of Alma Cocina Latina, poses for a portrait in her restaurant on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Irena Stein

The founder of Alma Cocina Latina in Station North, Stein has dedicated her business to providing a contemporary take on Venezuelan food. Since 2015, she has worked to get specialized worker visas for eight members of her staff to ensure the authenticity of the restaurant’s cuisine. She recently wrote and took photos for the new cookbook, “Arepa: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Venezuela’s Daily Bread,” and will open an arepa restaurant, Candela, around the corner from her current business.

Age: 70

Born: Caracas, Venezuela

Raised: Venezuela, France, Belgium

Ancestry: “Everything you can imagine,” she says — Southern European, Northern European, Jewish, Southern Spain, Indian, African.

Resides: Guilford

What is the greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

The hospitality industry, agriculture, food industry. Tacos, needless to say; Peruvian food, arepas. Kindness and joy. There’s joy in our culture. And a different point of view of life and of culture. I think that’s really important.

Biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

The perception that some people in the community have. The perception for a long time was that they looked down upon [the Latino community] or that we are not contributors when, in fact, I think it is the exact opposite.

Do you have to speak Spanish to be authentically Latino?

No. If you don’t you are probably a member of the newer generation. The older generation believed it was really important to speak English so you were not looked down upon. A lot of younger kids primarily speak English.

Why is it important to bring in Venezuelans to Baltimore to work at your restaurant?

They have to have been raised with the seasoning of that particular food. Because otherwise, you don’t know how to cook it. We have a very specific mix of cultures in Venezuela. We have Spanish [Colonial], African Venezuelan, [Indian] and Black from [the] Caribbean, Portuguese, Syrian, Italian. All these people somehow are involved in our food and influence the food. There is also the combination of culture of the Moors — with the savory and sweet. We have everything. Most Venezuelans are mixed — Black, Indian, and white. It’s completely different from here. The cultural mix we have combines flavors that people are not used to.

Is Baltimore a friendly city for Latinos?

Not all of it. I’ve seen a lot of tension. I’ve witnessed a lot of tension. One of the major tensions you have is between Black Americans and Central Americans in the competition for work. During the earlier migration, there were so many Black American gardeners that were displaced. I think that a lot of the tension is that. It’s serious and unfortunate. There is tremendous anger. I’ve watched it. I received threats when Trump started. I got threats from people that [said] I was harboring all these horrible people just because I had spoken on TV about it. I initiated dialogue. I invited all these people to have dinner with me and I would introduce them to my staff. They thought we were all illegal. I wanted them to come and find out. Two of the five people showed up. The others didn’t respond. Dialogue really brings an understanding. … We have to start talking to each other, talk about the suffering of each culture.

Why are so many Latinos moving to Baltimore?

Latinos are coming and settling everywhere. It’s not just Baltimore. It’s mainly Central Americans that are coming. You have these families — you have villages that settle in different cities. Generally, you have clusters of certain communities. The families help each other. The idea is to work and send money home. They do not want to stay here long-term. They are contributing to the economy, and they are excellent workers. With Venezuelans, they have never left their country. But there has been an exodus of 7.8 million people. You would never see this movement if it weren’t for [the need for] medicine, survival, and food. When you are a migrant, refugee, and your diploma is worth nothing and you are at the bottom of the bottom, what you do for survival [is] you make something from the food from your childhood. That’s why arepas are popping up around the world.

Jen White-Johnson poses for a portrait in the backyard of her home in Baltimore, Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Jennifer “Jen” White-Johnson

In 2022, the Baltimore-based artist was part of the Latino Heritage Month collection at Target, which was an opportunity to showcase her Afro-Latina culture. White-Johnson (formerly White-Torres) started her relationship with Target in 2019, when she led a group of Bowie State University students in the company’s HBCU Design Challenge.

Age: 42

Born: Washington, D.C.

Raised: Grew up in Prince George’s County and has lived in Baltimore for the past 15 years.

Ancestry: Black, Afro-Puertorriqueña Boricua

What is the greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

The profound contributions of Latinos to American culture are multifaceted and vibrant. At the heart of these is the unparalleled spirit of community engagement, activism and leadership. Latinos have always been at the forefront, embodying the ethos of “for the people, by the people.” We don’t just participate; we lead, we nourish, we educate and we build. This relentless drive to uplift and support each other is deeply rooted in the Latin cultural tapestry, enriching the very fabric of America.

Biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

As the Latino population burgeons in Baltimore and the broader Maryland area, the challenges we face also amplify. Chief among them is the need for genuine leadership, equitable business opportunities and consistent access to quality education. It’s imperative that as our community grows, so does our stake in shaping the educational and economic landscape. The heartbeat of the Latino community shouldn’t be solely felt in the melodies of our songs or the flavors of our cuisines, but in the decision-making halls and institutional corridors. While it’s heartening to witness Latino-owned businesses flourishing in parts of the DMV area, it’s time to ask: Beyond the cultural appreciation, what active, tangible measures are officials taking to empower the current and upcoming generation of Latino visionaries? It’s not merely about supporting our businesses; it’s about funding and amplifying our dreams. We must challenge the lingering shadows of white supremacy and honor the legacy of our indigenous ancestors, who thrived on this land long before colonization.

As an Afro-Latina, why does the racial divide persist within the Latino community?

Being an Afro-Latina offers a unique perspective on the complexities of identity within the Latino community. The racial divide, though deeply entrenched, can be traced back to the instinctual desire for representation and validation. In a world where many feel they can truly prosper only among those who mirror their experiences, we inadvertently create divisions in our quest for cultural leadership. But it’s more than just a longing for leadership roles; it’s about the palpable absence of our narratives in significant spaces — in government, education and the arts. When our stories are sidelined or overshadowed, it raises a crucial question: In a nation rich with diversity, why aren’t all voices equally valued and amplified? Reflection upon this can be the catalyst for a more unified and inclusive future.

Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland and is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

As an Afro-Puertorriqueña Boricua, when I ponder where my heart feels most rooted in Maryland’s vibrant tapestry, Tola’s Room in Northeast Baltimore unmistakably resonates. This Puerto Rican home museum and cultural haven, curated by the passionate Baltimore Boricua, Christina Delgado, is more than just a space — it’s a testament to our diaspora’s thriving pulse in Baltimore. Inspired by her daughter Omotola, whose name signifies “child is wealth, one of worldly wealth,” Tola’s Room encapsulates the essence of preserving and nurturing our heritage. It reminds me of the importance of centering our next generation, much like how I cherish my son’s creativity and joy.

Most respected Latino role model you had growing up?

My mother, Sara Torres. She showed me what you can create with limited resources. Whether it was crafting with tiny pieces of paper to make mini zines, making meals for folks in need, teaching me about giving and mothering continues to be her greatest strength, and it has taught me to be who I am today.

Pedro Palomino, the publisher of Somos Baltimore Latino, inside his newsroom on Sept. 8, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Pedro A. Palomino

As the director and chief executive officer of the Palomino Media Group, he oversees Somos Baltimore Latino, a newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 and a social following of 75,000. The publication launched online with a Facebook page and website in 2009. It expanded to a print publication in 2011.

Age: 62

Born: Pucallpa, Peru

Raised: Lima, Peru

Ancestry: Peruvian Highlands, Afro Peruvian and Spanish

Currently resides: Gwynns Falls Park

What are the greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

The greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture is the labor force. Latinos do a lot of manual labor, and they [make] up a huge part of the blue-collar community. They work hard every day to contribute and help out this country.

Biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

The biggest concern facing the Latino community is being a victim of assault and theft.

Why is it essential to have a Spanish-language publication in Baltimore?

It’s essential to have a Spanish-language publication in Baltimore because of the constant increase of Latinos. [They] usually feel more comfortable and at ease when reading and hearing from someone who speaks their native language. A newspaper is a bridge for information and consultations that interest or involve the Latino community.

Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland, and what is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

Latinos come from different countries, and each country has their own food and traditional dances. Personally, I feel more at home when I visit a Peruvian restaurant or when I attend a Latino festival.

Who was the most respected Latino role model you had growing up?

Tupac Amaru II, who rebelled against the Spanish during the Viceroyalty of Peru era [during the 18th century].

Veronica Cool is the founder of Cool & Associates LLC, a Hispanic engagement and strategy company. (courtesy of Veronica Cool)

Veronica Namnun Cool

Known to friends as “Vero,” Cool leveraged her 20 years in the corporate sector to launch Cool & Associates LLC, a management consulting firm that connects organizations to the Hispanic community. She is a past president of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and her company has published its own Hispanic Engagement Toolkit.

Age: 49

Born: Dominican Republic

Raised: Lived in the Dominican Republic until 10, then migrated to New York City

Ancestry: Mother is Taino Indian, Caribbean/Dominican; Father is Lebanese

Currently resides: Carroll County

What is the greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

We’ve contributed significantly in every facet of America. If we needed to delineate a particular contribution, I would say Latinos bring our character and values as well as our work ethic. We prioritize family, the desire to be with one another, to protect our elders, hear their stories, have our kids around us, walk arm-in-arm with the cousins, [and] chat on the phone or social media daily just to say “hola” and linger over the cafecitos. Our work ethic, that commitment and self-pride (whether tied to provide for our families, pride in our selves, or personal obligation to our community to do good — perhaps all of the above), we strive to do as good a job as we can possibly do, every possible time. And of course, our music, our joy of living and our food, are incomparable.

What is the biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

So many issues, Maryland is behind in many areas. Starting with lack of language access, insufficient outreach, inconsistent resources to communities with differing immigration status, microaggressions — we are reverting back to policies and behaviors from decades ago. Racism and discrimination, ugly and stupid stuff. I shouldn’t be judged because I have an accent, or have big hair, or my body looks a certain way. Neither should other women, or kids. Yet, we do. They do.

What role does the ability to speak Spanish play when determining authenticity?

Depends on who you ask. I love myself. I love being bilingual — even when I pause, having to hunt in my head for the perfect word, regardless of the language, to express my emotion. When I’m frustrated, expressing myself is challenging, understandably so, as it would be for most people. That does not define my identity as a Latina, a Dominican. There are many folks that tie language fluency to culture and authenticity. But many others, like me, feel the love, the passion, the warmth for our home countries, our brothers and sisters singing in our veins — that does not require fluency. My children are not fluent in Spanish (unless you count cursing) and they consider themselves authentically and wholeheartedly Dominican. Of course, this does provide great comedic material when learning to cook, dance or partaking in any activities.

Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland and is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

I’m a Latina always and I am most at home when I am with a fellow Latino/Latina, listening and dancing to great music, eating good food. In essence, when we are together— it could be in a parking lot, McDonald’s, or a conference.

Who was the most respected Latino role model you had growing up?

My parents Juan Andres Namnun and Maria Angelina Namnun, who migrated to the U.S. so we could have better opportunities and modeled the behavior that led to the fairy-tale life I have today. … That by working hard, I can earn my way. Today, I’m in awe of women like Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk who advocate tirelessly for marginalized communities, and it’s not for glory or gain. Dr. Gabriela Lemus, the executive director of MD Latinos Unidos, impresses me endlessly — she is such a visionary. She sees a Maryland that far surpasses California and New York in how we integrate and leverage Latinos and immigrants. Catalina Rodriguez-Lima is another brilliant role model that I respect tremendously, quietly toiling behind the scenes in Baltimore City, removing barriers and creating permanent solutions to lifelong problems. [They are] amazing women.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, has been a member of the House of Delegates since 2007 (Courtesy of Joseline Pena-Melnyk)

Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk

The Democrat has served in the House of Delegates since 2007. A married lawyer and mother of three, she has been the chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee since 2022.

Age: 57

Born: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Raised: New York City

Ancestry: Dominican American

Currently resides: College Park (has lived in Maryland since 1992)

The greatest contribution Latinos make to American culture?

Latinos in America are overwhelmingly hard-working, family-centered people. We are working construction, in farming and food processing, and in service industries of all kinds. We are a big part of what makes America work. What’s our greatest contribution — who can say? Is it Celia Cruz singing salsa songs, is it Sammy Sosa hitting a home run, is it Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, known as Dr. Q, a neurosurgeon who came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, or is it Chef José Andrés, who fed the world during the COVID-19 crisis? I think we can all agree that our country is much richer for the contributions that Latinos have made.

Is there a racial divide that exists within the Latino community? If so, why does it still persist and what can be done to close it?

Latinos come in all shades of brown. We are a mix of native, Indigenous people from throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, Africans and Europeans. There are economic and educational divides within the Latino community that typically follow color lines. To overcome the barriers that limit opportunities to success we need to address the systemic racism that affects all people of color, not just Latinos. This means reforming policies related to criminal justice, housing, health, education, and employment to ensure fairness and equal opportunities. But let’s remember that the diversity within the Latino community is a strength. And together we are stronger. When we look at our differences as our strengths, we become an unstoppable, unified force.

Biggest concern facing the Latino community in Baltimore or Maryland?

Access to health care is a big issue for the Latino community in Baltimore and Maryland. Several factors contribute to this concern, including language and cultural barriers, lack of health insurance, access to affordable care, and health disparities. Health disparities is a broad term that covers things in everyday life that affect your health, but they are preventable, and they burden different parts of our society unequally. An example would be living in a neighborhood without access to parks and with a high exposure to air pollution. It puts the people in your neighborhood at higher risk of stroke, heart disease, asthma and complications with pregnancy. A driving passion of mine is to ensure all Marylanders have access to affordable health care and health insurance to reduce health disparities and promote better overall health outcomes.

Where do you feel most at home as a Latino in Maryland and is the best place for authentic Latino culture?

I feel the most at home when I am surrounded by my friends and family. I have the best group of friends that warms my heart. We get together to laugh, dance, eat, rejoice, plan how to help our communities and help mentor those behind us.

Who was the most respected Latina role model you had growing up?

My mother was my role model — and she still is today. She struggled through some very rough times but came through it with dignity. She did not have the benefit of even finishing elementary school, but she always emphasized the value of education to my sister and me. Our family was on welfare for a while when I was young, but my mother eventually found work and had a strong work ethic — never taking a day off even when she was sick. She did not like to be in debt and worked hard to care for my sister and me. And like many Latinos, she would regularly send money back home to help our relatives. She was the center of our family.

Data editor Ryan Little contributed to this story.


John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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