Portraits of Latino history

In 2006, protesters demonstrated against a Riverside ban on the undocumented renting or working in the Burlco town.
In 2006, protesters demonstrated against a Riverside ban on the undocumented renting or working in the Burlco town. (DAVID CRUZ / Al Día)

Al Día marks anniversary with chronicle of diverse communities' deep roots here.

Posted: March 04, 2013

Twenty years ago, after waiting for a newspaper job that never materialized, Colombian émigré Hernan Guaracao, a trained journalist, created Al Día, an eight-page newsletter published from his home in North Philadelphia.

It began as a "hobby," Guaracao said in a recent interview, but it had a serious purpose: to present news of interest to Spanish-speaking readers in a format that challenged media stereotypes about Latinos.

Today Al Día flourishes as the leading Spanish-English weekly of Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, a region of a half-million foreign-born Hispanics and their descendants. The free tabloid circulates 47,000 copies a week through its network of street-corner boxes.

For its 20th anniversary, Al Día is poised to celebrate with the March 14 launch of 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia, its 228-page photographic record of the region's diverse Hispanic communities.

Guaracao, 62, said the book continues Al Día's iconoclastic aspirations.

Spaniards, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Hondurans, and South Americans are richly represented among the photos of daily life, civil rights struggles, and historic firsts.

"Philadelphia has attracted Latinos ever since our nation was born here," he writes in the introduction. "We set out to prove that Latinos are not newcomers to our city."

While the strongest images are from the last 20 years, the book begins in the 18th century, when Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, was a magnet for exiled Latin American liberationists, too.

Among the first was Francisco de Miranda, who came in 1783 from what is now Venezuela.

Through letters and essays he promoted independence for all of Spain's South American territories. A swashbuckling statue of him on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near 20th Street is one of the book's first images.

Another is Manuel Torres of New Granada (now Colombia), who represented a merged Venezuela and Colombia as Latin America's first ambassador to the United States. He died in 1822 and was buried at Old St. Mary's Church, Fourth and Spruce Streets.

His grave is pictured in the book.

There is a portrait of Felix Varela, a Cuban exile priest who lived on Spruce Street in the 1820s and promoted Cuba's liberation from Spanish rule.

The book draws on the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, private family albums, and the files of Al Día's principal photographer, David Cruz.

Among the photos are ones of Mexican workers brought to Philadelphia as temporary replacements for railroad workers serving in World War II; a 2006 protest of a Riverside ordinance that banned undocumented immigrants from renting or working in the town; and a 2010 protest at Citizens Bank Park by demonstrators who used a visit by the Arizona Diamondbacks to denounce Arizona's harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.

Cruz, 51, was born in Philadelphia to parents from Puerto Rico.

The photos that affect him most personally, he said, were shot in 2008 after a Mexican immigrant farmworker, Luis Ramirez, was beaten to death by four high school students in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County.

Documenting the tense days after the killing, Cruz found himself as the only Latino at an anti-immigrant rally.

"I was not accepted," he said. "When I went to get names for my photo captions, people said: 'I won't talk to you.' "

Anglo colleagues got the names and shared them, Cruz said, but the shunning "kind of drove me to follow the story even more."

When Cruz learned that Ramirez's body was at a West Philadelphia funeral home awaiting repatriation to Mexico, he stood outside all day until the coffin, wrapped in cardboard, emerged on a cart.

His simple portrait of that moment centers on the printed caution: "Handle With Extreme Care."

Contact Michael Matza

at 215-854-2541, mmatza@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @MichaelMatza1.

The launch is scheduled for March 14, 5 to 7 p.m., at the Philadelphia History Museum,

15 S. Seventh St.

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