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For Latins, it's loyalty, then taxes

If you have never spent much time in West Tampa, then what Arthur Carreno said about Elvin Martinez's re-election chances, now that his tax case is over, will be incomprehensible. "It's going to hurt him a lot," Carreno said as he settled in for a haircut in the Fiesta Plaza barbershop this week, "not with the Latin people, but with the Americans, who don't know him very well."

Carreno spoke with no small authority about what might happen to Martinez, the state representative who got probation Thursday for failing to file his tax returns on time. Carreno is uncle to the other Martinez who came out of West Tampa and entered politics - the one who goes by Bob.

Now, you'd think that in working-class West Tampa, a politician such as Elvin who didn't pay his taxes promptly would be shown the door.

(And maybe that'll happen. Several people are talking about running against him.) But if you find somebody who thinks Elvin Martinez is beatable, I'll show you somebody who doesn't understand West Tampa, who even think it's acceptable to call it a Hispanic neighborhood.

If you don't believe me, consider what happened to Arthur Carreno's nephew in his home precincts of West Tampa when he quit being mayor and ran for governor.

He lost. Bad.

That's because he left West Tampa and in the eyes of the neighborhood started acting like an American. He switched parties. He let outsiders call him Hispanic.

Elvin Martinez, though, never left the neighborhood. He would choke before he would join the GOP. Nobody calls him a Hispanic. He's a Latin.

So, to the neighborhood, he didn't try to avoid his civic duty by not filing on time. He got beat up by the Americans.

"There's a lot of bad feelings between the Americans and the Latins, even though not too many years ago, the Latins were in the majority," said Phillip Guggino, one of the coffee drinkers in the West Tampa landmark called Faedo's Bakery. "With so many people coming down from the north, there's resentment against the Latins."

This is the Sun Belt spin put on an argument as old as the cigar factories that used to thrive in Ybor City and in West Tampa when it was a city all its own. Then the Americans were the landed gentry of south Tampa, the Culbreaths, MacFarlanes and Lykes. Now the Americans are the migrants from the Midwest and the Northeast.

If you are, in neighborhood terms, an American, then this neighborhood view sounds parochial and misguided but almost sweet, especially because the bigger Tampa gets, the smaller and less influential West Tampa becomes.

Hang around awhile, though, and think about how the prosecutors chased after Elvin Martinez (and his neighborhood pal, E. J. Salcines, the ex-state attorney who never got convicted of a crime but was drummed out of office) and were themselves northern migrants, and you start to wonder about the possibility of wisdom in this ethnic paranoia.

The government pounded on Martinez for six years. They said he lied when he told a grand jury he didn't use drugs, and the jury said no, Martinez told the truth. Then the government went after him because he filed his taxes about as fast as a kid takes out the kitchen trash, and the best the prosecutors could get was probation.

Presto! West Tampa has a new hero.

"Ninety percent of the people in West Tampa will support him," said Virgilio Fabian, the self-appointed chieftain of the elderly Democrats who meet almost every day at Faedo's and talk politics. "For the people in West Tampa, he's an idol."

In West Tampa, what happened to Elvin Martinez was not prosecution but persecution. If you don't agree, as far as West Tampa is concerned, you must be one of them too, one of los americanos.