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The Philadelphia Inquirer

After Dark Times In The 1990s, Residents Of The Fairhill Section See Hope For The Future

'A Little Latin America' Grows In N. Philly

By Marina Walker

November 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

Drive north on Fifth Street in Philadelphia and you'll eventually come to a place where the sounds of Spanish reggae commingle with salsa, merengue and rock-and-roll.

Sausages and burgers are served with gandules (beans) and pastelillos (pastries) stuffed with banana. Children clamor for soda as well as natural guayaba and mango juice.

In school, students recite the Pledge of Allegiance en Espanol. In the street, people speak Spanglish, a blend of Spanish and English.

It's not rare to see women sweeping their neighbors' front steps. Coffee is as strong as you can imagine. Lawyers, pastors and fortune tellers all build a business on easing people's pains.

This is Fairhill, a little bit of Latin America in the heart of North Philadelphia.

Forty years after the first Puerto Rican families settled here, Fairhill has the highest concentration of Latinos in Philadelphia. The area's residents struggle to preserve their identity and overcome ethnic stigmas, even as they continue to blend with the dominant culture.

According to the Census Bureau, 65 percent of Fairhill's residents speak Spanish at home. "We can't give up the language," Benjamin Aviles, a Puerto Rico native living in Fairhill for more than 40 years, said in Spanish. "It's language that brings us together."

Members of each new generation adopt a bit more of the cultural codes of their non-Latino peers: speaking more English than Spanish, wearing hip-hop-style clothes, dancing to rap music, and surrendering to fast food.

And Fairhill has more than its share of hardships. It has the lowest family income in the city and the highest percentage of people without a high-school degree. The once-thriving Bloque de Oro (Golden Block), the commerce strip along North Fifth Street, is in decline.

To some degree, those troubles can be traced to language and cultural barriers.

"We still have kids that have never gone beyond the neighborhood limits," said Carmen-Febo San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueno, a 28-year-old cultural organization.

"The outside may still be hostile for them when they don't speak the language."

Taller is one of a number of social agencies and cultural organizations committed to breaking the stereotypes and isolation of the community.

Thirteen-year-old Buttons Elisa Rivero had her first true encounter with Center City just this summer when she joined a group of Fairhill youths on a city tour sponsored by Taller.

"I had never seen the old houses and the river," she said. "We also took pictures at the Art Museum."

Fairhill was named after the estate of a successful Quaker merchant, Isaac Norris, who bought 900 acres in what is now North Philadelphia in 1718.

In the early 20th century, English, Irish, Scottish and German immigrants filled the neighborhood. They worked in the busy industrial network of carpet, lace and other textile mills that surrounded the area.

Puerto Ricans began to arrive in the early 1960s, when rents in Spring Garden and Northern Liberties, previous Hispanic settlements, began to rise. By the 1980s, the Hispanic population was dominant in Fairhill but the area's economy was in decline.

Many Latinos lost their jobs as factories closed. Drug dealers started operating in the shadows of abandoned buildings and houses.

"It was very tense. One spark could make everything blow up," said Manuel Maizonet, 32, a Puerto Rican block captain in the 2900 block of North Franklin. By the late 1990s, his block was considered one of the most dangerous.

Five years later, this same block was one of three in Fairhill that competed in the city's 2002 Clean Block Contest. Neighbors painted one another's houses and cleaned empty lots.

Although there has been a resurgence of sorts in the area, things have a way to go.

"Right now, the neighborhood is a little bit down," said Aura Villalba, a Nicaraguan who has lived in Fairhill for 30 years and is currently updating the facade of her souvenir store in a Caribbean style. "It still is the place where I feel at home. I have not left because I am still waiting for the renaissance."


Fairhill continues to reinvent itself as Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans and Argentines arrive and diversify its traditional Puerto Rican profile.

Ali Paz, a 45-year-old Venezuelan painter, moved to the area two years ago, escaping from the economic crisis in his country. For a while, he lived in South Philadelphia, and then settled in the heart of Fairhill with his wife and four children. "It's easier here, because of the language," he said.

His family feels more at home as well.

"Here everybody greets you and helps you," said his 21-year-old daughter Viviana, who is attending a computing course in Spanish as well as English classes. "Also, at the grocery store, you can find products from your own country."

In fact, Fairhill is a place to find items and rarities from Central and South America. Walk into a grocery store and you can purchase morcillas (a Spanish blood pudding), batata (sweet potato) jam, and spices, such as adobo.

"It's like having a little Latin America 15 minutes away from Center City," said Juan Gutierrez, business manager for the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises.

The Free Library at 601 Lehigh Ave. houses the largest collection of Hispanic literature in Philadelphia, with nearly 25,000 booksin Spanish.

A block away is Centro Musical, which bills itself as the largest purveyor of Latin American music in Pennsylvania. There you can buy the latest Dominican bachata hit as well as some tangos by the great Argentine singer Carlos Gardel.

At Potter Thomas School, at Sixth Street and Indiana Avenue, 95 percent of the children are of Hispanic descent, and teachers emphasize Latino history in the classroom every day.

Potter Thomas was the first Philadelphia school to run a bilingual program. During after-school programs, students can learn about salsa music or dance the Puerto Rican bomba y plena.

"The key of the program is that they can be themselves and don't have to apologize for that," said principal Sergio Rodriguez.

Twelve-year-old Lidia Del Valle Rios, a student at the school, agrees.

"At the beginning I was very scared," said Lidia, who recently arrived from Puerto Rico and speaks little English. "Now I know that the teacher writes in English on the blackboard, but I can answer in Spanish in my notebook," she said in Spanish.

Karina Massa, 7, who attends John Welsh School at Fourth and York Streets, also speaks Spanish. She moved from Puerto Rico to Fairhill two years ago and still has fond memories of her life on the island.

"Dancing salsa and merengue reminds me of my house, my cousins and the beach in Puerto Rico," said the tiny girl with large, luminous brown eyes and hair that flows to her waist.

But asked which language makes her feel more comfortable, she did not hesitate:


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