September 15 to October 15 is Latinx Heritage Month in the United States. In observation, Community College of Philadelphia faculty and staff are partnering with prominent Latinx authors, activists, artists and professionals to host a series of on-campus events. From a Latinx Comfort Food Tasting to an Art Exhibit, a Latinx Mentoring program meet-up and multiple seminars, these events will showcase Latinx heritage and narratives, while exploring current events and issues within Latinx communities in Philadelphia and abroad.
On Wednesday, September 25, the College began its celebration with two events: Diversity Dialogue: Puerto Rico Yesterday, Today and the Future; and a Latinx Fireside Chat with Dr. Generals, the College’s president. These seminars surveyed issues surrounding immigration, U.S. foreign policy and climate change, and their effect on Latinx communities in the Americas and its surrounding islands.
Charito Morales, a native Puerto Rican, presented at the Diversity Dialogue. The nurse and community organizer at the Providence Center in Fairhill spent four months in Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria to help provide disaster relief.
“Houses completely destroyed, people screaming for help, bodies floating in the water… the government wasn’t ready and the United States government was smacking us,” Morales said.
Morales’ presentation connected the dots between the United States’ colonization of Puerto Rico and the island’s struggle to recover in the two years since the hurricane. She reminded audience members that although Puerto Ricans pay federal taxes and serve in the U.S. military, citizens cannot vote in U.S. elections and do not have voting representation in Congress. Morales made it clear that the United States’ colonial rule over Puerto Rico has hindered its attempts at financial stability, growth and reconstruction.
Morales connected the struggles of Puerto Ricans still living on the island to the 159,400 Boricuas who moved to the United States to escape the devastation.
“New York and Philadelphia have had the second- and third-largest communities relocated [from] Puerto Rico,” she said. “Philadelphia received 1,516 families after Hurricane Maria … 29.1% of Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia are living in poverty.”
Morales said her work at the Providence Center enables her to work with Latinx youth to fight for “better access to healthy, high-quality food, clean and beautiful community gardens and parks, and social justice in Fairhill and throughout the city.”
When asked how Philadelphians can help, Gilberto González, a graphic designer in the College’s Marketing and Communications division, who co-hosted the event, suggested that citizens turn to people in their own communities who are trying to make a difference for assistance, rather than toward large, government-run aid groups.
“If you have neighbors that are Puerto Rican, if you work with Puerto Ricans or other people that you’re connected to, talk to them. Because what a lot of us did here in Philadelphia that did not work with [larger aid organizations], was that while they were shipping containers of water, a small group of us were collecting water filters, stuffing suitcases and flying to Puerto Rico and walking through the streets and giving people water filters so they could have rainwater to drink every day. We had solar [powered batteries] too,” Gonzalez said.
Morales continued, “Philly Boricuas, what we did was, we had three planes that we contracted and we sent everything ourselves. We also had funding from Sonia Sotomayor, and she talked to Coca Cola Company and [they] let us use the container ships to [send supplies] to the island of Puerto Rico. That’s how we sent 36 container [ships] to the island of Puerto Rico.”
Latinx Fireside Chat
At his first Fireside Chat of the 2019-2020 school year, Dr. Generals hosted a discussion about the history of the United States’ foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. He discussed how the U.S. government has contributed to some of the issues that have caused violence and destruction in countries from which U.S.-bound migrants relocate.
Dr. Generals began the conversation by explaining the significance of the Monroe Doctrine; a foreign policy statement issued in 1823, which declared the Americas to be part of the United States’ sphere of influence. A cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy thereafter, it justified American occupation in countries like Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama and Honduras all throughout the 18th and 19 centuries.
Moving on to more recent history, Dr. Generals described how the desire to contain the spread of communism following the success of the Communist Revolution in Cuba led to U.S. interference in countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala. Supporting the violent military dictatorships of the Contras and Carlos Castillo Armas from the 1950s to the 1990s, the CIA and the U.S. contributed to widespread destabilization, and to the murder of many thousands of civilians.
Dr. Generals ended his presentation with a video depicting one of the many rivers in Guatemala that is running dry due to a recently built dam. Climate change has led to the destruction of rivers in Guatemala and has caused the death of local fish species which natives have historically relied upon as food, loss of access to clean drinking water and the death of crops. Dr. Generals spoke about how the indigenous populations everywhere are losing the natural resources that have sustained them for thousands of years.
Afterward, when the President opened the floor for comments, and College staff and students shared their ideas on how we can all make small changes in our own behaviors to combat these issues within our communities.
Paula Umana, director of Single Stop at the College, shared her thoughts on how we can make those who have come to the United States from South and Central America feel more welcome.
“We have this crisis at the border, but we still use language of exclusion and we don’t acknowledge the journey that these groups of folks have to go [on] to make it here,” she said. “Whenever you see someone who looks Central American, or not exactly white American, or African American, don’t say ‘illegal,’ please. Say ‘undocumented.’ Don’t make assumptions that they’re not citizens because they may be citizens. Ask questions without making assumptions, be generous in the love and kindness that you have to offer, and if you don’t know, find things out. The College has tons of resources for students, tons of resources for these communities, there are some resources around the city as well, so we can connect those people and make them feel at home even when they can't be home.”