Puerto Ricans' contributions to Philadelphia life and culture

Posted: October 01, 2012

ON SUNDAY, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was swamped with Puerto Rican flags for the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Many Puerto Ricans from Philadelphia and beyond will attend or watch the parade on television and celebrate their cultural pride. However, the parade is much more than a gala and representation of cultural talents; the parade is also a symbol of the many contributions Puerto Ricans have made to the City of Brotherly love.

Puerto Ricans have been residents of Philadelphia since the latter part of the 19th century and while their numbers were initially small their contributions to the economy, labor, politics, religion and culture of the city have been substantial. In the early 20th century, when Philadelphia was one of the major cigar-manufacturing centers of the U.S., Puerto Rican cigar-makers like Saturnino Dones and Antonio Malpica, along with dozens of other Latinos, practiced their skill and craft in large factories, such as Bayuk Bros. During World War I, they were joined by other Puerto Ricans who came to work for the defense industries, such as the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Puerto Ricans were also part of the Latino group that persuaded the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to establish a Spanish-speaking church in the city and led to the establishment of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, La Milagrosa, located in Spring Garden, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. Puerto Ricans were also instrumental in forming the first Spanish-speaking Protestant church in the city - the First Spanish Baptist Church, still in existence today.

In terms of local economics, Puerto Ricans formed many businesses and other enterprises in the 1940s and 1950s. Led by individuals such as Domingo Martinez, they formed not only business associations but were great contributors to the creation of Aspira of Pennsylvania and the Taller Puertorriqueña, educational and cultural icons whose influences has been felt across the city and beyond.

In the political arena, Puerto Ricans have made their mark, electing their first official in 1968; more have been elected in the decades since. For 18 years, Councilman Angel L. Ortiz fought the good fight for workers and poor people from his position in city government. Currently, Puerto Rican Maria Quinones-Sanchez represents the largely Puerto Rican/Latino 7th Councilmanic District. Former Judge Nelson Diaz was the first Puerto Rican on the bench, and others have followed. Christine Torres Matrullo was the first Puerto Rican to serve on the school board, and others have followed. Currently, hundreds of Puerto Rican school teachers, counselors and administrators serve thousands of students citywide.

Culturally, dozens of Puerto Rican musicians have performed on every conceivable stage in the city for diverse audiences in every type of festival and dance imaginable. Under the leadership of Jesse Bermudez (Antonio Malpica's son), founder and former director of the Latin American Musicians Association (AMLA), many events have been celebrated to their salsa beat. Another contribution has come from TV, where Diego Castellanos has been hosting the "Puerto Rican Panorama" program since the 1970s and David Oritz's "El Viaje" radio program on WRTI has been on the air almost as long. In fact, Puerto Ricans haven been hosting radio programs since the late 1940s, when the first program was aired on WDAS. Puerto Rican journalists have also made their mark both in the Philadelphia English-language dailies and the myriad Spanish-language publications.

So, beyond the Puerto Rican Day Parade, folks should also remember the many generations of Puerto Ricans who have lived, worked, entertained, governed and taught in Philadelphia. Que viva Puerto Rico!


Dr. Vazquez-Hernandez is the chair of the Social Sciences Department at Miami Dade College-Wolfson. He has a Ph.D. in history from Temple University and has written and lectured extensively on the subject of Puerto Ricans in the United States.

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