The first time Carolina Cabrera DiGiorgio drove to the offices of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, she was struck by the poverty she saw.
“It was eye-opening for me,” said DiGiorgio, who was a young lawyer with the Philadelphia firm of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young.
“It was on that day I made a commitment to work in this community and to help people,” she said from her fifth-floor office at Congreso, the city’s largest Latino social services agency, on American Street, at Somerset.
That first visit was eight years ago. DiGiorgio, then 29, had been recruited to join Congreso’s board of directors by Rich Negrin, the former city managing director, and Ken Trujillo, Congreso’s former board chair.
Last week, DiGiorgio, who became Congreso's president and CEO in February, found herself at the center of a storm over her appearance at an April 29 rally for President Trump in Harrisburg.
On May 22, a coalition of 20 immigrant and workers’ rights organizations demanded her resignation in a letter blasting her for sitting “front and center at a rally where chants of ‘Build the Wall’ were prominently featured.”
It criticized “her visible support of a president whose divisive policies and rhetoric undermine our communities and decrease access to services our families so desperately need.”
The letter to Congreso’s board was signed by the immigrant-rights advocacy group Juntos and others, including 15 Now, POWER, SEIU 32BJ, and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia.
DiGiorgio said the criticism was based on assumptions by “people who don’t know anything about me.”
Negrin declined to talk about her rally appearance, but he praised DiGiorgio’s work as a lawyer and community leader.
“She’s incredibly talented, and I thought she’d be great for Congreso,” Negrin said. “We needed someone with her legal background on the board. We need a lot more like her.”
DiGiorgio, a registered Republican before she married, said she attended the rally, which marked Trump’s 100th day in office, because her husband is Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Valentino DiGiorgio.
“I’m married to a politician, and there are just some events I’m going to have to go to as a political wife,” she said.
But she said she never applauded the chants of “Build the Wall.”
“That was hurtful to hear,” she said, especially as an immigrant herself. “I would never applaud anything like that.”
When she was seen applauding, because she was onstage directly beside Trump, she said: “It may have been when [Trump] was talking about support for our veterans. I’m a big believer in law enforcement and our military veterans.”
DiGiorgio was born in Honduras and came to the United States at age 5. Her father is an engineer, her mother a lawyer. Her older sister is a doctor, and her younger brother is an engineer. DiGiorgio graduated from Rutgers School of Law in Camden.
Growing up in Gloucester County, she was taunted as a teenager, she said.
“I was bullied as a high school student,” she said. “I was told to ‘Go back to where you came from.’ My parents had ‘funny accents.’ All those things.”
Her parents’ response was to tell her to focus on her education. They believed that was the way to the American dream. “You realize your value and you highlight it and use it to reach your goals,” she said.
After the outrage over the Trump rally, DiGiorgio said, “I found it ironic to have my own community say: ’Hey, you don’t belong here.' You’re either too corporate, too suburban, or your [party] registration is wrong. It’s sad.”
But DiGiorgio said she was heartened by emails and messages of support from all over the country. They tell her to stick to her values, she said.
Congreso’s board is also standing behind DiGiorgio.
“While we do not support any administration’s policies that could negatively impact the Latino community we serve, we do remain supportive of and confident in Carolina’s leadership and vision for Congreso,” board chair Esperanza Martinez Neu said in a statement on behalf of all board members.
DiGiorgio and her husband have five children: three older children from his first marriage, who are 20, 18, and 16, and two younger boys, 6 and 3.
After seven years on Congreso’s board, DiGiorgio resigned in October to apply for the president and CEO job. She said the board discussed her politics and decided it should not be a factor.
Begun in 1977 as a drug and alcohol treatment agency, Congreso now has a family health-care clinic, a job training center, and a financial counseling program, and it operates the Pan American Academy Charter School for children in kindergarten through grade 8.
DiGiorgio said she wants to expand the job-training program -- now focused only on child-care jobs — to offer training in trucking or manufacturing to appeal to young men. She also wants Congreso to eventually add a preschool and a high school.
“It’s a tremendous organization that serves over 17,000 new clients each year,” DiGiorgio said. “Our goal is economic sustainability. We’re not looking to do the quick fix. We want to move folks out of poverty, and that’s accomplished through education.”