"I [wanted to] focus on my other passion ... to make sure that Latinos are getting Latino heritage in the real way."

Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Johnny Irizarry has spent the past quarter century working to educate Philadelphia’s blossoming Hispanic community.

Throughout his career, he has worked with a range of students from Head Start through higher education. He has been principal of a majority Hispanic charter school, a program specialist for the School District of Philadelphia, executive director of a Latino arts and cultural community center, a lecturer on Puerto Rican and Latino history and a college professor.

Most recently he was named director of La Casa Latina, Penn’s Center for Hispanic Excellence.

Irizarry comes to Penn from The Lighthouse, a North Philadelphia settlement house where for seven years he served as executive director/CEO. The Current caught up with Irizarry recently to talk about his plans for La Casa Latina, as well as how his new job fits in with his long career of service.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the history of La Casa Latina?
La Casa Latina was created about nine years ago to have a place where Latino students’ issues can be addressed, where they could work collectively and build programs that they could interact with not only Penn, but with the outside community too, and from a Latino perspective.

Q. What type of programs or services does La Casa offer?
Programs at La Casa include things like a mentorship program where upperclassmen and women work with younger students. More and more we’re growing a collaborative relationship with Latino alumni for mentorship purposes. For example, some of the alumni come back and they just spend a day here, [and] students can come in and just talk to them about not only what has been their Penn experience, but in the real world.
There’s a Latino Dialogue Institute that the students run. These students organize more academically based, challenging dialogues related to all kinds of issues: advocacy, activism, race, political issues facing Latino students, immigration.

Q. What new initiatives do you plan to bring to La Casa?
One of the things I would like to do is to bring a representative group of stakeholders together to look at all these multiple programs that the organizations do and do a strategic plan that looks ahead five years, ten years.
It’d be nice if an incoming class can, towards the end of the year, determine their biggest challenge or stumbling block and then set themselves the goal that in the next three, four years, to find the conditions and to work on changing that.
And hopefully more and more, La Casa will be instrumental in working with the other centers. I’ve been meeting with all the directors of the other centers to engage Latinos in not only service learning through Civic House, but women’s issues around the Women’s Center, obviously common issues and relationships and cultural connections with the African-American groups, and collaboration and things in common like language and multiple nationalities with the Asian groups.

Q. How will La Casa interact with Philadelphia’s Hispanic community?
We’ve been talking with community members about doing some serious work with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, especially, so that a lot of the stereotypes are knocked apart and so that we can see our common history versus our divisions.

Q. You mentioned that The Lighthouse is “like family” and you will miss interacting with the community. Why did you decide to leave?
If you want to be an effective director in North Philly, you can’t be a normal director that sits at your desk and writes proposals. It’s one crisis after another and you have to get involved and people have to see that the director is committed to being in the street and to be part of that dialogue and to be the one to speak to them. That takes a lot of energy and a lot of work and sometimes a lot of pain. There’s only so many funerals you can go to and see hundreds of young kids crying and suffering and knowing that they might be the next one. You start reflecting a lot when you get older. I started thinking that I should focus on my other passion, which is to facilitate education, to make sure that Latinos are getting Latino heritage in the real way, not just talking about our food, and our festivals and our costumes, but talking about oppression and colonization and imperialism and our history.

Q. Did you have any concerns about coming into a university atmosphere?
I come from the Civil Rights era and we had to combat what all social scientists and accepted scholars were writing about Puerto Ricans and Latinos in this country. It was all under the culture of poverty and the concept of deficit, that somehow we possess an intellectual cultural deficit and that’s why we couldn’t move out of poverty. It had nothing to do with the economy or oppression or racism, it all had to do with the fact that we [naturally] came from a weak heritage that didn’t have high values. My life has been dedicating to proving that that’s not so.
And then the second part of that is, when research was being done, they would come to centers like ours and study our people, sometimes pry into their most private and sensitive lives about their suffering of poverty or their illnesses, or the condition of their family, and then just leave and not even engage those families in a conversation about why this research is important and how it might help the community. I resented that kind of research, but I also applauded research that was used to demonstrate that, yes, people are living in the most horrible conditions possible, but despite that, people grow, people are human, people care, people love.

Originally published Feb. 7, 2008