Hispanic Heritage stronger than ever


One could regard the growth of the Hispanic Choice Awards, set to take place Oct. 11 at the Merriam Theater, as an apt parallel to the growth of the Hispanic community in Philadelphia over the last 10 years. What started in 2004 at the University of Pennsylvania, with 23 attendees, has grown into a full-blown red-carpeted spectacle on South Broad Street with 1,152 attendees and a corresponding television special on CW Philly with nearly 30,000 viewers.

The purpose of the show is noble: “The Hispanic Choice Awards engages and connects the diverse Delaware Valley to honor and celebrate industry leaders, cross-sector collaborations, and spotlight the Hispanic influence in the region … Our mission is to cheer on their stories and bring them to light.”

The producers of the show, namely Javier Suarez and Cecilia Ramirez, initiated the production of an infographic that would help Philadelphians to visualize and humanize the diverse and ever-growing Hispanic populations that make up for 788,326 residents within the 18 counties that surround and include Philadelphia County.

According to the accompanying press release: “Approximately 65 percent of Latino/Hispanics reported English as their dominant language”; “Philadelphia County experienced a Latino/Hispanic population increase of 68.7 percent, which translates to more than 58,600 additional Philadelphians since 2000”; and “Latino/Hispanics…[have the] purchasing power of $4.2 billion and a homeownership rate of about 45 percent.”

The report and the show arrive on the heels of a weeklong and month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, not unlike the African-American community’s February celebration of culture and history, or the LGBT community’s October historical commemoration.

“I haven’t seen much change in conversations about the changing face of Philadelphia,” Suarez said for the inspiration to create this infographic. “How can we tell our story where people can kind of understand why all of this that’s going on matters. We’re not just a bunch of numbers. We kind of humanize this 13 percent of the population that lives in Philadelphia and the reality is that the growth is still coming — it’s not going to stop.”

Indeed, Philadelphia is becoming a welcoming hub for Latinos as more businesses open and flourish and family members join hard-working Philadelphians establishing roots through honest work.

Sept. 15, 16 and 18 are especially momentous dates for many Hispanic communities. On the 15th, Costa Ricans, El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans celebrate their independence. Mexicans celebrate independence on the 16th and Chileans on the 18th.

Welcoming America just wrapped, too, a national weeklong celebration from the 13th to the 21st, coordinated by an umbrella organization that promotes the celebration of what immigration does for America. Welcoming America is, according to its website, “a national, grassroots-driven collaborative that works to promote mutual respect and cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans.”

“It’s really an attempt to highlight and promote immigrant integration around the country and recognizing that immigrants do have value and are really assets to our community,” Jennifer I. Rodriquez, the executive director at the mayor’s office of immigrant and multicultural affairs, said.

She was in attendance at Sunday’s block party on South Ninth Street and found the attendance and spirit thrilling.

“It was incredible fun — what would the Italian Market be without Mexican communities?” Rodriguez said. 

The Hispanic Choice Awards are generated by community sourcing. The winners are not decided by men in suits but by community votes in the categories of: Education Champion of the Year, Community Advocate of the Year, Business Person of the Year, Company of the Year, Creative Artist of the Year and Lifetime Achievement.

At this fall’s ceremony, Wilmer Valderamma (still well known as Fez from “That ’70s Show”) and Luis Enrique (a Nicaraguan musician sometimes known as “The Prince of Salsa”), will be feted with the Lifetime Achievement award and recognized by local leaders.

“The City is going to recognize them with the Liberty Bell medal that the city often hands out to visitors and dignitaries,” Suarez said.

Last year’s winner for Community Advocate of the Year was none other than Juntos, 2029 S. Eighth St.

“The work they do isn’t just needed in South Philly; it’s needed in Norristown and Trenton and the Lehigh Valley and other parts of Philly,” Suarez said.

“We are a community organization working with the Latino immigrant community, and we do our work in a human rights framework, focusing on developing leadership of community members and working collectively on campaigns,” Jasmine Rivera, a Point Breeze resident and the organization’s lead organizer, said.

They were thrilled to be honored, but haven’t lost focus on a long and uphill battle. Undocumented immigrants are at constant threat of deportation and criminalization due to archaic Visa quotas and requirements, but they’re not pessimistic.

“No human life is illegal. No matter where you’re born, you should have the same human rights. You can’t control your birthplace or your race or your gender — we have inherent rights and we can work together,” Rivera said. “We can move forward to create a better society for all.”

They’ve worked on eradicating U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement holds, a process the American Civil Liberties Union says is used “to apprehend individuals who come in contact with local and state law enforcement agencies and put them into the federal deportation system.” One fight they’re hopeful can be won is the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a program that would establish conditional residency for immigrants with a high school degree so they can attend college with in-state tuition rates and secure upward mobility.

Rivera and her Juntos peer, youth organizer Miguel Andrade, note there’s an extremely vibrant Puerto Rican community in North Philadelphia (Puerto Rican descent is the most represented ethnicity of Philadelphia-area residents at 50 percent). Puerto Ricans have been well-established in North Philly but, as Rivera put it, “South Philadelphia has historically been the hub for new migrants to Philadelphia.”

Andrade, however, was lucky enough to benefit from a bilingual education due to Spanish-speaking faculty manning his Cayuga Elementary School.

“When I came to this country I didn’t speak any English,” Andrade said, but he could “easily transition into the U.S. because of the education I was receiving. More and more schools are moving toward that model.”

Or in some cases, like the Garces Foundations’ work at the Southwark School, 1835 S. Ninth St., with Puentes Hacia el Futuro (Bridge to the Future), community members are coming into schools to help young students for whom English is not their first language.

But, like Suarez says, Hispanic Heritage month is not all about celebrating.

“The bottom line is that we work in every industry. We’re your neighbors. And now that it’s Hispanic Heritage month, it doesn’t mean it’s time to party,” he said. “We’re living life and going to work.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.