50 years of advocacy

Olga and Carlos Morales were one of the first royal couples of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. He also is a former head of Concilio.
Olga and Carlos Morales were one of the first royal couples of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. He also is a former head of Concilio.

Puerto Rican influx led to the founding of Concilio.

Posted: September 21, 2012

Sporting a cane and a pencil-thin mustache, Carlos Morales, 85, is still the dapper man he was a half-century ago when he led Concilio, Philadelphia's oldest Latino organization.

The first big wave of Hispanic settlement in Philadelphia was around World War II, said Morales, who was born in Puerto Rico, came to New York in 1947, and moved to Philadelphia to work as an accountant in 1954.

By 1960, Morales recalled, "there were problems, abuse [and] discrimination" against Latinos in Philadelphia. If a handful of Puerto Ricans got together on a corner, he said, it wasn't long before police arrived to hustle them away.

As Concilio prepares to celebrate its 50th year with a black-tie gala Saturday, and the traditional Puerto Rican Day Parade on the last Sunday in September, it points proudly to how much has changed.

Over the years, Puerto Ricans have served as Philadelphia judges, city councillors, agency heads, and deputy mayors.

"Concilio established the presence of Puerto Ricans in the city. It sent the message that we're here to stay," said Angel Ortiz, the first Puerto Rican elected to City Council, in 1984.

"We still have challenges," said Concilio board president Antonio Valdes, "but opportunities like never before."

A principal challenge for the 21st century, said Concilio executive director Joanna Otero-Cruz, is to honor the groundbreaking struggles of Concilio's founders while serving the city's increasingly diverse mix of Latinos of different national origins too. The landscape has changed, she said, but "not the mission."

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.

Otero-Cruz's father was born in Puerto Rico, her mother in Costa Rica. She was born and raised in North Philadelphia.

"I am proud of my dad and my mother," she said in an interview last year after a controversy flared over how Concilio would advertise a cultural festival. "I absolutely know about differences [among Latinos] and how important it is to build on those differences and not beat each other down."

The nonprofit began in 1962 as El Concilio de Organizaciones Hispanas de Filadelphia - the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of Philadelphia - a coalition of about a dozen social and fraternal groups that banded together to demand cultural respect and a share of political power.

By the late 1960s and early '70s, the group evolved into a multiservice agency that today oversees foster care, adoption, housing, consumer education, nutrition assistance, and other programs for vulnerable families, most of whom live in North Philadelphia.

Today, with an annual budget of $3.2 million in government and private grants, and offices in the 700 block of North Franklin Street, Concilio's staff of 45 provides social services for about 9,000 people a year.

About 14,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Philadelphia in 1960; about 121,000 in 2010, making this the second-largest Puerto Rican community in America, after New York City. Chicago is third.

While Puerto Ricans continue to make up about three-quarters of Philadelphia's Latino population, the arrival of Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Salvadorans, and other immigrants from South and Central America has diversified its makeup.

"Lots of us in the community identify with Concilio," said Varsovia Fernandez, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, of which Concilio is a member.

Fernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, said Concilio "is an organization that historically lent a hand to Dominicans in Philadelphia" and for a time even housed the Dominican community cultural center.

Concilio's busy function hall, said Fernandez, is a popular venue for Latino events, from the coming-of-age parties for 15-year-old girls, called quinceaƱeras, to holiday pageants.

The theme this year for Concilio's golden anniversary is "La Mujer Puertorriquena," the Puerto Rican woman. Four Latinas will be recognized with community-service awards at the gala, which will take place at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing.

According to records housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, "the years ... 1977 to 1984 were troubled ones for El Concilio."

The records, compiled by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, state that "allegations concerning unpaid back taxes blocked the organization's attempts to seek further public funding" during that period.

The situation was resolved in 1984, according to the records, "when auditors ruled in favor of Concilio in its dispute with the IRS," and the organization's nonprofit status was restored.

The remainder of the decade brought additional challenges, as cities everywhere struggled with job loss, neighborhood decay, and federal cutbacks in funding for social services.

Meanwhile, as Puerto Ricans continued to arrive in Philadelphia, the Balch records state, Concilio helped preserve their native language and cultural heritage, "keeping memories of the island alive."

That's a legacy that Concilio board president Valdes, whose father is Cuban and mother Dominican, doesn't take lightly.

"Puerto Ricans established the Latino base in this city," he said. "They built it."

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

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