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The Latino and African American communities have much in common, but beneath their shared struggles and interconnected heritage there are simmering tensions. Those conflicts, which are stirred by economics, race and culture, can sometimes spill over into violence.

In Philadelphia, for example, tensions rose when African American assailants shot and killed a Dominican storeowner, his wife and sister-in-law during a 2011 robbery. They rose again when an African American police officer struck a Latino woman during last year’s Puerto Rican Day parade. But no incident stirred tensions like the 2012 shooting death of African American teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a white Latino, in Sanford, Fla.

The Martin case spurred questions of culture and race that the two communities rarely ask publicly, and a Gallup Poll taken shortly after found that relations between African Americans and Latinos were the worst among any two racial groups.

Al Dia and AxisPhilly spoke to members of Philadelphia’s African American and Latino communities to measure the extent of those tensions, and found that the answers were more complicated than the Gallup poll suggested.

“As a sociologist, I always say to people when they tell me about these various polls concerning people of color, show me the number of people of color who were interviewed,” said Dr. Doreen Loury, an assistant professor of sociology at Arcadia University.  “Then I can tell you if it’s really valid information. Someone looking from the outside to the inside of the communities may perceive some kind of conflict amongst the groups. If you talk within the communities, they will tell you no.”

In fact, Loury said, the fates of the two communities have long been connected. From the African influence in Caribbean and South American cultures, to the shared social and political agendas that currently hold sway in America, Latinos and African Americans have much in common. Both are considered minorities, and in Philadelphia, both face the same social ills. 

Forty-six percent of African American males and 51 percent of Latino males drop out of Philadelphia public high schools each year. Thirty-four percent of African Americans and 42 percent of Latinos live in poverty in Philadelphia. And nationally, one in three African American males and one in three Latino males will be imprisoned during their lifetime.

In some ways, the two communities’ shared struggles have led to shared political interests. No one knows this better than former Philadelphia City Councilman Angel Ortiz.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Ortiz studied sociology and political science at the University of Puerto Rico before earning his law degree from Columbia University. He came to Philadelphia in the spring of 1976 and began working with African American activists like the late David P. Richardson. The city was a different place back then.

Police brutality

“It was Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia,” said Ortiz. “The city was definitely racially polarized, like today, but even more so back then.”

In the late 1970s, Ortiz said, an intense wave of police brutality against minorities brought the Latino and African American communities together. By the 1980s, when Ortiz decided to run for Council, he needed African American support, because Latinos were less than three percent of the city’s population.   

“People thought I was crazy because [the Latino community] didn’t have the numbers, and in essence, the established Latino leadership was not in support of what I was doing, because I was too leftist. But then came Wilson Goode.”

The 1983 election, which came on the heels of failed mayoral runs by African American candidates like Hardy Williams, resulted in a phenomenal political victory for both communities. Goode became Philadelphia’s first African American mayor, and Ortiz became its first Latino councilman. 

The demographic shifts since then have been dramatic. Between 1990 and 2010, Philadelphia’s Latino population increased by 110 percent, while the African American population increased just 3.3 percent. While African Americans still make up 44 percent of the city’s population, Latinos now comprise nearly 13 percent.

While the Latino community’s numbers have increased, however, its political power base has remained relatively stagnant. Maria Quinones Sanchez, who won office in 2007 with the support of African American political heavyweights like Congressman Chaka Fattah, is the lone Latino member of City Council.

Most political observers agree that the Latino community, whose voter turnout rates tend to hover around 20 percentage points lower than the city average, could gain more representation with greater participation. But the community is numb, said Edwin Desamour, Executive Director of Men in Motion In The Community (MIMIC), and that needs to change.

“Power is never shared,” Ortiz said. “You have to recognize it and grab it.”

Activist Gilberto Gonzales, a Latino activist and filmmaker, believes a lot of work needs to be done between African Americans and Latinos in terms of public benefits, political representation and development opportunities. “Everybody wants a big piece of the pie, and where are they going to get if from…from us. And that creates tension.”

Gonzales knows that tension from a personal standpoint. Raised in the heart of ‘El Barrio’ in the Spring Garden area, he attended Ben Franklin High School in the early 1980s, though most Latino students attended William Penn at the time. He said his African American classmates thought he was white. When he explained that he was Puerto Rican, they attacked him, and he eventually had to leave the school.

Gonzales has also had positive experiences and enduring friendships with African Americans. Overall, though, he believes the Latino community should have a larger share of resources in a city where their numbers are growing. But low Latino voter turnout hurts the community, Gonzales said. Still, “the City needs to find a way to balance things out,” he said, “and I don’t know how is that going to happen.”

One thing is certain, Gonzales said. “People don’t understand our community. They think Puerto Ricans came here to be on welfare. Well no! We came here to work. Now, they say Mexicans are coming to take all the jobs and not leaving any opportunities for African Americans. Well, [African Americans] don’t want to do [those] jobs.”

The social ills affecting the two communities don’t start when African Americans and Latinos reach adulthood, however. They start with youth. For example, African Americans comprise only 14 percent of Pennsylvania’s youth population (ages 10 to 17), but 47 percent of placements in juvenile facilities. Latino youth represent only 9 percent of the state’s youth population, but 14 percent of placements in juvenile facilities.

“They definitely share the same issues,” said Edwin Desamour, of MIMIC, a nonprofit through which ex-cons mentor young men returning home from prison. The program aims to show participants how to remain on the outside.

“The majority of the young men I work with are both Latino and African American,” Desamour said. “I am finding a lot of them don’t really know who they are.”

Desamour, whose heritage is Haitian and Puerto Rican, has a story that fits the profile of many African American and Latino males. Growing up in the 80’s around the West Kensington area of North Philly, he was lured by the streets.

‘That’s how I grew up. We used to feel like outcasts. You can’t find yourself in school, you’re not accepted at home… so guess what? The streets speak your language and you find your place, which is a shame.”

Kasim Ali, 64, an African American man who grew up in Spanish Harlem, believes the feeling of disillusionment is the result of systemic racism. Like Desamour, Ali has seen it from both the Latino and African American perspective.

As a young man in his native New York, Ali developed an appreciation for Latino culture. He learned a smattering of Spanish from the Latino musicians he idolized, fell in love with a Puerto Rican woman and fathered a child with her, and was nurtured by Latino mother figures when drugs derailed his life in the 1970s. He got clean and moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s.

Now Ali works with the Father’s Day Rally Committee to build bridges between the two communities. For the most part, the effort has been successful, but there have been instances where those bridges were almost destroyed.

“A few years ago there was a shooting at 19th and Jefferson, and a Dominican store clerk was killed,” Ali recalled. “The beef emerged over nonsense. It wasn’t a stickup or none of that. It emerged over a blunt the guy went to purchase. Because the [clerk] didn’t move fast enough and the [clerk] couldn’t communicate the way the young man thought he should be able to—he was fronting because his friends were there—they got into some verbal altercation and the brother shot him.

“The whole community around there was devastated, even though they didn’t really know the [clerk] that good, they knew the owners of the store…. When you go in there they treat you civilly. You can touch somebody’s hand, they make provisions to find out who you are, they’re not behind the bulletproof glass. We don’t need to compromise that.”

Ali, along with Father’s Day Rally Committee Executive Director, Bilal Qayuum, sat down with the Dominican store owners association. The dialogue helped heal the community, Ali said.

Building bridges

The Father’s Day Rally Committee also holds a yearly softball game in which an African American team plays a Latino team in an effort to build bridges. But there is a reality beyond the bridges, Qayuum said, and the reality is driven by numbers.

“The Latino community is the fastest growing community in America,” Qayuum said. “Any time you have that fast-growing community there’s always going to be tensions. Blacks and Latinos tend to live together. In Philadelphia it’s no different. The Kensington area and the lower Northeast area [are home to] a large Latino community and a large black community.

“So I think there is some friction there, because the Latino community, also being well organized, they’re trying to achieve power.  The African American community, we have organized and we have, at least, the political power… So I think there’s some of that tension that’s going on. But I think if you go into the communities where you have Latinos and African Americans living together, the tension’s less than it is [perceived to be] in the larger society.”

Geographical data underscore Qayuum’s point. In a 2011 study of racial and ethnic changes in the city, the Pew Charitable Trusts found that African Americans moved away from the city’s core and toward its boundaries over the past 20 years.

The African American population in poverty-stricken areas of North Central Philadelphia dropped by more than 35 percent since 1990. But in Olney, which borders Montgomery County, the African American population increased by 239 percent. There were increases throughout Northeast Philadelphia as well.

The Latino population showed similar movement. Over the last 20 years, according to Pew, there has been a decrease in the Fifth Street commercial corridor in the heart of Latino North Philadelphia, and large increases in places like the Lower Northeast.

In other words, the two groups did what every group does as their economic and political power increases. They moved out of poorer areas in search of improved housing, safer neighborhoods and better schools.

Still, the numbers say that many African Americans and Latinos have been left behind. This is especially true for young men. Asked to devise solutions, Dr. Doreen Loury, the Arcadia University sociologist, asked a question of her own.

“Why aren’t we collaborating more? Why aren’t we looking at each other—African American, Latino and white folk—and coming up and working together to get these solutions done? Why aren’t we jumping up and down and saying this is wrong?”

“There has to be some political advocacy, some social justice advocacy across the color lines.… We can’t even the playing field unless we’re willing to fight and be collaborative in that fighting.”

This story was a joint reporting project involving AxisPhilly and Al Dia, the Latino news media organization.