Puerto Ricans see another Philadelphia Latino festival as a slight

Posted: June 13, 2011

What's in a name? A raging controversy, that's what, now that Philadelphia's half-century-old Puerto Rican Festival is feeling upstaged by the first annual Latino Arts and Cultural Festival.

The decision by the city's oldest Latino social-services agency to market the Puerto Rican festival - held each September - under the banner of the wider Latino Arts and Cultural Festival that begins next month on Penn's Landing and runs through November is a nod to the growing diversity of Hispanic groups, including Mexicans, Dominicans, and others, said Joanna Otero-Cruz, director of Concilio, the 49-year-old council of Spanish-speaking organizations, which sponsors both events.

"It was never about erasing the Puerto Rican heritage," Otero-Cruz said. "It's about opening our arms to the broader community."

Critics of the decision call it "a unilateral renaming" of the Puerto Rican Festival that deletes the heritage and history of Puerto Ricans in the city.

In a statement, Iris Colon Torres, a community organizer, said the change was "an affront" to Puerto Ricans, who, beginning in the 1940s, "sacrificed and struggled" to establish the city's first Latino community, now the nation's second-largest Puerto Rican population.

On Sunday, in response to questions from The Inquirer, Otero-Cruz released an advertising poster and schedule of events that highlighted "the 49th annual Puerto Rican Festival" under the top-billed "Latino Arts and Cultural Festival," a layout choice that she described as a "branding" decision.

"Concilio has never changed the name of these historic events, as you can see in the calendar of events," she said. "What we have done is to name the entire series for the first time, to help build these events as a continuum, building momentum and peaking with the Puerto Rican Day Parade on Sept. 25 along the Parkway."

Angry Puerto Rican activists who say they were not consulted about the marketing strategy plan to demonstrate Monday outside Concilio's North Philadelphia offices to demand separate billing for the Puerto Rican Festival as a sign of respect.

"Our heritage is not a brand to be used to market and position an agenda," the group calling itself the Committee to Save Our Heritage wrote in a news release. The critics include former City Councilman Angel Ortiz, State Rep. Angel Cruz, and community activist Wilfredo Rojas.

Otero-Cruz took the reins of Concilio, a nonprofit organization that gets some city, state, and federal funding, about a year ago after its former director was fired. She had worked for a decade as director of behavioral health services at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, another Philadelphia social-services agency.

Her father was born in Puerto Rico. Her mother was born in Costa Rica. She was born and raised in North Philadelphia.

"I am proud of my dad and my mother," Otero-Cruz said. "I absolutely know about differences [among Latinos] and how important it is to build on those differences and not beat each other down.

"By formally linking each historic event in the Latino Arts and Cultural Festival series," she said, "we hope to . . . bring the whole city together to honor the roots, heritage, and economic and social contributions of the entire Latino community."

Over the last decade, Philadelphia's Latino population grew 44 percent, to 187,611, according to the 2010 Census. About 100,000 are Puerto Rican.

Clearly still the city's dominant Latino group, Puerto Ricans are feeling pressure from a growing number of immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America. As U.S. citizens from birth, Puerto Ricans are not immigrants in the technical sense, but the Caribbean island, which became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952, is richly steeped in Hispanic traditions that they bring with them to the mainland.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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