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Rafael Perez didn't speak English when he arrived here as a 17-year-old from Puerto Rico with his wife, Nivian, in 1957. He had to settle for jobs washing dishes and running elevators until he got a degree in Spanish and speech communications from the University at Buffalo.

His 37-year-old daughter, Maria Perez Gomez, is the manager of Los Tainos Senior Center on the Lower West Side. She has never been without a job here, though recently her husband was laid off from Hispanics United because of Erie County's budget cuts.

Their two sons, 7 and 3, are part of a third generation in Buffalo, where life generally has been good. But it could be much better, family members say, not only for them but for all of the 25,133 Hispanics here.

The community is underfunded and under-represented politically, they and others say. There could be stronger leadership among Hispanics, and there could be better representation in the media and other institutions.

Those issues will be on the table today when Hispanic leaders host their first legislative breakfast with nearly two dozen federal, state and local politicians in Shanghai Red's.

Census figures from 2000 show Buffalo's Hispanic population grew 37 percent during the 1990s. That growth is being recognized in several sectors:

Fucillo Chevrolet began running a Spanish-language television ad earlier this year to reach this growing base of potential customers.

When the Buffalo School District is done setting up its new phone system, all of the schools will offer a Spanish-language menu of options.

With more Hispanics entering nursing homes, Hispanics United is training staff at Grace Manor and other facilities in how to prepare Hispanic dishes, said Paula Alcala Rosner, executive director of Hispanics United.

All of this is a far cry from when Perez first moved here. He didn't let the obstacles prevent him from earning a GED and graduating from college, or from eventually becoming active in the community as director of the Spanish Action League, a writer for the La Panorama Hispano newspaper or a radio announcer on WXRL.

Buffalo has seen the recent emergence of new young leaders such as Cesar Cabrera of the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Development Consortium and Miguel Santos, who works at Niagara Mohawk, according to many inside and outside the Hispanic community.

"There's been a lack of vision," said Rolando Gomez, Maria's husband. "The new, younger leaders need to help the community prepare for the future."

That's one of the main reasons for hosting the annual legislative breakfast, said Cabrera, 38, one of the organizers.

Why are Hispanics organizing and speaking out now? Because the time is right, many said.

For one thing, there's more of a willingness among those of different Hispanic backgrounds -- including Mexican, Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic -- to work together. The fact that more of today's Hispanics are college-educated also plays a role.

Another factor is that Buffalo's Hispanic community is entering its third generation. That means younger activists better understand how to make the system work.

Young Hispanics such as Maria and Rolando Gomez are part of an untapped market in Buffalo, a community that has yet to realize its potential economically, politically and socially, said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, one of those invited to today's gathering.

"We haven't seen a commensurate growth in terms of their political power. It's good news a Latino is now on the (Buffalo) School Board, " Hoyt said, referring to Ralph Hernandez. "But if this community is to be taken seriously, (it must) register more people to vote and exercise power and strength as a growing voter block, as opposed to just a growing population base."


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