Thousands will gather in South Philadelphia next Sunday for El Carnaval de Puebla, to celebrate Mexican culture and watch marchers dressed in elaborate costumes promenade on Washington Avenue. This year’s festival is particularly significant, as organizers canceled last year’s due to heightened fears stemming from the nation’s anti-immigrant political climate.
The return of the event speaks to the resilience of Latin American community groups in Philadelphia, which have a storied history of improving the quality of life for their communities and preserving their vibrant cultures.
The Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of Philadelphia (also known as Concilio) is Philadelphia’s oldest community organization dedicated to serving Hispanic residents. The group emerged in 1962 following the growth of the city’s Puerto Rican population during the preceding decades. (By 1960, Philadelphia had the third-largest Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States, after New York City and Chicago.)
In 1962, Puerto Rican groups joined with organizations representing other Spanish-speaking communities to form Concilio. Managed exclusively by volunteers in its earliest days, Concilio offered a number of services to its constituents, from mediating community-police relations to connecting families with affordable housing.
In the late 1960s, the organization began publishing its own paper, La Voz del Concilio, to reach Spanish-speaking Philadelphians with community news and economic opportunities, and establish bilingual programs for students in conjunction with the School District of Philadelphia. Over the following decades, Concilio expanded to offer basic-needs services and committed itself to combating poverty, all while organizing a variety of cultural celebrations and events, including annual Puerto Rican festivals and parades.
While Concilio is the oldest organization of its type in Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest continuously active Hispanic empowerment and civil rights group — the League of United Latin American Citizens –has also made a positive impact.
LULAC has come a long way from its humble origins. While LULAC currently boasts 132,000 members around the United States, it began as a gathering of disparate activist groups — many of which consisted of Latin American World War I veterans — who assembled in Corpus Christi, Texas, in early 1929 to form a larger association. The organization’s founding members sought to counter discrimination against Hispanics in the United States, especially in the South and Southwest, where the organization largely operated at the time.
LULAC’s early priorities involved voter-registration drives and challenging unfair laws that imposed poll taxes and other obstacles on Hispanic voters. While the organization’s activities slowed down during World War II, a surge in Latin American civil rights activism and community organizing in the 1950s revitalized the group. In the postwar era, LULAC expanded its programs to include education, beginning with an initiative to ensure that Latin American children entered early childhood education with a grasp of basic English.
In the early 1970s, LULAC began establishing its hallmark National Educational Service Centers around the country to provide Latin American youth with greater access to education. LULAC’s center in Philadelphia opened its doors in 1974 and has since generated countless educational opportunities for the city’s underserved youth, raised millions of dollars in scholarships for gifted students to attend college, and sent teenagers and young adults to leadership training programs, including the organization’s annual Youth Leadership Seminar in Washington.
Concilio and LULAC continue to contribute to the advancement and welfare of Philadelphia’s Latin American communities to this day.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org