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From GED to Ph.D.—administrator's unusual journey recognized by local organization

Temple’s Victor Vazquez, special assistant to Vice President for Administration Richard Englert, has been called many things throughout the years. High school dropout. Veteran. Father. Husband. Role model. Doctor. And now, Professional of the Year by the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, Inc. (Concilio).

Vazquez was honored Tuesday night at a reception and will march in the 40th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade on September 29.

“Victor epitomizes the struggle of first-generation Latinos in Philadelphia,” Concilio Executive Director Roberto Santiago said. “Victor started without a high school diploma and now he has his Ph.D. Throughout his journey, he’s raised a family, stayed in school, and has been one of the strongest community advocates.

“Victor is a self-made historian of Latinos in Philadelphia and has kept our history alive in this city,” Santiago added. “In short, he’s an example to youth who perhaps have dropped out of school. Victor is an asset wherever he goes.”

The award is just the latest development in what is shaping up to be one of the most memorable years in Vazquez’s life.

“In January, I became a home owner for the first time,” Vazquez said. “In February, I had a son. In March, I defended my dissertation. In May, I received my Ph.D. In July, I turned 50.

“I was looking for a way to fill in September,” he joked, before acknowledging his surprise at receiving the award. “I didn’t even know I was being considered for the award, but it’s a real honor to receive it.”

Actually, his entire academic career would have come as a surprise to Vazquez if you had asked what the future held for him shortly after he dropped out of a South Bronx high school in 1970.

“I went for a job interview and the interviewer told me I needed more education for the position,” Vazquez recalled. “I realized then that it would be hard to get the kind of jobs I wanted without an education.”

Vazquez took the first step of his academic journey by joining the U.S. Air Force and finishing his GED. Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1972 due to a leg injury he suffered playing for the base’s football team, Vazquez started taking classes at night at community college.

Without any formal counseling, Vazquez decided he wanted to be a sociology professor and headed in that direction.

“It was quite a road,” he said. “I was married, had children and had to support a family.”

Eventually, Vazquez went to college full-time, moved to Puerto Rico and received his bachelor’s degree from Inter-American University of Puerto Rico in 1980.

That led to the next logical step: enrollment in a master’s program at the University of Puerto Rico. Vazquez received his master’s degree in psychology in 1986 and returned to New York.

Vazquez moved to Philadelphia in 1988 and joined Temple’s staff, holding a variety of positions at the University. In 1994, he enrolled in a history Ph.D. program, and the rest is—as they say—history.

Eight years later, Vazquez was marching down the aisle at The Liacouras Center, the proud owner of a doctoral degree.

“Completing my Ph.D. was as much for my family as it was for me,” Vazquez said. “I wanted to be a role model for my kids and instill in them the importance of education—hopefully right after high school.

“I wanted them to know that even if you didn’t follow the traditional route to college, there’s always opportunities to go to school,” he added.

Vazquez also can serve as a model for GED candidates.

“Someone said to me that I could be the poster boy for the GED, which is taken by 800,000 people a year,” the doctor said. “My experiences can be used to say that it doesn’t have to stop there.

“If you make a mistake like I did, there are ways to get back on track,” he added. “Nothing is free or easy, but it can be done.”

Vazquez, who teaches three courses at Temple, is exploring full-time teaching opportunities in the region.

“Teaching full time would give me the flexibility to do more in the political arena,” said Vazquez, who is the Democratic committeeman for his ward and has been involved in local politics for decades. “It’s no secret I’m active in political circles.”

In addition to his participation in the city’s Puerto Rican festival, Vazquez will help coordinate Temple’s celebration of Latino Heritage month. The celebration begins September 25 with midday festivities at the Bell Tower, featuring a performance by Boyer College music professor Robin Moore and his students, and Esencia Latina, a dance group.

Even while looking to the future, Vazquez can’t help but think about the past.

“If someone had told me in 1975 that I was going to go to school for the next 25 years, I would have told them they were crazy.”

No crazier than a man who dreams of going from GED to Ph.D. — Fred Maher  

 Posted on Sun, Jul. 07, 2002 

Cultural disconnect masks the diversity of Latin music
By Tom Moon

Inquirer Music Critic

It's been called the "Latin invasion," the constellation of pop stars with roots in Puerto Rico, Mexico and elsewhere who have arrived like messengers from a tropical galaxy, to conquer the States.

Ricky Martin. Enrique Iglesias. Jennifer Lopez. Marc Anthony, who performs Saturday at the First Union Center. Shakira. Paulina Rubio. Each embodies a different type of heat. Each rides a faintly exotic rhythm tweaked to appeal to Anglo ears.

Every time a star is born, there's celebration in the Latino entertainment industry, which accounted for $642.6 million in U.S. recorded-music shipments last year, up 6 percent from 2000. It's seen as further proof of creeping changes in the U.S. cultural appetite, confirmation that the power of the country's 32.8 million Hispanic residents can no longer be denied.

Yet those who have devoted their lives to Latin music - from Portuguese fado to Brazilian bossa nova to age-old Cuban son, all on stage next weekend at the Kimmel Center's "Fiesta Latina" - can't help but cringe.

"I love Shakira, she's beautiful," legendary New York salsa and Latin-jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri says, referring to the Colombian star, whose English-language debut was released in November. "But the tragedy is that people in this country think she is Latin music.

"The fact is, what she's doing is very limited, rhythmically, compared to what else there is. People who get excited by her music, they should prepare themselves, because they're going to get blown away when they hear the real thing."

If, that is, they do hear the real thing.

Though the recent Latino pop boom would seem to have sparked widespread interest in Hispanic culture, many veteran musicians accuse the industry of promulgating the millennial equivalent of "Babalu." The music's emphasis on gloss, its goal of assimilating by baldly embracing American pop tropes, has obscured the energy and the regional distinctions that enrich the broad range of styles characterized as "Latin."

Some groan that Latin pop has perpetuated the notion, entrenched since at least the mambo craze of the '50s, that the music coming from the Afro-Latin diaspora is nothing more than mindless dance music.

At the very moment that Latin music has arrived in the mainstream, some of its most important musical attributes - its rhythmic intricacy, staggering array of splinter styles, and juxtaposition of exacting precision against wild, flowing inspiration - are being slighted by the Latin-pop marketing machine.

"What's happening now is, when [the labels] get one thing that works, they want everything else to sound like that," says Albita Rodriguez, the Cuban singer now living in Miami, who will play Saturday in Verizon Hall.

Hyped as a salsa siren when she arrived a decade ago, the former Emilio Estefan protege - who performs under her first name - received the major-label push on several records, didn't break, and recently released Hecho a Mano, a small-label Unplugged-style back-to-basics son collection whose title is translated as "handmade."

The labels have rigid notions of what will appeal to Latin or crossover buyers, she says. "They don't care if it's a vulgar copy. They're scared of the diversity that's out there... . A lot of that, they don't know how to sell."

Albita, who says she left pop to grow musically, believes that the industry will eventually realize that Latin music's diversity is its strength. It's the very thing that attracts many Anglos fed up with the rote postures of pop.

Just when the musically adventurous tire of Bebel Gilberto and the other Brazilian electro-acoustic hybrids, a new rhythmic style from the African communities of Peru or the clubs of Monterrey, Mexico, (typified by the currently hot electro-Latin band Kinky) comes along to expand the horizon a bit further. Where Latin pop parades uniformly pretty (and "Americanized") sex symbols, the rest of Latin music is a bustle of styles, contentious philosophies, and highly individual dance pulses colliding in unexpected ways.

"The beauty of what's going on now is that Latin music is no longer based on one sound or one rhythm," says Tomas Cookman, an artist manager and cofounder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference to be held in New York next month. "It's not like we're all out here selling the 'Macarena.' It's all over the place. When you look beyond the pop stars, what you see now is a thriving bazaar."

The wares in that bazaar are influencing pop in unexpected ways. Non-Latin acts are taking a mix-and-match approach to Latin styles that's similar to the collage mentality of hip-hop. "I Can't Stop," the most compelling song on Will Smith's new Born to Reign, is built on a surging Enrique Iglesias-style gallop.

Also transcending geographical and linguistic barriers are romantic balladeers and songwriters who have upended longstanding Brazilian forms. Artists who incorporate Afro-Cuban religious chants or electronica's undulating loops. Singers who can melt ice with the slightest whisper, and others revered for their razor-sharp timing.

There are the wise septuagenarians of the Buena Vista Social Club and the anarchist teens of rock en español bands. Latin music's beats stretch from Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes' agitated displays of jazz virtuosity to torturously slow songs of longing performed by Misia, the fado singer who plays next Sunday at the Perelman Theater.

Latin's themes venture into the same territory explored in "serious" singer-songwriter pop. "Plastico," from the 1978 Rubén Blades/Willie Colón classic Siembra, is as trenchant a commentary on materialism as any in pop. Its arrangements - developed by producers who work both Latin and Anglo projects - may sound streamlined, but they're really a collection of elaborately choreographed interlocking parts, each contributing to an unstoppable locomotion, articulating a different facet of the syncopated clave rhythm that is the heartbeat of much Latin music.

"Latin music has as many, if not more, genres than American pop music," says Bruno del Granado, head of Miami's Maverick Musica, the Latin branch of Madonna's Maverick Records.

"Even those who are working on the pop side aren't just proud of their roots, they're knowledgeable. They can talk to you about Radiohead, and they can talk about Beny Moré [the pioneering Cuban singer of the '50s]. They're citizens of the world, not just bilingual, but bicultural," del Granado says.

The problem is that the Anglo audience isn't correspondingly fluent, many contend. A profound cultural disconnect keeps Latin music's creative explosion mostly underground in North America, where Anglo ears hear salsa, calypso and samba as the same basic limbo-line-at-the-resort fare. They are unable - or, perhaps, unwilling - to get beyond its utility in order to discover the music's distinctions and differences.

"What people outside of the Latin world don't understand is that, in Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and all over the place, the popular music is also the high culture," says Dita Sullivan, who manages the forward-looking Cuban singer and songwriter Juan-Carlos Formell.

"You dance to it, yes. But it's also regarded as art music. There isn't this middlebrow American prejudice that says everything popular is low. There's respect. It's loved, and cherished, and celebrated as an expression of something vital to the life of the people."

Will that indifference ever go away in the United States? Philadelphia producer Aaron Levinson - whose next project, Un Gran Dia En El Barrio, by the New York all-star band Spanish Harlem Orchestra, will be released in September - believes it can. He's noticed that, when Latin music is approached with an open mind, the conversion experience can be profound.

"People are curious about it now," Levinson says. "It's sort of all around us, and the people who are paying attention know how powerful it can be. One of the heaviest [non-Latino] house DJs in New York put Un Gran Dia on his top 20. He's taking these pure salsa vocals and spinning them in a deep house context. We didn't seek that out: The record's not even out yet. He's finding us."

A triumph like that sends out ripples. "It's what I call the Velvet Underground effect," Levinson continues, referring to the '60s rock band that was enormously influential without ever experiencing commercial success.

"You may only sell 10,000 copies of a record, but those people who bought it are like zombie converts. Their world has been changed; they can't stop talking about it. And they come back for more."

Contact Tom Moon at 215-854-4965 or

© 2001 inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

NBC purchases Hispanic broadcaster.

NEW YORK, Oct. 11 -  NBC announced Thursday that it is buying Telemundo Communications Group Inc., the No. 2 Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, for about $2 billion in cash and stock.

       THE DEAL WOULD give NBC a strong foothold in the burgeoning arena of Hispanic media, which has attracted the attention of major media conglomerates due to the rapidly growing Hispanic population. 
       Hispanic media has been expanding even as other media businesses have slumped due to the poor advertising climate, which was worsened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.) 
       NBC chairman Bob Wright said the Hispanic market "accounts for a significant and growing share of the nation's economy and we are eager to draw on Telemundo's expertise to better serve this important audience." 
       NBC is paying $1.98 billion for the Hialeah, Fla.-based Telemundo in a mix of half cash and half stock in NBC's corporate parent, General Electric Co. NBC would also assume about $700 million in debt. 
       Sony Corp. currently owns about 40 percent of the closely held Telemundo, while Liberty Media, a company controlled by cable pioneer John Malone, has a 35 percent stake. The rest is held by other investors. 
       In an interview with CNBC, the business news channel owned by NBC, Wright acknowledged that before accounting for cost savings, the terms of deal would be "very expensive." 
       But he added that the companies expected numerous benefits as they combined ad sales teams, swapped programs from NBC to use on Telemundo, and made other cost savings. He said he expected Telemundo to contribute up to $600 million in revenues to NBC within two years.
       GE has denied frequent rumors that it wants to sell the network, and it has charged NBC's management to grow the company. 
       NBC is the only major network not owned by a larger media empire; ABC is owned by Walt Disney Co., Viacom Inc. owns CBS and UPN; Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns Fox; and AOL Time Warner Inc. owns WB. 
       Earlier Thursday, GE reported that NBC's revenues had tumbled 45 percent in the third quarter. Like other broadcasters, NBC has been hit by a revenue shortfall as advertisers pulled back in the wake of the terrorist attacks. 
       Telemundo's reach is behind that of leading Hispanic broadcaster Univision Communications Inc., which is based in Los Angeles. But Univision has been responding to the competitive threat from Telemundo and other rivals with plans to launch a second Spanish-language network, Telefutura, next year. 
       NBC is believed to have bested a rival bid for Telemundo from Viacom, which in addition to CBS also owns MTV, the Paramount studio, Blockbuster and numerous radio stations. Viacom had already expanded into niche broadcasting with the purchase of BET, a cable network aimed at black viewers. 
       The deal is not expected to face major regulatory hurdles. Even after combining the 10 full-power television stations owned by Telemundo with the 13 stations it already owns, NBC's national audience reach would remain under 30 percent, well under the 35 percent cap currently permitted by the government. 
       In addition to the NBC broadcast network, NBC also owns CNBC, the business news cable channel, a half-interest in news channel MSNBC along with Microsoft Corp., as well as a minority stake in Paxson Communications Corp., owner of the family-friendly PAX broadcast network. 
       NBC plans to keep the current management of Telemundo in place, including chief executive Jim McNamara, who will report to NBC president Andrew Lack, as well as Telemundo's chief operating officer Alan Sokol. 
       Shares of GE were up $1.36 to $39.27 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Latin Recording Academy News - August 20, 2001
(The following is the official statement from Latin Recording Academy President/CEO Michael Greene on the Latin GRAMMY Awards' move to Los Angeles from Miami. Issued by the Recording Academy, August 20, 2001.)

"Due to serious concerns for the safety and dignity of our 10,000 guests, nominees, performers and sponsors from across the globe, and the threat of disruption during the telecast itself, the Latin Academy, along with CBS and Cossette Productions, has been forced to make a very difficult and unfortunate decision — to move the 2nd Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards show from Miami to the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles on September 11.

For months we've been working with the City of Miami, along with our partners from the AmericanAirlines Arena — specifically Eric Woolworth, Bill Senn, Alex Diaz, Eric Bresler and the rest of the staff — as well as Mayor Alex Penelas, Jorge Más Santos and our South Florida Host Committee, on a variety of programs and strategic issues.

Two months ago, the Academy, its partners and the City of Miami reached an agreement establishing the security perimeter around the Arena that was needed to ensure everyone's safety.

Last week, that approved safety zone was abruptly changed by officials from the City of Miami. To further compound this problem, we then learned that more than 100 Cuban-American groups now would be allowed to demonstrate in a high-traffic area for GRAMMY activities, potentially putting our guests at serious risk. Further, the Academy was made aware that protestors had secured tickets to the show and were organizing a disruption to the live telecast itself.

Our obligations are to ensure the safety of the guests, artists, sponsors and media who will attend the event, as well as to maintain the production integrity of the live Latin GRAMMY telecast.

In a final effort to keep the show in South Florida, we tried to relocate the event to the National Arena in Broward County, but today the Florida Highway Patrol and the Broward County Sheriff's Department said they could not guarantee our guests' safety.

The Academy understands that some people in Miami hold strong and heartfelt views about the inclusion of Cuban National nominees resulting from the Latin GRAMMY voting process. And while we support everyone's right to express individual views, our mission is to celebrate excellence in all recorded Latin music, regardless of who produces it. The safety issues and reliability of delivering a live international telecast were the determining factors. We will begin work immediately to try and resolve these issues and bring the Latin GRAMMYs to Miami in the near future.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to Mayor Alex Penelas, Jorge Más Santos, the folks at the American Airlines Arena and the members of the South Florida Host Committee for their diligence and Herculean efforts to help keep the show in Miami. I want to especially commend Jorge Más Santos and Mayor Alex Penelas who have been unfairly criticized. Their efforts have been selfless and, I believe, represent a noble attempt to build bridges of understanding, not to mention bring more than $35 million of Latin GRAMMY economic benefit home to Miami. They have my respect and humble thanks.

Our staff will be working closely with members, invited guests, performers, artists and sponsors to accommodate this unfortunate, but necessary, transition. We will have a new schedule of activities that support this year's show in a few days. The 2nd Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards will be broadcast on CBS, September 11, as scheduled."

Michael Greene, President/CEO, the Recording Academy, and Latin Recording Academy

by Bob Warner
Daily News Staff Writer - Monday March 12, 2001

Francis Vargas, a young developer in the city's burgeoning Hispanic community, remembers growing up in the 1980s in North Philadelphia and thinking of other Philadelphia neighborhoods as suburbia.

"Our neighborhood, around 7th and Cambria, was all Latino, mostly Puerto Rican. I was Costa Rican," Vargas recalled. "Back then, north of Hunting Park was where the nice houses were. Juniata, that was a big, huge suburb. Even Kensington."

Vargas is now in his late 20s. Three years ago, he moved to Juniata Park, where longtime white residents have been joined by large numbers of Latinos.

"You see Hispanics coming in and some whites leaving. . .There's a percentage of whites who don't mind it and another percentage who can't leave for financial reasons, a lot of elderly people who don't have any option."

The results of the 2000 U.S. census, made public at the end of last week, confirm with numbers what Vargas knows from a lifetime in the neighborhoods: large swaths of the city, once rather homogeneous racial enclaves, are becoming significantly more diverse.

For the first time since American Indians held sway in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania in the 17th century, whites now make up less than half the city's population. Non-white minorities add up to 55 percent of the city's residents.

Overall, Philadelphia lost 4 percent of its population in the 1990s. Officially, it dropped from 1,585,877 people in the Census Bureau's 1990 headcount to 1,517,550 people counted on April 1.

Surprisingly, the drop was less than half what the Census Bureau had been projecting in year-to-year estimates throughout the 1990s. As of mid-1999, the federal government had estimated the city had 1,417,000 residents, down a whopping 10 percent from 1990.

Now it's proven - as former Mayor Ed Rendell and other city officials contended all along - that those yearly estimates were way off target.

But underneath the city's modest overall decline are significant demographic shifts:

White residents continued a mass exodus from Philadelphia. Overall, the white population dropped nearly 20 percent, from 848,586 to 683,267 over 10 years.

Each of the four minority racial groups recognized by the Census Bureau grew in Philadelphia during the 1990s - including African-Americans, whose numbers had dropped the previous decade. The number of blacks climbed from 631,996 in 1990 to 655,824 in 2000, a 3.8 percent increase.

The city's Asian community soared by 57 percent in the 1990s, from 43,522 to 68,383 (including 729 people from Hawaii or other Pacific islands, counted this year as a separate racial group). Part of the increase came from the city's established Chinese community, whose voices led last year's outcry against putting a stadium near Chinatown. But most of it came from fast-growing communities of Koreans, Cambodians and Vietnamese, authorities believe - though census data on national origin will not be available until later this year.

The number of people identifying themselves as Latino or Hispanic jumped 45 percent, from 89,193 in 1990 to 128,928 in 2000. Concentrated east of Broad Street, running from North Philadelphia into the lower Northeast, the Hispanic community is already a major cultural and political influence. (The Census Bureau does not treat Hispanic ancestry as a race; people could identify themselves as Hispanic and then white, black or any other race.)

Smaller racial groups also continued to grow. The number identifying themselves as American Indian increased 18 percent, to 4,073. An additional 72,429 identified themselves as belonging to other, unspecified races, and 33,574 said they were a combination of two or more races, a choice provided for the first time this year on census questionnaires.

The number of minorities also grew sharply outside the city, though the suburbs remained predominantly white. At the end of the 1990s, Bucks County was 92 percent white, Montgomery County 86 percent white and Chester County 89 percent white.

Delaware County's overall population increased just 1 percent, but the number of blacks climbed 30 percent and the number of Asians by 82 percent. By 2000, nearly one of every six people living in Delaware County was African-American and one out of 30 was Asian.

Inside Philadelphia, the growth in the number of Hispanics is already reflected dozens of ways - from multilingual programs in the schools to a network of social service agencies and a growing variety of restaurants offering myriad interpretations of Latin American cuisine.

Hispanic political clout has been growing as well. By some accounts, John Street's strong performance among Hispanic voters in the wards east of Broad Street provided the margin that got him elected mayor in 1999.

The census itself may enhance Hispanic power. This year, the state Legislature will be using the new census data to draw new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts, and City Council will be mapping new boundaries for 10 Council districts.

Councilman-at-large Angel Ortiz, the third-biggest vote-getter among the citywide Council candidates in 1999, said the concentration of Hispanics east of Broad Street could be heavy enough to give Hispanic voters a shot at electing a district Council member, depending on how the boundaries are drawn. There's also a chance for another Hispanic seat in the state House, and "strong influence" on a state Senate seat, Ortiz said.

It was Ortiz's wife, Lydia Hernandez-Velez, who headed the local census outreach campaign last year, trying to maximize the Philadelphia headcount among all residents, regardless of ethnicity.

"It was like a campaign," said Hernandez-Velez, an administrator at United Way.

When her group saw that early census response rates were low in some neighborhoods, it sought ways to boost the number of responses.

" There was not a group or a person we contacted who did not understand immediately how important it was and do what they could do to help."

A generation ago, almost all of the city's Latino population traced its roots to Puerto Rico or Cuba, Hernandez-Velez said.

But the strong growth in the 1990s, here and throughout the nation, was more diverse. Hernandez-Velez said the current Hispanic population includes major contingents from Central and South America, joined by Dominicans and other Caribbean natives, plus a number of Mexicans who came to the Philadelphia area as migrant laborers and found jobs in the city's hotel expansion.

Foreign immigration appears to be one of the factors that the Census Bureau struggled with in the 1990s, when the bureau underestimated growth throughout the country - especially in urban areas such as Philadelphia.

The bureau's own demographers believe they missed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, particularly those who entered the country illegally or overstayed the time periods specified in their visas.

Another major factor in the Census Bureau's mistaken past estimates was an extremely poor census count in 1990, which missed tens of thousands of people.

Staff Writer Ramona Smith contributed to this report.
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Band leader is killed

Friday March 9, 2001. Julio Cesar Marrero a victim of hit-run driver

Julio Cesar Marrero (above)was killed Tuesday by a motorist on Roosevelt Boulevard
by Al Hunter Jr. and Nicole Weisensee Egan
Daily News Staff Writers

Music was his life.

Nearly everybody who knew Julio Cesar Marrero will tell you that. His family, fellow musicians. Even those who didn't personally know Marrero quickly felt his passion through the energy that erupted from his dance group, Cesar and the Latin Playboys, every Thursday night at the Five Spot in Old City.

But shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday, a hit-and-run driver barrelling west on Roosevelt Boulevard - and possibly running a red light - struck Marrero as he started to cross from the north side of the Boulevard at 4th Street.

The impact knocked the 46-year-old musician over the top of the vehicle and back three car lengths, police said.

Marrero landed face down in the far right lane. He was taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where he died about 7 yesterday morning.

Police have a vague description of the car - "a dark colored, '90s-type vehicle" - and are asking anyone with information about a vehicle in an accident with unexplained damage to call them at 215-685-0069.

Meanwhile, a fund-raiser is set for 10 tonight at The Five Spot, a club on Bank Street near Market, to offset funeral costs. Arrangements were expected to be completed today.

Marrero sang, played piano and other keyboards (which he used to play bass parts with his left hand). He was a composer and arranger.

He had a talent for filling instrumental voids. Short a musician? No problem for Cesar. "He was able to make the band sound like nobody was missing," said Maria Storch, who managed the group for two years.

Marrero, of Ashdale Street near 3rd, in the city's Olney section, was married for 25 years, the father of five children (ranging in age from 8 to 22) and spiritual father to untold others in Philadelphia's Latin music community.

"Everybody knew him," said Papo Mercado, booking agent with AMLA, a Latin musicians organization in Philadelphia.

Marrero was one of the pioneers for the group, and worked closely with its educational programs. "This is a big loss on our music scene," Mercado said.

Percussionist Pablo Batista, a member of the nine-piece Latin Playboys, said the band had been working the weekly gig at the Five Spot for 41/2 years, playing salsa, merengue and rumba.

The Playboys are a "hard-core" salsa band that turned Thursday nights at the Five Spot into a weekly event.

"He was very hardworking and ethical," Batista said of Marrero. The group usually did three sets lasting 45 minutes to an hour each.

"Cesar and the Latin Playboys gave Philadelphia an opportunity to dance, to really feel Latin music as authentically as you could experience it right there in Center City," Batista said.

Marrero has been credited with helping bring Latin music into the city's mainstream, playing at places like Tony Clark's, the Rock Lobster and KatManDu before the music became trendy.

Most of his music was original, and Marrero had a way of infusing it with a tempo that could make even people with two left feet get up and dance, Storch said.

"He took Lionel Richie's song 'Hello' and put it to a salsa beat," she said in awe.

Marrero was a native of Puerto Rico who came to Philadelphia in 1974 with a group called Orquesta La Paz.

Around 1977, the group had a Top 10 Latin record, "Para Comerte a Besos." Marrero recorded three albums, according to a family member, and started the Latin Playboys in 1996. He had done some work for an airline, but gave it up just to pursue music, Storch said.

Tuesday night, Marrero had walked to a friend's house at 3rd and Bristol to listen to some music, a family member said.

Capt. Ted Sideras, commander of the Accident Investigations Division, said it was difficult to solve a hit-and-run involving a pedestrian because often there's no debris from the car that could be used to track it down.

Marrero's goal was to make people happy with his music, Storch said, "and make you dance."

And the Latin Playboys will try to continue without Cesar, said Batista, who two years ago lost another band leader he worked for - Grover Washington Jr.

"We're going to keep the music going," Batisa said.

And that seems to be only right in Marrero's memory. For music was his life.

A dream is shattered, but the music goes on

Friends and family remember bandleader Julio Cesar Marrero. 
By Monica Rhor

For the last four years, Thursday nights at the Five Spot, an Old City dance club, belonged to Cesar and the Latin Playboys.

Julio Cesar Marrero led a nine-piece band that played salsa, merengues and rumbas sizzling enough to woo even the most reluctant listener onto the crowded dance floor.

For Marrero, the Five Spot gig was the culmination of a lifelong dream that first brought him from Caguas, Puerto Rico, to Philadelphia in 1974 - when he was an 18-year-old with nothing but a rock-solid faith in his own musical talent. The dream ended Tuesday night, when he was fatally injured by a hit-and-run driver.

"Music was his life, and he wanted everyone to enjoy his music," said his son Julio Cesar Marrero Jr., 22. "At the Five Spot, he could see everyone dancing and having a good time. Asian. Caucasian. Black. That was what he wanted."

On Tuesday, just before 10 p.m., a car heading south on Roosevelt Boulevard struck the 46-year-old bandleader as he was crossing the outer lanes of the boulevard at Fourth Street. The car - a light-brown or cream-colored mid-1990s Toyota or Nissan Maxima - kept going and turned left onto Fifth Street, police said.

Marrero was thrown several feet. He was taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where he died of multiple injuries about 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Yesterday, Marrero's family, friends and bandmates talked about the void his death will leave.

Two tribute concerts, doubling as benefits to help the family with funeral expenses and other costs, were quickly scheduled. The first took place last night at the Five Spot. A second was planned for Sunday at the Felton Supper Club on Rising Sun Avenue in Feltonville.

"He was an inspiration to me, an inspiration to all of us," said his son, the oldest of five children, of whom the youngest is 7. "He always made us laugh. He made us grateful for what we had and inspired all of us to do well."

As a child, Marrero taught himself the piano and dreamed of becoming a musician.

In 1974, Marrero came here to pursue that dream. He arrived in a city where he knew no one, with no money, but immediately threw himself into the music scene, his son said.

Within three years, Marrero had formed the band Orquesta La Paz, scored a hit Latin record, "Para Comerte a Besos," and had gotten married - to Annette Quiles, one of his fans.

He had lived in the city's Olney section for the last 16 years. "He was such an important person in this community," said Foto Rodriguez, who, along with Marrero, was a founding member of AMLA, a North Philadelphia organization that promotes Latino music.

Not only did he play piano, but Marrero also sang, wrote and arranged his own music. In addition to Cesar and the Latin Playboys, which he put together five years ago, Marrero played with several other local salsa bands.

Marrero also taught children about traditional Puerto Rican music such as bomba and plena as part of AMLA's Roots of Puerto Rico program.

"He was very dedicated to his community and to the children," said Rodriguez, who met Marrero more than 25 years ago.

Pablo Batista, a percussionist with the band, said Marrero's passion for music and his stamina lit the same kind of fire in other band members, creating an ensemble that performed like an engine at full steam.

"He knew only one speed. And that was hard and fast," Batista said. "That was his style."

Batista says the band plans to continue playing at the Five Spot and other mainstream clubs. And it will continue to be called Cesar and the Latin Playboys.

"I think he would have wanted it that way. For him, it was all about the music," Batista said. "He would have wanted for it to go on."

Friday, September 15, 2000

Officer's kin join Puerto Rican Parade

by Dana DiFilippo
 Daily News Staff Writer

Noemi Ortiz should have been at her sister's North Philadelphia home yesterday, sharing laughs and good times with her 11 brothers and sisters.

The gathering - held yearly after Philadelphia's annual Puerto Rican Day Parade - is a tradition for the close knit family.

Instead, she and other Ortiz siblings marched somberly at the front of the parade in tribute to her brother, Jose M. Ortiz, the Philadelphia police officer who died last week after a squad car accidentally hit him as he ran after a stolen-van suspect.

Yesterday, as upbeat Latino music blared and parade goers danced to celebrate their heritage, the Ortiz family silently led 18 stone-faced police officers representing the Spanish-American Law Enforcement Association.

Parade goers quieted to eye a black-swathed photo of Ortiz and observed a moment of silence in his memory.

"Anybody who my brother knew, he was their joy," Noemi Ortiz said after the parade. "He was supposed to be here today. With his strength, we made it through the parade. I know this is where he would like us to be. We would like to thank the city, the police, for all their thoughts and prayers."

Officer Al Sanchez, SALEA president, agreed: "It's a very somber day. But as soon as we started marching, we all received this rush of excitement because we knew that Jose was with us. . .Jose donated his organs, and today he donated his spirit to us."

As the family and police officers passed, the festive atmosphere returned. But many parade goers paused in their revelry to remember the officer.

"I lost a son too. My son would have been 22 this year. I identify a lot [with the Ortiz family] because he was a young person like my son, and sometimes lives are lost because of stupid things that happen," said Vivian Nieves of North Philadelphia.

Nieves' son, Angel Cotto, died in 1996 in a drive-by shooting after he threw an egg at a car on Mischief Night.

"Today is a real sad day," agreed Jorge Gonzalez of North Philadelphia. "Everyone should be smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves, but it's a real sad moment for everybody when somebody who protects the citizens dies. It's a bad feeling."

But parade goers did their best to overcome their bad feelings.

Plastic palm trees and the muggy air evoked island life. There were beauty queens on big trucks, deafening airhorns and whistles, Puerto Rican flags galore, skirts in tropical colors, straw hats, dancers swinging to thumping music and men with microphones urging watchers to baile, baile (dance, dance).

There was plenty of political expression, as well. Some people carried signs proclaiming, "Puertoriquenos para Gore/Lieberman 2000," and a float passed by dedicated to peace in Vieques ("Democracies don't have colonies; Empires do.")

Tomas Quinones, 41, of North Philly, expressed his enthusiasm on his body. He wore socks with Puerto Rican flags on them, a red, white and blue T-shirt and hat and beaded earrings shaped like Puerto Rican flags.

"This is my blood. I want to see my people," he said, waving an 8-foot Puerto Rican flag. "I feel like I'm in Puerto Rico."

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Pride was shining through

The 38th Puerto Rican Day Parade celebrated culture and heritage - and a loved one lost.

By Angela Couloumbis - INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

 For Gregory Borges, it was about being with his "beautiful people."

For Carlos Santiago Jr., it was about proving he could overcome obstacles.

And for Maribel Ortiz, sister of Philadelphia Police Officer Jose M. Ortiz, who died last week, it was about saying goodbye to a younger brother.

Whatever their reasons, thousands of people from across the Philadelphia region flocked to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway yesterday for the 38th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, held every year to honor the heritage, culture and traditions of Puerto Rico - as well as the everyday feats, both small and large, of Puerto Ricans everywhere.

And though there were serious moments - such as the time several dozen police officers turned toward Ortiz's family and saluted their fallen comrade - the parade retained the festive feel of so many years past.

Dozens of revelers, many draped with the island's red, white and blue flag, shook their hips to salsa, waved banners and cheered at the top of their lungs as the colorful procession moved its way down John F. Kennedy Boulevard and over to 16th Street, before turning onto the Parkway.

Others lounged on the grass, undeterred by the overcast skies and threat of rain.

"We survived [Hurricane] Hugo, so I'm pretty sure we can get through this," said parade organizer George Perez, who was born in Puerto Rico and who has lived in Philadelphia since 1950. "And anyway, this parade is about unity. It is to let people know there is a large presence of Hispanics here in the Philadelphia area."

Yesterday's event left little doubt of that. Organizers said that roughly 110 different groups - or 3,000 people - made up the parade procession alone.

Among them were several dozen police officers, many members of the Spanish American Law Enforcement Association, who marched with Jose Ortiz's family and friends, including his three sisters, and his partner, Officer Ron Gardner, who carried a portrait of Ortiz draped in black cloth.

Ortiz, a member of the police force for 31/2 years, was critically injured last week after being struck by a patrol car driven by a fellow officer. He died Thursday after being taken off life support.

"I believe he is watching us today," Maribel Ortiz said yesterday, adding that her brother was to have marched in the parade.

"This is his parade," added Noemi Ortiz, Jose Ortiz's younger sister, choking back tears. "He wanted us to be here. And we made it through because he guided us. He was our guardian angel."

Gardner, 30, said that he found it difficult to march, but that he also felt he "had to do it because [Ortiz] was like a little brother to me."

"He was always there for me," Gardner said, "and today was my opportunity to do right by him."

All said Jose Ortiz would have wanted the parade to remain a festive event.

And along different points of the procession, it was just that. Borges, 37, from Reading, Pa., said he made the trek to Philadelphia because he wanted to capture the spirit of partying with his "beautiful people."

"Look at this," he said, surveying the crowd. "We're everywhere. We're in high offices, in high-rises and in Beverly Hills. We've come a long way."

Santiago, 22, of Vineland, said he couldn't agree more. He said the parade gave him the feeling that he could "surpass obstacles," or overcome negative stereotypes that may exist about his culture.

"This shows how important we are," said Santiago, proudly pointing to a tattoo on his arm that read 'Live and Die Puerto Rican.' "We're not just anyone. We can give so many different things - our music, our culture, our tradition. I want people to see that. Look at us now."

Angela Couloumbis' e-mail address is

Santana & Mana win big at Latin Grammy's
by Tamara Conniff
The Hollywood Reporter

Carlos Santana and Mexican rock band Mana took home the prestigious record of the year award for "Corazon Espinado." Santana, Mana and Mexican artist Luis Miguel tied with three wins each during the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards held Wednesday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The awards went to a wide spectrum of genres and artists, with Juan Luis Guerra, Fito Paez, Emilio Estefan Jr. and Shakira all taking two awards.

Santana and Mana also were honored with the best rock performance by a duo or group for "Corazon Espinado." Carlos Santana said in Spanish while accepting the award, "This is for all the people of Africa and all the women of all the countries." Of his Grammy wins, he said, "This is an invitation to the rest of the human race."

Mana also won best pop performance by a duo or group for "Se Me Olvido Otra Vez," beating out Ketama, Jennifer Lopez & Marc Anthony, So Pra Contrariar & Gloria Estefan and Andreas Vollenweider & Milton Nascimento during the pre-telecast. Also during the pre-telecast, Santana's smash "Supernatural," which swept the Grammy Awards in February, nabbed a Latin Grammy for pop instrumental performance for the track "El Farol" featuring Mana.

Luis Miguel, who was not in attendance, received the coveted album of the year honor and the pop album of the year award for "Amarte Es un Placer." He also won the best male pop vocal performance award for "Tu Mirada" during the pre-telecast.

Emilio Estefan Jr. and former actor Carlos Vives, who led the nominees with six mentions each, fell short of expectations. Estefan Jr. won producer of the year and the music video award for directing Gloria Estefan's "No Me Dejes de Querer" during the pre-telecast.

"This one is special," Estefan Jr. said backstage. "To win a Latin Grammy for me - it comes all the way from my heart; it's a big accomplishment."

Vives, who was nominated for record of the year, went home empty-handed.

Shakira, who has been pegged as the next crossover sensation with her upcoming English-language album, picked up Latin Grammy's for female pop vocal performance and female rock vocal performance for her hit songs "Ojos Asi" and "Octavo Dia," respectively. In the pop category, Shakira beat out Christina Aguilera, Zizi Possi, Mercedes Sosa and Jaci Velasquez.

Shakira dedicated her award to her native Colombia. "Never forget how to smile," she said. "Para ti Colombia!"

The song of the year award went to Marc Anthony's "Dimelo (I Need to Know)" during the pre-telecast. Anthony, one of the top nominees, was unable to attend the ceremony because of complications with his wife's pregnancy. Songwriters Robert Blades and Angie Chirino were on hand to accept the award.

"[The song] was done very quickly under pressure," Blades said backstage. "I'm amazed that it went this far."

The Latin community came out in droves for the inaugural event. The awards telecast opened with a high-energy tribute honoring the late Tito Puente that featured Ricky Martin, Celia Cruz and Estefan. The evening's highlighted performances included Santana & Mana, 'N Sync & Son by Four, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Djavan, Alejandro Fernandez, Estefan with Miami Sound Machine and Carlos Vives.

About 32 of the 40 Latin Grammy's were handed out during the pre-telecast. Top categories were presented during the telecast, which aired on CBS from 9 to 11 p.m. The ceremony was co-hosted by Estefan, Lopez, Jimmy Smits and Andy Garcia.

"We Latin's not only make great music - we look good doing it," Smits said during the opening.

Sporting bright, blue-colored hair, Cruz danced when she won the salsa performance award for "Celia Cruz and Friends: A Night of Salsa." The veteran beat out Oscar D'Leon, Los Van Van, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Son by Four.

The traditional tropical performance went to Puente for "Mambo Birdland." Accepting the award on his behalf were his children, Tito Puente Jr. and Audrey Puente. "I was in the mixing booth with him during the album," a teary-eyed Audrey Puente said. "[My father] said when he was done, he hoped he would win a Grammy because he didn't know if he could top this album."

Presenters included Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Oscar De La Hoya, Placido Domingo, Hector Elizondo, Jose Feliciano, Melanie Griffith, Guerra, Saul Hernandez, Cheech Marin, Valeria Mazza, Paez, Leah Remini, Robi Rosa, Rosario, Jon Secada and Jaci Velasquez.

The ceremony reached more than 100 countries. The Latin Grammy Awards are planned to be an annual event. © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

La música latina sigue aumentando en popularidad

(El Hispano, October 12, 2000)

EFE — Impulsada en gran parte por las ventas de discos compactos, la música latina consiguió durante el primer semestre del año su mayor participación en el mercado de EE.UU., informó la Asociación de la Industria Discográfica Americana (RIAA, en inglés). 

El segmento latino aumentó a un 5.2 por ciento su valor de cotización durante el primer semestre de 2000, con un valor de casi 325 millones de dólares, en comparación con el 4.9 por ciento que ocupaba en 1999, informó RIAA en un comunicado. 

RIAA, una asociación cuyos miembros fabrican o distribuyen aproximadamente el 90 por ciento de todas las grabaciones musicales legítimas en EE.UU., define a la música latina como aquel producto que contiene 51 por ciento o más en idioma español. 

La industria de la música latina, indicó RIAA, disfrutó de un crecimiento del 11 por ciento desde mediados de 1999, mientras que las cifras de envíos netos de discos compactos aumentaron en un tres por ciento. 

“La influencia de la música latina continúa siendo apreciada en todos los aspectos de la industria del entretenimiento,” afirmó Hilary Rosen, ejecutiva principal de RIAA. 

Los “cassettes” mantienen todavía una amplia popularidad entre los hispanos, representando casi una cuarta parte del total de los envíos de música latina, es decir, tres veces más de la proporción de la música en general en EE.UU.

Monday, August 14, 2000
Salsaing in the rain at Latino festival

By Angela Couloumbis

On Friday night, organizer Javier Suarez said, he was near tears after listening to the weatherman.

But Mother Nature cut him a break yesterday, and he couldn't help but smile as he watched the faithful flock by the thousands to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for Suarez's annual Festival de las Americas, one of the city's more popular fiestas.

Beyond ethnic pride, yesterday's festival was about music - and not just any music but the swaying, sashaying rhythms of salsa and merengue, served up by some of the hottest Latin-music bands.

Despite their having had to wear rain slickers or bulky clothing, many in attendance shook their hips and clapped their hands throughout the afternoon to the sounds of about a half-dozen bands from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and, yes, Nueva York.

Some danced on coolers, some barefoot on the grass, and some, like Terry Gilmore, on in-line skates. Gilmore drew a small crowd of admirers as he spun around in a dizzying whirl and never missed a beat.

"I really like Latin music," said the 48-year-old Philadelphia videographer, adding that he frequently street-dances on skates in different parts of the city.

"It's challenging," he said, "because of the rhythms, but it's also a great workout. You get all the toxins from the 9-to-5 out."

For those who didn't feel like shaking their bon-bon, a seemingly endless line of street vendors and volunteers awaited, hawking everything from Caribbean food to Latin music to information on how to obtain affordable health care.

Still, the music ended up stealing the show - hardly a surprise, given the headliners. Suarez, who said he had wanted to bring in some of the genre's more popular groups for this year's festival, started off the show with the Colombian band Grupo Niche, whose four male singers made the Backstreet Boys look positively adolescent.

"I love them," said Susana Gil of the Northeast, clasping her hands in anticipation. "They're so good."

"Even if it rains, I'm staying here, right where I am," said Gisela Mendez, 25, as she danced on the grass.

Jeanny Arroyo, 29, echoed the sentiment. She and her family had come a bit more prepared, having set up a canopy on the grass and crowded onto lawn chairs beneath it.

Arroyo vowed to keep on dancing even if the skies were to open up and unleash a torrent of rain.

"We're sticking it out, no matter what happens," the visitor from Vineland said.

Others knew exactly how she felt.

Herman Ramos, 28, of the Northeast, put it this way: "I'm not going anywhere. It's not every day that you see people together like this. It's a multicultural thing. It's for everyone to enjoy."

Angela Couloumbis' e-mail address is © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

As the local community grows, so does its diversity. As for its political clout
For area Latinos, a hunt for unity

La Tienda, in South Philadelphia, caters to a community whose needs change as migrants arrive from different parts of Latin America. Araceli Calva (right) munches on a tamale while talking with the store’s Elba Morales Romero. (Akira Suwa / Inquirer Staff Photographer)

By Monica Rhor

Once almost entirely Puerto Rican, the Latino community in the area is quickly becoming more diverse, as immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central and South America settle in Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

Witness some of the subtle but pivotal changes: Grocery store shelves stocked with Ecuadorean, Guatemalan and Mexican products. Religious services that evoke traditions from Central and South America. Local candidates lobbying for endorsements from Dominican civic and business leaders.

Some come directly from their homelands. Others find their way here after first living in, say, California, New York or Texas.

No matter the route they took to get here, Latino leaders and residents say, the recent arrivals have injected a vibrancy into Latino Philadelphia - creating cultural and social organizations and weaving their distinct traditions and celebrations into the fabric of city life.

And, Latino leaders say, the newcomers could bolster the political strength of a community that has often fallen short of its potential as a voting bloc.

"We're poised . . . to make a difference," says State Rep. Ben Ramos, whose district covers part of North Philadelphia. "But we have to stop bickering. That hampers our ability to grow."

As director of the Latino Partnership, a grassroots group that builds networks among the various Latino cultural factions, Angel Medina works to eliminate the type of infighting that has splintered the larger community in the past.

"Ten years ago, it was a very divided community," Medina says. "Puerto Ricans wouldn't talk to Dominicans; Dominicans wouldn't talk to Colombians. But now we've created an atmosphere of working together. We're not just Puerto Rican or cubano or colombiano. Now the common word is Latino."

The Latino population - numbering between 100,000 and 250,000 - is one of the fastest-growing in the area, according to census officials and community leaders. About 80 percent of the community remains Puerto Rican, but there are now about 10,000 Dominicans and 10,000 Colombians, according to those groups' estimates.

In New Jersey, especially Camden, newer Latino immigrants, particularly Dominicans and Mexicans, have also joined the long-standing Puerto Rican community. In Camden, as in Philadelphia, the signs of the change are everywhere: in Mexican grocery stores and restaurants on the main shopping strip on Federal Street and in the large number of bodegas that have changed hands from Puerto Rican to Dominican owners.

This new diversity is a reflection of a change in the makeup of Latino communities nationwide. According to U.S. Census estimates for 1999 released last week, the Latino community is far from homogenous. Nearly two-thirds of the Hispanic population is of Mexican origin; 14 percent of Latinos are Central or South American, 10 percent are Puerto Rican, 7 percent come from the Caribbean or other countries, and 4 percent are Cuban.

"We recognize that our diversity is our strength," Medina says. "We have a common language, a common cultural identity, but [the newcomers] are also bringing a rainbow of differences - different knowledge, different expertise."

"You see the changing of the faces; it's just an explosion that's happened in the last couple of years," says Ana Vega, a city resident of 32 years and director of the Office for Hispanic Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

"When you say, 'Hispanic,' it's so misleading," she says. "We're not all the same. We don't all eat tacos and burritos. We come from 21 different cultures."

Vega, who was born in Puerto Rico, says she has seen the diversification grow in parishes with sizable Latino populations. In Norristown, for example, a December Mass and predawn serenade to honor La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, drew more than 500 people.

At the Church of St. William, in Philadelphia's Crescentville section, Peruvian parishioners held a Mass and procession in October to honor their native country's patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros (The Lord of Miracles).

And at the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on Spring Garden Street, long a gathering place for Latinos, who know it as La Milagrosa, visitors can find statues depicting various incarnations of the Virgin Mary - each representing a different segment of the community.

In addition to a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the collection includes: La Virgen de Pilar, the patron saint of Spain; La Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), the patron saint of Cuba; and Our Lady of Providence, which holds special significance for Puerto Ricans.

Outside the church, the cultural profusion within the community is also multiplying.

Among the city's Dominicans, whose numbers began to increase in the early 1980s, there has been a growth spurt of civic and social organizations over the last few years. Now Dominicans can attend events at the Dominican Cultural Center or at the Duarte Institute, or they can join the Dominican Coalition.

The annual Dominican parade draws thousands. So do the Colombian Independence Day festivities. And smaller Latino groups are following suit. Last July, Venezuelans organized their first Independence Day celebration here. And in September, Nicaraguans did the same.

"Part of you misses your traditions, misses your people, misses everything from your country," says Mackerrlly Laya, 21, president of La Organizacion de Venezolanos Unidos.

"It's still not home, but, this way, it's like having a family here, someone you can count on," says Laya, who works in the human-resources department of the Philadelphia Marriott West.

Carlos Romero understands that hunger for the familiar. Although Kennett Square in Chester County has long been home to a large Mexican community, he used to go weeks without running into a fellow Mexican on Philadelphia's streets. Now most of the 40 or so customers who step daily into La Tienda (The Store), Romero's grocery in an Asian American-owned strip mall on Sixth Street and Washington Avenue, are Mexican immigrants craving a taste of home.

Catering to that need, La Tienda stocks foods, toiletries and housewares imported from Mexico: dozens of types of chiles, tortillas, corn flour, Spanish-language greeting cards, piñatas, sombreros, Mexican videotapes and CDs - everything to make the growing Mexican contingent a little less homesick.

"We are 100 percent Mexican," boasts Romero, who wears a leather cap embroidered with the name of his hometown, Michoacan. "The Mexican community is growing more and more, and people are looking for these things."

On weekends, dances featuring cumbia music and a Mexican DJ draw more than 200 Mexican immigrants, says Romero, 29, who runs the grocery with his wife, Ana Cristina, 30.

Yet, even as each group places its imprint on the city, it also learns the value of joining forces. In December, for example, when torrential mud slides left thousands homeless in Venezuela, La Organizacion de Venezolanos Unidos quickly found support among the city's other Latino groups.

"There was nobody who didn't help," Laya says. "You could feel the spirit. Just one thing needs to happen for the whole community to come together."

When Hurricane Mitch ravaged Nicaragua in October 1998, the consulate here was inundated with phone calls, and Elvin Urrutia, who formed La Organizacion Permanente de Ayuda Nicaraguense (the Permanent Organization for Nicaraguan Aid), discovered the same thing.

"I never saw so many people giving a hand," says Urrutia, 36, who came from Nicaragua 20 years ago and works for Philadelphia Gas Works.

Such intergroup cooperation is relatively new, Medina notes, yet is crucial to translating the growing numbers into political power.

"The only way to resolve issues is by joining forces and resolving them ourselves," he says. "No one will resolve them for us. We're all flowers from the same garden: Unless we're united, we'll be broken apart."

Ramos, who is Puerto Rican, notes that the area's Dominicans have been quick to become involved in local politics by endorsing and financially supporting Latino candidates, himself included.

Other emerging Latino groups, however, have yet to organize formally, he says.

In addition, many newcomers must yet go through the often lengthy process of attaining citizenship before they can take the next - crucial - steps of registering and turning out to vote.

"Otherwise," Ramos says, "we can just be a lot of Latinos with no political clout."

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