BPD Update Online, Winter 2007
Juntos Working for Human Rights in Philadelphia
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A Community Organization Is Born

Rosemary A. Barbera,

Monmouth University


According to the US Census, Latinos make up over 10% of the residents of the City of Philadelphia (www.census.gov).  What this official account neglects to mention is that there are at least two populations of Latinos in Philadelphia:  there are the visible Latinos, predominantly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and there are the hidden Latinos, predominantly from México. This latter population was often neglected by social service and community agencies because most Mexicans live in the southern section of Philadelphia, far from the barrio.  When agencies did arrive in South Philadelphia, they arrived with a model based on their work with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans – a model that was, at best, strange to the Mexicans.  It is in this environment that the community organization Casa de los Soles/Juntos (Juntos) was born to serve the estimated 10,000 Mexicans living in South Philadelphia.  The history of Juntos is closely tied to the recent history of Mexicans in Philadelphia. 


            Philadelphia began to experience its first large influx of Mexican immigrants soon after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Many of these Mexicans have been economic refugees whose traditional work, farming corn and other agricultural products, was decimated by NAFTA and the dumping of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn and vegetables on the Mexican market.  Left with less alternatives to earn a living wage, access housing, and obtain a decent education, Mexicans began the long journey north, crossing the Arizona desert despite the risks, spreading beyond the traditional destination of previous generations of Mexicans.  In this way, a large population of Mexicans arrived in Philadelphia.


            In the year 2002, two longtime friends approached Mexican immigrants through a local Catholic parish to ask how they could be of service.  At the same time, these young men met a Mexican counselor from the organization Women Organized against Rape (WOAR); they decided to join forces and work together to benefit the Mexican population of Philadelphia.  This is how Casa de los Soles/Juntos was born, with Casa de los Soles serving as a community center and Juntos focusing on helping Mexicans “manage the system,” according to Juntos Director and Founder Peter Bloom.  The idea was to “form an alternative space for folks.  In this way we gained insight into the needs of the people and were able to pick out the natural leaders in the community.”  In order to do this, Peter took a leave of absence from the University of Pennsylvania, finally finishing his degree three years later.


            The first thing Peter, his friend Adam Ureneck, and Cristina Pérez, the WOAR counselor, did was ask the Mexicans what they needed in order to improve their quality of life in Philadelphia.  The needs were numerous and included English language classes, assistance with local authorities, and help understanding Philadelphia “culture.”  Peter and Adam began offering English classes before Sunday mass at the local parish and as his classes spilled over with participants, he found more volunteers to add more classes.  Within four months they were offering five English classes.  These classes were soon joined by computer classes.  These classes addressed some of the needs of the Mexican population, but there were still other hurdles to cross.  For example, many Mexicans were being robbed on the street since it was common knowledge that they did not have bank accounts and carried their cash with them.  Associated with this was the fact the Philadelphia Police Department had only one or two people in the local district that spoke Spanish and was not very interested in helping the Mexicans, anyway.  As a result, the leaders and staff Juntos began to engage in a power analysis of their neighborhood in order to being to plan community actions for the future.  Juntos  also worked with the local banks so that they would begin to accept the identification cards issued by the Mexican consulate so people could open bank accounts. 


The Work of Juntos


            The ultimate goal of the work of Juntos is to create an educated populace who knows their rights and will organize to ensure that those rights are respected. According to Peter,


our mission is to facilitate the creation of an organized, vocal and healthy Latino immigrant community in South Philadelphia. We achieve this end through education, community organizing and service coordination. We have two staff members, one full-time and one part-time, as well as a corps of volunteers.


The work of the leaders and staff of Juntos revolves around a few key areas.




Juntos offers specialized courses that will help Mexicans improve their quality of life.  These courses also serve as a way to build relationships and trust and engage people in the political and social work of the organization.


            As mentioned above, when Peter Bloom made initial contact  with the Mexican population of South Philadelphia, he asked people what the greatest needs were and they replied that there was a lack of education, primarily in English language.  The formal work of Juntos, then, began with English language classes as a way to meet the needs of the community and join people together so that they could confront the challenges facing them in an organized manner.  From the initial English classes on Sunday afternoons, there are now eight two hour English classes per week at Juntos and two three-hour computer classes.  There is no charge for these classes and they are offered at different times in order to accommodate a variety of schedules.  The classes are staffed by volunteers and are organized in such as way as to teach English literacy through conscientization and leadership building.


Power Analysis


As previously stated, Juntos works to engage participants in a power analysis of the factors associated with immigration to the United States.  This includes analyzing unjust economic policies that have led to the further impoverishment of many populations. As community organizer Mario Ramírez notes: “Years of undignified living conditions at home, exacerbated by free trade and other influences of economic globalization, have forced our young to come to the United States as economic refugees.” [1]   


As a result of the violent living conditions facing many Mexicans in Philadelphia, the leaders of Juntos worked together with community participants to offer a series of workshops and trainings where Spanish-speaking immigrants could participate.  These workshops assisted immigrants in understanding the violence of the global economy and how this violence directly resulted in their impoverished living conditions in their countries of origin and in the United States.  A number of concrete actions have resulted from this analysis of power.  They include:


  • Juntos community leaders organized a “Public Action” in order to confront the Philadelphia Police Department for its lack of action on the behalf of Mexicans in South Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Police Department has a long and soiled history of racism and ethnocentrism that is well-known to people of color in the city.  A core group of three Juntos leaders began to meet with the staff of Juntos to plan this event that would take place on a Sunday afternoon after mass at a local Catholic parish.  They invited the leaders of the Police Department, not to speak to them, rather to listen.  This event was attended by over 200 persons and well-organized.  The Police Department had no alternative but to agree to work with these Juntos leaders to improve services to the Mexicans.  Fabiola, one of the organizers of this event, commented that “this was a unique experience that people really enjoyed as they got a sense of the power potential they have when they work together.” 
  • A group of community leaders have begun to meet on Friday mornings to continue their training and knowledge building so that they can better serve as resources to their community. 

Aside from building leaders, this work aims to improve the quality of life for Mexicans living in Philadelphia.




Closely related to the work of power analysis, Juntos is committed to training leaders who will serve both the Mexican community in Philadelphia as well as their communities of origin when they return to México.  For example, Juntos serves as a bridge between Mexicans in Philadelphia and their communities of origin, primarily San Mateo Ozolco, Oyametepec, and Domingo Arenas.  The staff and leadership of Juntos work with participants on a variety of projects destined to improve the living conditions of the residents’ communities of origins.


One such project is to build a high school in the town of San Mateo Ozolco, in the Mexican state of Puebla.  Half of the original community of San Mateo is now residing in South Philadelphia[2] and many of these residents are young people who fled San Mateo because they did not see a future there.  The immigrants in Philadelphia decided that they wanted to raise funds to send home so that a high school could be built in their town with the hope that if young people could receive a high school education, they would not have to immigrate to the U.S.


Another project is looking at issues related to water in the three Mexican towns of San Mateo, Oyametepec and Domingo Arenas.  All three of these towns suffer from water insecurity and the potential of their water source being privatized.  The human right to water, a necessary ingredient to food and health, both human rights according to the United Nations Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, is being contested in these towns.  Some leaders of these towns who have participated in training and formation through Juntos are now returning to use their skills in power analysis and organizing to work with their communities.


One additional project is to produce a video to be used as a teaching tool in México.  The focus of this video will be in having young immigrants talk about the difficulties they have faced in both entering and staying in the United States.  While Juntos leaders have no illusion that this video will significantly reduce immigration rates, they do hope that it will at least permit young people to embark on this journey with their eyes open.


One final project, which will begin in December, 2006, is the opening of a Juntos office in México.  Mario Ramírez, an organizer in Philadelphia, will return to México to begin this work whose mission is


to make more visible our struggle and to acquire the necessary power in order to achieve social justice. We want to turnaround the negative consequences of immigration and take advantage of the positives so that we can generate changes in our affected communities.




Juntos began as many community organizations begin – with an articulated need and people willing to work to meet that need.  The needs of the Mexican community are vast, and while Juntos cannot meet all of those needs, this small organization with an equally small budget is making great strides towards social justice for Mexicans both in Philadelphia and back in Mexico.  In just a few years Juntos has been able to establish a much-needed community center where Mexican leaders could meet to learn and organize, as well as carry out many activities and actions aimed at improving the lives of Mexicans.  It has done this despite the resistance of the “traditional” social service agencies who have felt that the work of Juntos is “too political.”  It serves as a model of how working together in a community people can not only get their individual needs met, they can make larger societal change happen.


Juntos  makes the saying by well-known Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “charity, vertical humiliates.  solidarity, horizontal, helps,”[3] come to life as ties of local and international solidarity are built and strengthened by its work.  Social workers could learn a great deal about how to bridge the false micro-macro dichotomy by working in solidarity with organizations like Juntos.



[1] While Juntos is primarily comprised of Mexican immigrants, there are other Latin
                American immigrants who also participate in these activities.


[2] The radio program The World, on PRI did a short story on the Mexicans from San   

                Mateo.  It can be listened to at


[3] Galeano, E, Richtin, F & Salgado, S. (1997).  An Uncertain Grace:  Essays by Eduardo Galeano and Fred Ritchin.  NY, NY: Aperature.  

Another article on immigration is on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 29, No. 1, Winter, 2007

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

The BPD Update Online web site is sponsored by Lyceum Books.