200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia: An Illuminating Profile of a Small Populace in the Delaware Valley

Simon Oh, for GPA -- An American Community Survey in 2010 revealed that 420,000 Latino-Americans live in the greater Philadelphia region, making up only about 12 percent of the population in the area. While it is a small part of the populace for what is the fastest-growing demographic nationally, a book published by the Spanish-language newspaper Al Dia chronicles the contributions Latinos have made in the region over the last 200 years.

200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia features photographs detailing the lives and achievements of Latinos in the Delaware Valley since the 18th century, much of it focusing on developments from the 1940s to the present day. Photographs range from personal collections to Al Dia’s archives dating back to its founding in 1992.

The first part of the book's four sections profiles three individuals of Latino origin who became instrumental in the early formation of the Latino population and culture in the Philadelphia region.

  • Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan-born revolutionary, came to Philadelphia in the 1780s and worked with the Founding Fathers to champion for independence in the United States. Later in life, he also fought for independence in France during the French Revolution as well as in his native Venezuela, albeit unsuccessfully for the latter. A statue of de Miranda stands along the Franklin Parkway, commemorating his passion and dedication in his fight for independence in the United States.
  • Manuel Torres was a Colombian-born diplomat who, like de Miranda, also advocated for liberty and independence in the United States and in South America. His penchant for diplomacy and penmanship led him to express his dissent for the Spanish colonial government, the reaction serving as the basis for his exile from Santa Fe de Bogota to Philadelphia. He later became the first Latin American ambassador to the United States during the James Monroe administration, and the first Latino buried with full military honors. His burial site can be found at Old St. Mary’s Church on 4th and Spruce Streets.
  • Father Felix Varela was a Cuban priest who emigrated to the United States in 1823. The following year, Varela created “El Habanero,” a publication printed from a shop in Old City’s 3rd Street, that served as a forum for people like him to freely express his thoughts about the Spanish rule of his homeland and the need for an independent Cuba. Legend has it that his call for independence of Cuba led to a hitman being hired to assassinate Varela. The hitman ultimately backed down and returned to Cuba after Varela used his clerical instincts to successfully convince him to reconsider the morally reprehensible nature of his actions.

The book's next section covers the period spanning the 1940s to the 1980s, when Latinos steadily grew their presence in the region. Photographs from this section primarily feature Philadelphia area Latinos participating in parades and social gatherings, as well as their contributions in helping to strengthen the regional economy in the Delaware Valley.

From the 1970s onward, Latinos greatly increased their visibility and profile as they sought public office on all levels of government and brought greater attention to the labor movement through community activism. Latinos made history in the region by becoming elected to federal judgeships, the Pennsylvania State Legislature and mayorships, to name a few of the offices. Latinos in the area also participated in demonstrations and championed the rights of farm workers and laborers alike, coinciding with the movement led by famed late activist Cesar Chavez.

David Cruz, who currently serves as the Director of Photography for Al Dia and has worked for the paper since its founding in 1992, contributed many of the photographs he has taken since the 1980s. He documented many of the major events involving the Latino community over the last 30 years, capturing everything from the first participation of Latinos at the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, to local demonstrations related to the nationwide immigration reform protests in 2006, to a court trial that ensued after a Latino man was a victim of a deadly hate crime in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 2008.

200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia provides a visual understanding of the largely little-known history of a small and important ethnic demographic in the Delaware Valley. The book successfully shines a spotlight on the important contributions Latinos have made to the region’s culture, economy and identity over the last couple of centuries.

Image courtesy of www.thehispanic.blogspot.com

Author Simon Oh can be reached at http://about.me/SimonOh

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