STREET disturbances in Washington this week have highlighted the plight of the city's underprivileged Hispanic community. Unemployment is rampant. Housing is overcrowded. And relations with a black-dominated city police force, with whom the Latino population often cannot communicate, are strained to the breaking point. ``There's an underlying cry for help here from a community of people who have been neglected,'' says Elaine Grant, director of the Wilson Center, a social services agency for Washington's Latin immigrants.
Much of the violence - sparked by a policewoman's shooting of a Hispanic man Sunday night in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood - has had nothing to do with the grievances of the Hispanic community. Particularly Monday night, the second night of violence, the crowds setting fires and looting stores were less heavily Latino. They appeared simply to be hooligans on a spree of destruction and theft.
But that initial melee, in which an isolated incident quickly erupted into an outpouring of hostility toward the police, was clearly fueled by bad feelings that have been building for years. Washington's Latinos say the police harass them, are brutal during arrests, and do not respond as quickly to 911 calls as they do when whites or blacks call.
Only 140 of the 4,900 members of the Washington, D.C., police force are Hispanic, according to a department spokesman. Among the top several dozen officers, none speaks Spanish.
Washington's 1990 census recorded a Hispanic population of 32,000, but Ms. Grant of the Wilson Center and other activists in Hispanic affairs put the figure at between 80,000 and 120,000 people - documented and undocumented - or at least 10 percent of the city's population. Most are from Central America, and from El Salvador in particular.
According to Grant, half are either unemployed or underemployed. Some employers treat them badly, believing that they will not risk deportation by raising a fuss.
The case of the bankrupt Latin Investment Corporation, which has wiped out the savings of some 2,000 Salvadoran immigrants, has added a particular sting to these people's financial woes. Depositors, many of whom speak no English, did not understand that the corporation was not a chartered bank and that it lacked deposit insurance. Some depositors had put upwards of $10,000 in the investment company, which was owned by a Salvadoran immigrant. So far, depositors have not gotten their money back, and may n ot for at least several years.
The fact that Hispanics have now vented their rage so publicly is all the more noteworthy, given their usual desire to lay low. Such street violence is unusual for Salvadorans, according to Tony Mendez, a local Hispanic leader. But he also points out that some of those wreaking havoc in Mt. Pleasant Sunday night were setting police cars on fire in a sophisticated manner, taking flares from the cars' trunks, lighting them, and putting them in the gas tanks. Some of the rioters, he said, had served in the Salvadoran military and some had been guerrillas.
Aside from unrest last December in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Miami, sparked by the acquittal of six policemen in the beating death of a suspected drug dealer, disturbances have been rare in the major Hispanic centers of the United States. But the potential has long existed.
``Washington is not an isolated case. The same puzzle pieces are there'' in other cities, says Lisa Navarrete, public information director for the National Council of La Raza, an agency that focuses on Hispanic education, immigration, and the elderly. ``Where D.C. is unique is that, for some reason, it has been slow to recognize that it has a significant Hispanic population.''
Mayor concedes point
Washington's new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, acknowledges that the Latinos have a point. ``I think their concerns are legitimate,'' Mayor Dixon said. ``We do need to be more responsive.''
Since the disturbances began Sunday night, Dixon has held meetings with leaders from the Hispanic community and promised to appoint a commission to study the community's problems.
Residents of Mt. Pleasant, one of Washington's most racially mixed neighborhoods, say they are hopeful that the unrest will spur changes on the main thoroughfare, Mt. Pleasant Street. Public drinking has long been a problem along the two-block-long avenue, which has three liquor stores and some 20 other establishments that sell alcohol.
The shooting of Daniel Gomez, which sparked this week's skirmishes, took place when two policewomen tried to arrest him for public drunkenness. One of them shot Mr. Gomez when he reportedly lunged at her with a knife, police said. Some residents claim he was at least partly handcuffed when he was shot.