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Learning About Disabilities : Hearts of the City / Exploring attitudes and issues behind the news : Councilwoman uses her experience with a son who has Down’s syndrome to aid Latino families.

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Rosario Marin and her 9-year-old son, Eric, pull into their driveway in her white convertible with the “Ask Me About Down’s Syndrome” license frame on the back.

In moments, Marin, a Huntington Park city councilwoman, and Eric are inside. The boy soon settles in, right in front of the family television. His mother moves around the house, a blur of activity--checking telephone messages, glancing at the fax machine, picking up a pair of stuffed animals, grabbing a soda and chatting with the oldest of her three children.

She jokes with the boy, whose white pullover shirt has come untucked from his blue shorts, asking whether he wants to look as if he’s been drinking.

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“You look like a little borrachito ,” she says, drawing a hearty laugh and a “No” from Eric as she grabs him to tuck in his shirt. “Are you a borrachito ?”

It is the type of mother-son episode that might happen in any home with a busy mother tending to her child.

That’s exactly the way Rosario Marin wants it.

Never mind that Eric was born with Down’s syndrome, a condition that affects physical and intellectual development. And Marin, in her high-energy, lots-to-say style, is building a national reputation for showing families how to cope with developmental disabilities without coming apart at the seams.

Late last month she became the first Latina recipient of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Award presented at the United Nations as part of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation International Awards in Mental Retardation.

“Now I have to really, really live up to it,” Marin, 36, said recently with a laugh.

To many who know Marin, that goal is already being met. As the license frame on the back of her car indicates, she doesn’t miss a chance to teach someone about Down’s syndrome.

For nearly a decade, Marin, who is married and has two children younger than Eric, has shared her emotional experiences as a way of helping other families. She quit a career in the banking industry when Eric was a baby, formed a support group and reached out to families through volunteer organizations and public agencies.

Services geared to non-English-speaking families were especially scarce, making her highly concerned that Latino families were not receiving information and assistance.

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About three years ago, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Marin chief of legislative affairs at the state Department of Developmental Services. The job, which Marin held for two years, entailed working with a $1.3-billion budget and overseeing the services provided for tens of thousands of people with mental disabilities in California.

In January, she became chairwoman of the governor-appointed state Council on Developmental Disabilities, a federally funded agency with a $6.6-million budget that is helping develop a statewide plan for providing services to families who are coping with developmental disabilities.

“She’s just a real good role model for our Spanish-speaking families,” said Rudy Samora, executive director of Fiesta Educativa, a nonprofit advocacy agency based in Lincoln Heights. “We’re just trying to educate parents and give them the tools so that they can advocate for their child.”

Judy McDonald, executive director of the state council, said the combination that makes Marin effective includes compassion, multicultural awareness and a healthy sense of humor.

“She brings all of the drive and caring and emotion of being a mother of a child with a developmental disability,” McDonald said. Marin, who was 14 when her family moved to Huntington Park from Mexico, said one of her main goals is to make sure more Latino families overcome feelings of embarrassment or shame about children with disabilities. Her husband, Alex, and her other two children--6-year-old Carmen and 3-year-old Alex Jr.--are instrumental in creating a family atmosphere that is free of anxiety about disabilities, she said.

Without question, she said, there is pain, and often anger when a family learns that a newborn is suffering from a disability. Later, as the child grows, there are difficult times when strangers inevitably stare or treat the child disrespectfully, she said.

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Marin said those difficulties can be overcome if one learns to admire the achievements of the disabled child as much as those of children without disabilities. Watching a disabled child learn to walk, for instance, can help build admiration for the child, she said.

“You say, ‘Wow, he had to fall that many more times [than other children] and he never gave up,’ ” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “You have to admire that.”

Marin made all the difference to Ana Rosa and Ignacio Alcaraz, the youngest of whose five children, 8-year-old Gabriela, was born with Down’s syndrome. The couple, owners of Nacho’s Key Shop in Huntington Park, came close to sending Gabriela to Mexico to live with relatives before they met Marin and learned to appreciate the potential in their daughter.

“Rosario came to my house. She spoke with us and educated us about Down’s syndrome,” Ana Rosa Alcaraz, 36, said in Spanish. “If I hadn’t talked to Rosario, perhaps I would have let my daughter go. I felt depressed. Now, our daughter is a blessing to us.”

To Marin, the key to generating such a change in attitudes is exposing more of the public to the realities of developmental disabilities.

“We still get hung up on the disability,” she said. “It’s just plain ignorance.”

The Beat Today’s centerpiece features Rosario Marin, a Huntington Park city councilwoman who is an advocate for the mentally disabled. Anyone wanting more information about developmental disabilities and support services can contact: Council on Development Disabilites: (818) 508-2260. Fiesta Educativa, a Lincoln Heights- based agency working with Spanish- speaking families: (213) 221- 6696.

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