WHEN you ask Ralph Carrero for evidence that things may be starting to get better for Hispanics in this economically depressed manufacturing center north of Boston, he points to himself. Mr. Carrero, whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic 25 years ago - when he was 2 - is the city's first Hispanic office holder. He was elected to the school committee in 1991.
For years, he says, the politicians in Lawrence simply looked the other way as the Hispanic community grew to the point that it is now 42 percent of the city's 70,000 residents. That neglect has begun to change, says Carrero, who doesn't hide his ambition to move on to higher offices than the school post.
He emphasizes that he wasn't elected just by the city's Hispanic residents, only a tiny portion of whom are registered to vote. "My election was by the community at large, which is mostly Anglo and elderly," Carrero says. "I showed them how education is tied to their grandchildren and to public safety, which is a major concern."
Reuben Nieves, of Puerto Rican descent, is chairman of Lawrence's Chamber of Commerce. From his perspective, too, there's reason for hope, even in a city where the unemployment rate among Hispanics is at least 12 percent and probably nears 50 percent for 16- to 25-year-olds. Lawrence also has a long history of manufacturing decline, arson, drug-abuse problems, and ethnic conflict.
Mr. Nieves sees a greater willingness to address the needs of Hispanics not only in Lawrence, but also in Massachusetts as a whole. Gov. William Weld recently appointed a Hispanic Advisory Council for the state, on which Nieves serves (see story below).
Among states, Massachusetts ranks 10th in the number of residents of Hispanic background. Other parts of the Northeast, notably New York, have much larger Hispanic populations - 2,214,000, compared with the Bay State's 287,549, according to the 1990 census.
But one thing that characterizes Massachusetts Hispanics, according to Deborah Ramirez, chair of Governor Weld's advisory commission and a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, is their relative "invisibility" because of their geographical diffusion around the state and their diverse national origins.
This creates a "political problem," says Ms. Ramirez, since the community has found it hard to make its voice heard. "The folks in one city don't know those in other places.... We're 4.8 percent of the population in the state, but there's not a single statewide elected official" who is Latino.
Another factor characterizing Hispanics in this state, Ramirez says, is the disparity between economic standing and educational attainment. The poverty rate among Hispanics in Massachusetts is 47 percent, versus a national rate of 25 percent. The high-school dropout rate for Hispanics here, however, is significantly lower than the national rate. Ramirez calls this "a continuing conundrum."
Even with a graduation record better than in other areas of the US, Hispanics in many parts of Massachusetts face deep educational problems, as Carrero can attest. He not only serves on Lawrence's school committee, but he also coordinates the bilingual program at the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical High School. Hispanic kids in Lawrence still drop out of school at a rate higher than 40 percent.
The key to keeping kids in the classroom, says Carrero, is a partnership with parents. "The schools' plight or success will be measured by the magnitude of parental involvment," he asserts.
But getting that involvement is an uphill struggle, because many teachers don't want to reach out, and many Hispanic parents don't want to reach in. "In many Latin American countries, teachers are viewed with lots of dignity and respect. Parents don't question them - the teacher knows best," explains Carrero. "Now they come to the US, where public education calls for involvement from its clients. It's a whole different situation, and you can't do the job unless you're involved."
As a politician, Carrero sees a somewhat related problem in politics: Many Hispanics don't want to participate. But the motivations here, born in their old countries, are different, he says. "Their perception of government may be as a corrupt entity - that it's better not to let government know who you are."
Voter registration is a critical issue. When he ran in 1991, there were 1,000 to 1,500 registered Hispanics, Carrero says. Now there are 3,500, and by the end of the year - when he may resign from the school committee to run for a city council seat - the total could reach 6,000, he says.
But even an issue like voting can expose fissures within the Hispanic community, cautions Eddie Sanabria, who directs the Lawrence Community Partnership, a private social agency in the city. The Puerto Ricans, one large segment of the Hispanic population here, can automatically vote as US citizens. They also can move freely between their home island and the US mainland.
Dominicans, the other large component, are often recent arrivals who lack those rights, yet they run most of the Hispanic-owned businesses in Lawrence, notes Mr. Sanabria. This can create tensions, he says, but "we're trying to get the inter-group process going."