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.
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,
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.
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.”
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
- 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.
from building leaders, this work aims to improve the quality of life for Mexicans living in Philadelphia.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
the saying by well-known Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “charity, vertical humiliates. solidarity, horizontal, helps,” 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.
While Juntos is primarily comprised of Mexican immigrants, there are other Latin
immigrants who also participate in these activities.