Esta página no está disponible en español.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Charting City's Latino Pulse

By Mary Anne Janco

31 October 2004
Copyright © 2005 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

The photographs show a young musician from Panama following her dreams, a Colombian family who own a sewing machine business celebrating Christmas Eve together, and a vigil for a Puerto Rican teenager, the victim of a drive-by shooting in South Philadelphia.

The walls of the Baldwin School art gallery are lined with images of the joy and struggles in the lives of Latino families who have made their home in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"Latino Philadelphia: Our Journeys, Our Communities," a bilingual exhibit, showcases the rich cultures of this diverse group, looks back at the historical trading ties between Philadelphia and the Latino world, and provides a glimpse of the hardships endured by the early immigrants.

From the scores of images, "you get a feeling of what the community is really like and where we've come from in our struggles," said Philadelphia photographer Tony Rocco, whose mother is Colombian.

Rocco, who took many of the photographs, accompanied Joseph Gonzales, the exhibit's researcher and curator, into homes and attended celebrations in churches and community centers for this two-year project undertaken as part of the New Immigrants Initiative by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, now part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The initiative is to document and represent the history, culture and experiences of recent non-European immigrants to the Philadelphia area, said Kathryn Wilson of the Historical Society. One of this project's challenges was to represent the diversity of the Latino population - the fastest growing ethnic group in the Greater Philadelphia area - which includes Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and those from Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

For the project, Gonzales, a doctoral student in anthropology at Temple University who has worked in the Philadelphia Latino arts and cultural community for nine years, interviewed recent immigrants as well as third-generation families. Some came to America for economic opportunities and others for religious or political freedom.

Gonzales interviewed a young Honduran man, an immigrant who now works in a Chinatown restaurant to earn money for a better future and to help support his family back home.

Rocco's photos include Giovana Guevara, a singer who came from Panama and now teaches piano and performs; and Jorge Lopez, a Uruguayan folk dancer, who arrived in early 2002 with his Chilean wife and infant.

Gonzales met Rosa Goldstein, a Jewish Cuban refugee whose parents had escaped Poland years earlier. She and her husband, who fled Cuba in the 1960s, enjoy social activities at the Cuban Community Center in Olney.

Latin American exiles sought refuge in the city as far back as the 19th century and Philadelphia's trade ties to the Spanish-speaking world date to the colonial era, according to the project's research. Philadelphia's manufacture of cigars in the 19th century brought Cuban and Puerto Rican workers.

The greatest migration of Puerto Ricans to the city was from World War II to 1975, Gonzales said. They came for agricultural, factory and service jobs. Some interviewees told Gonzales of the discrimination that they encountered, he said, but a lot "see themselves as Philadelphia Puerto Ricans with deep roots here and deep heritage and cultural roots in Puerto Rico."

Latinos are in all sections of the city but there is a concentration in North Philadelphia, he said. Rocco took photos of Latino businesses on North Fifth Street's "Golden Block" as well as a Colombian bakery in Feltonville and Venezuelan-owned children's hair salon in Hunting Park.

The exhibit also features colorful photos of Latino cultural events, many which revolve around churches.

Easter celebrations incorporate old traditions, such as the Guatemalan custom of creating an intricate colored sawdust carpet by hand. Christmas festivities may include posadas where the journey of Mary and Joseph is reenacted in a house-to-house procession. One photo shows a Guatemalan posada in Bala Cynwyd.

Rocco captured bold shots of the artistic community with bomba dancers and a flamenco troupe as well as the lively street festivals. But even more revealing were the celebrations in people's homes, Rocco said. "You get a better idea of who the people are and what they're about."

"One of the things constantly reinforced as we did our research was how warm and open people were," Gonzales said.

The exhibit also shows the blight, poverty and crime affecting the Latino community. One corner of the exhibit shows a vigil for Veronica Rios, 15, the innocent bystander who died after a shooting in South Philadelphia in 2001.

Gonzales said he wanted "to show the community as it is with dignity and truthfulness" and "to create an opportunity to build bridges" between the Latinos and other communities.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback