Dutchirican: Latin@ History in Pennsylvania

As part of a new promotional partnership, HSP and Taller Puertorriqueño are hosting community discussions about Latin@ history in Pennsylvania. On May 10, HSP will host speaker John Hinshaw to explore the confluence of cultural values between Pennsylvania Dutch and Latin@s in Central Pennsylvania.

It may surprise some to learn that Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community is the second largest in the continental United States.

Puerto Rican goods and denizens traveled across the Atlantic long before the United States took formal control of the island in 1898. Pro-independence exiles, merchants, artisans, laborers, and students fleeing Spanish rule arrived in Philadelphia in the late 19th century.

Few made the 1,000-plus-mile journey during the initial decades following the Spanish-American War. By 1910, fewer than 2,000 Puerto Ricans lived in the lower 48 states.

With the post-Second World War economic boom, however, Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community began to grow in earnest.

puerto rico

“Landing-stage for small boats, San Juan de Puerto Rico.” From Our New Possessions (Call number: Ya .1665)

According to the most recent Census Bureau figures, more than 133,000 Puerto Ricans called Philadelphia home in 2014, making up the city’s largest and fastest-growing Latin@ group.

Despite these numbers and Puerto Ricans’ long relationship with the United States, many Americans are unaware of their fellow countrymen. A survey conducted this past summer by the Economist and You-Gov found that fewer than half of mainland Americans considered Puertorriqueños natural-born U.S. citizens. Nearly the same percentage confused “Puerto Rican” for a separate national identity.

A civics refresher: The Caribbean island is classified as an unincorporated U.S. territory, along with Guam, American Samoa, and others. Granted American citizenship in 1917, Puerto Rican residents cannot vote in mainland general elections, however, nor is their voice heard in Congress. As citizens, those relocating to the United States are migrants, not immigrants.


“Confection venders of Puerto Rico.” From Our New Possessions (Call number: Ya .1665)

In 1971, the commercial center along North Fifth Street, now known as El Bloque de Oro, had only half of its buildings occupied. By 1981, the heavily Hispanic center boasted full commercial occupancy. This dramatic turnaround is the result of several individuals and organizations, especially the Spanish Merchant’s Association (SMA), whose projects and ambition extended well beyond this success.

Puerto Rican businessman Candelario Lamboy and six others founded the nonprofit SMA in 1969 to promote “commercial and economic development activities” for Philadelphia’s Spanish-speaking population. The founders envisioned a voluntary organization aiding businessmen to overcome language barriers and discrimination.


The ceremony captured in this photograph was part of the revitalization of Philadelphia’s North Fifth Street “El BLoque de Oro.” At far left is a young Nelson Diaz, who in 1972 was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from the Law School of Temple University. From the Spanish Merchant’s Association Records [PG325]

SMA began as a self-help group underwritten Department of Commerce contracts and grants. Within a decade it had become a major provider of technical support services to the Spanish-speaking business community, including bookkeeping, tax returns, legal problems, and loan applications.

In addition to helping individual entrepreneurs, the SMA also promoted the 1970s revitalization of El Bloque de Oro, the “Golden Block.”


Undated photograph depicting two artists painting a mural. From the Spanish Merchant’s Association Records [PG325]

The SMA also took on other community development projects, including a Section 8 housing project (Dorado Village), which opened in 1983, and a housing rehabilitation program sponsored by the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development Technical Services program (1983 to 1986).

In 1983, the SMA purchased the Somerset Industrial Park on North Third Street, intending to build a “Vertical Industrial Park” for light manufacturing tenants. The project proved to be too expensive and shuttered three years later. The failure of the industrial park took a toll on the SMA, and it disbanded in 1988.

The SMA’s records date from 1970 to 1988, and contain  correspondence, project files, and other printed materials.


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