Observations From a Latino Community Organizer
We welcome our Deputy Director, Manuel Ayala to Poverty’s Edge. Thanks for contributing! Manuel is not foreign to the price of change, diversity and hard work! During his time with the YMCA he has turned around challenged facilities, created programs, reached fundraising goals and helped in the oversight of the construction of a $13.5 million, 45,000 square foot facility.
I’m a displaced Boricua from Chicago, Humboldt Park to be exact. Humboldt Park is a Chicago barrio which has the highest concentration of Puertorriqueños in the entire city. In the barrio, you will find: Paseo Boricua, which is the main street that runs down the center of the ‘hood anchored by two huge steel Puerto Rican flags; Puerto Rican Cultural Center; Roberto Clemente High School; Casa Puertorriqueña Community Center; domino tables sitting alongside street benches; and businesses with facades reminiscent of Old San Juan.
To understand this community and how it has evolved, one must first understand its history. On June 12, 1966, a young Puerto Rican man was shot in the leg by a Chicago police officer. The shooting spurred three days of neighborhood riots but ultimately led to massive neighborhood development, leading to the creation of educational, housing and cultural institutions that remain in Humboldt Park to this day.
I have been working in the LehighValley for 7 months. In those 7 months I have been impressed with not only the number of Latinos who live here but with the size of the Puerto Rican community. I enjoy driving down 4th Street in south Bethlehem with my windows down listening to Gilbertito at full volume and smelling all the wonderful aromas coming from the various restaurants that line the street, RikoPiko, Borinquen Restaurant, Restaurante Machu Pichu, etc.
Also, through my job, I have had the opportunity of meeting many fascinating Latinos from Panama, Puerto Rico, Chile, Colombia, Republica Dominicana, Cuba and Mexico, to name a few. These people have been highly educated and many with good professional jobs. They all seem to have a heart for the community. But then I look at local and state government and I do not see the same “rainbow mix” among the legislators and other elected officials. I am hard-pressed to find people who look like us, talk like us and who can speak for us. I have not been able to find them. Fortunately, we have a few, like Julio Guridy in Allentown and Jose Rosado in Fountain Hill.
So being the inquisitive person that I am, I ask myself, “Self, why is it that a community with so many fascinating people who live, work and play there with so much diversity, there are no elected officials who represent them?”
I asked a colleague who has lived his entire life in the Valley, this question. After giving me the “stink eye” for the nerve that an outsider would ask this question. I was told that this topic was taboo in this community because of the various political camps and cliques that exist in the Valley.
“People in this community are sensitive about such things. They are afraid that others will pass them up.”
“Shouldn’t everyone be working together toward a common cause? Shouldn’t they be trying to speak with one voice so that they can finally be heard?”
The 1966 shooting in Chicago galvanized the Puertorriqueños in such a way that they finally put away all their differences and began working together to improve their community and their place within the community. It started with a “movement”.
What movement is there within the Lehigh Valley or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that can bring the Latino community together? Certainly, nobody would suggest that an incident like the one in Humboldt Park is necessary to wake us up. So let’s consider what next, which I’ll do in my next post. Stay tuned for the next “Observations From A Latino Community Organizer.”