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.”


  1. michael molovinsky

    manuel, I am by reputation an independent conservative from allentown, who speaks bluntly. i’m not familiar with bethlehem politics, but here in allentown, i see the latinos used as a pawn by the prevailing democrats. fyi, no republican or independent has won here, even a council seat, since 2003. the prevailing democrats throw the latinos a cookie; a token job or two in city hall. it seems almost that those with the ability to organize the hispanics, have been rewarded not to! there is a puerto rican running for city council in allentown, but on the wrong ticket, as a republican. i sat down with him a couple times, he’s a bright guy, but for a guy like him to win; first the latinos must vote, then they must vote for those that would serve them best. but so far, they’re just pawns… michael molovinsky

  2. Esther

    Unfortunately here in the Valley we suffer from what some have coined as “social cannibalism”, which is common to oppressed people. We also call it the “crab bucket syndrome”: when one climbs up out of the pail, the others have this bizarre natural desire to pull that one down where they are are. This “envy” among Latinos is a powerful force that has not allowed the community to trascend geographical divides such as “you are from Allentown, Bethlehem or Easton” instead of “we are all from the Lehigh Valley”. It has also created the barrier that no one speaks about, which is that we keep referring to each other as “you are Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, etc” instead of uniting as Latinos for a common goal. When we stop the bickering and envy among ourselves and we see that we may have differences but that we are in this together, then we will be able to have political power and fight against the proposed English only regulation or against all the anti immigration bills. As a Puerto Rican I also have to fight shoulder to shoulder with our fellow immigrants as we are US citizens through an act of Congress and someday maybe a congressman proposes that the Foraker Act should be amended or abolished; plus anyway…we left our sunny, beautiful island in search of better economic opportunities and in the search of a good education for our kids which means that we came to the US with the same dreams as our “compueblanos” from Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia and the rest of Latin America.

    I urge all the Latinos that are reading this blog to put down “la estola, zarape, o como quieran llamarlo” that has envy and divisiveness written all over it and unite as one group to gain political power and to show that we are more than the loud music, the cars squeeling tires in a parade or a group of people that “hang out” in our streets (has anyone ever thought that all our houses have porches where we sit and chat with neighbors or that we love to play dominoes under a street lamp? or that we come from warm climates thus the reason to be outdoors to cool off?). We are proud people, we are hard workers, we are educated, we are charitable,we are caring, sensible, friendly but we also have our “hot” Latin temper, let’s not wait for a tragedy to happen to unite; let’s gain political power by registering to vote, participating in our kids’ schools, let’s volunteer with the various Latino and non Latino organizations. Let’s use our “hot” Latin blood to empower ourselves and lose the fear of marching on a peaceful demonstration, or fighting for our rights, or fighting for fair treatment at work, in schools, in prisons, in the immigration debate.

    In closing let me also say that Humboldt Park was once my work service area, I would love to see un “paseo” in the Lehigh Valley that would remind me of my beloved old San Juan, I would love to see homes renovated using templates for facades that remind us of our “casitas”, I would love to see all of us working for common goals instead of “kioskos individuales”…and I hope to live long enough to see all this happen, meanwhile let’s all work together, let’s meet and find common ground, let’s have another Humboldt Park in the Valley, let’s show the world that when we decide to do something we work hard until we accomplish it, let’s show the world that we are fighters, that we learned from years of oppression to stand up and not to kneel; that we left the “ay bendito” behind and are ready to march with our fellow immigrants, that we are ready to become the new leaders in the Lehigh Valley and that we are not afraid to speak up. Pa’lante.

  3. Manuel Ayala

    Michael, I appreciate your point of view when you say “on the wrong ticket”. There are many Latinos across the country that are moving away from voting a straight Democratic ticket. They have grown politically astute and vote the issues and not the party. I think it would be great to have Latinos represented in all the political parties because that way I can be assured that there is someone there who understands our community and will take a stand for us. For example, English-only laws and anti-immigration laws have been a popular topic of discussion within the Republicans, who now control the state capital. I would like to think that if we had a Latino state legislator, she/he would have taken a stand against these laws and would have tried to convince others that this is not a direction our state should move towards. Additionally, as we enter the election season, Latinos should be taking notes on who actually represents their best interests and who does not, and not blindly vote for people without holding them accountable for the decisions they have made. Latinos should become “free agents” and if candidates want our vote, no matter what their political affiliation is, they have to plead their case to our community. Then as a community we chose the candidates who will best represent us and hold them accountable. It always comes down to accountability, and as a Latino community, it appears that we have not done a good job of holding legislators accountable, nor ourselves.

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