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Mime plan's language draws offense

E. Boston residents say Latinos maligned

Its creators saw it as a bright, well-intentioned idea. An antilittering campaign designed for East Boston's heavily immigrant population: Amusing street mimes, transcending language barriers, would perform in public spaces, grab residents' attention, and help persuade them to stop dropping trash on neighborhood streets.

But an initial proposal that the small group of local artists drafted about the effort described its mission as ''educating Latinos to stop throwing garbage in the city streets." And before creators could revise the language, they were embroiled in a community dispute.

The creators of the ''Change Your Attitude" campaign, who are themselves Latino, are now trying to persuade neighbors that their campaign does not single out one racial group as litterers. The flier was a rough draft that should never have gone public, they say, and the campaign, funded by the nonprofit East Boston Foundation, targets the whole neighborhood.

But their experience showed the sensitive nature of racial and ethnic relations in Boston, where word of the project set off a reaction of resentment and offense. In East Boston, where Latinos make up an estimated 40 percent of the population, many say the draft was a blow to a community that often feels maligned.

''It caused a lot of pain," said 47-year-old Jose Ortiz, an East Boston electrician. Not only did the flier divide Latinos over whether to support the campaign, he said, but it reinforced negative stereotypes held by some longtime Bostonians.

Ortiz said he supports the campaign, but added: ''What I don't support is the words used."

Diego Luis Peña, a 45-year-old writer from Colombia who now lives in East Boston, said the draft's authors should apologize.

''People are very hurt," Peña said. ''It wasn't the best way to educate [residents]."

The campaign is part of a broader effort to build community spirit and commerce in East Boston, a neighborhood that some outsiders know little about, other than their familiarity with Logan International Airport. Though tensions have flared occasionally in the densely built enclave of three-deckers and apartment buildings, the neighborhood boasts rich diversity, with Salvadoran, Colombian, and Brazilian residents living alongside the Italians that settled here during the last century.

No one denies that an aggressive campaign is needed to clean up the streets in East Boston. But many say that the early effort damaged the cause.

The draft, which is ungrammatical at times, described Latinos as ''very nationalist," or still tied to their native countries, and said they do not feel a sense of belonging in the United States.

''This feeling of not belonging to a place creates and [sic] ideas of not caring for their city or the neighborhood where they live," the draft says.

Brighton resident Alex Gómez, also a native of Colombia, said he wrote the original draft in Spanish last May as a project proposal.

''It was a first attempt," he said. ''It's a draft. That's why it's called a draft. It changes."

East Boston resident German Velasquez, a photographer directing the campaign, gave the draft to his son to translate into English. Velasquez then gave a copy of the draft to an East Boston resident for her opinion, Gómez said. Gómez and Velasquez already had realized it would be a mistake to keep the original language of the draft and decided the campaign should be directed to all people in East Boston. But by then, copies of the original draft were already circulating throughout East Boston.

Gómez said he he never meant to offend anyone.

''I am a person who fights against stereotypes," he said. Newspaper ads for the campaign against littering will be written in both Spanish and English. And the mimes who will perform in Maverick and Central squares Friday and Saturday are not intended to represent any race, Gómez said.

Velasquez said the controversy has cast a pall over his attempts to help East Boston solve its longtime problems of dirty streets. ''I feel uncomfortable because there are people who think I'm betraying my community," he said.

Last week, Velasquez and Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who decided to help with the campaign after the group approached him and has donated $2,500, spoke to a group of about 16 East Boston residents about the effort. The men showed a public service announcement featuring the mimes, passed around posters and discussed a study about why people litter. Scapicchio also asked the group if any part of the campaign was offensive. The mostly-Latino group expressed no concerns, praising the approach.

''I think that's where we are in our society, everybody is very, very ready to take offense," Scapicchio said after the meeting. ''We tried to be as thoughtful and as inoffensive as possible."

Scapicchio said he still has faith in the project. ''If the attention this issue has gotten gets people to think about cleaning the street, it will have been for a good purpose," he said.

Globe correspondent Christine MacDonald contributed to this report.Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.


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