‘Estamos Aquí’ flocks into this Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philly

Taller Puertorriqueño’s new permanent street installation traces the history of Fairhill’s Puerto Rican community.

Rafael Damast

Curator Rafael Damast shows of the powder-coated aluminum bird silhouettes that will be bolted to the sides of buildings surrounded Taller Puertorriqueño.(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

A unique flock of birds is coming into Fairhill in Philadelphia.

Twenty-two powder-coated aluminum bird silhouettes, in red and gold, will be bolted to the buildings around Fifth and Huntingdon streets, the vicinity of the Puerto Rican culture center Taller Puertorriqueño.

Philadelphia artist José Ortiz-Pagán modeled them after the gray kingbird, known in Puerto Rico as the pitirre, a small bird that punches above its weight.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“This bird is probably 5 inches tall, but it fights hawks and birds of prey that are massive,” said Ortiz-Pagán, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “It is a bird that in Puerto Rico is very well known as an anti-colonial symbol.”

The aluminum pitirre, whose exact locations are still being negotiated with property owners, tie together the various parts of Taller Puertorriqueño’s “Estamos Aquí” (“We Are Here”), a permanent fixture both inside the building and outside on the streets. The community-based project reveals the Puerto Rican history of the North Philadelphia neighborhood.

“This neighborhood was once called ‘The Badlands.’ It had this infamy started in the early ‘90s that people wanted to fight against,” said curator Rafael Damast. “We wanted to create an instrument to talk about the positives in the neighborhood, to talk about histories which were important but might have been forgotten.”

José Ortiz-Pagán
Artist José Ortiz-Pagán at his piece “Cartografía de Otro rincón,”, a board-game map of the neighborhood around Taller Puertorriqueño.(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The centerpiece of “Estamos Aquí” is a large map of the neighborhood inside the Taller Puertorriqueño atrium. Ortiz-Pagán designed the map like a board game with magnetized player pieces that look like tiny pushcarts. The carts can be moved to different areas on the map to signify important historic moments: the factories where Puerto Ricans found jobs, like Quaker Lace and the Stetson Hats; and the places people have gathered, like the landmark Centro Musical store and Fairhill Square.

Artist José Ortiz-Pagán demonstrates the pushcart game pieces of his piece “Cartografía de Otro rincón.” (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Most prominently displayed is a major protest movement born in Fairhill in 1976. “Sin Colonias” was organized by the Puerto Rican Socialist Party calling for justice, equality and independence for the United States territory.

Puerto Ricans from Fairhill joined Black liberation groups, Indigenous groups, women’s rights advocates, workers rights advocates and Vietnam veterans to form the July 4th Coalition. Estimated to be 30,000 strong, the march wove down city streets from North Philadelphia to Fairmount Park, chanting slogans like “the people united will never be defeated” during the city’s major bicentennial celebrations.

The July 4 Coalition, along with the Rich Off Our Backs Coalition, were organized events that then-Mayor Frank Rizzo felt were a threat to the official city celebrations, pushing him to request 15,000 National Guard troops for the bicentennial — a request that was denied.  Many saw the mayor’s security demands as excessive, leading to a false perception of crime that kept many visitors away from Philadelphia.

At the end of the day, the coalition’s event ended peacefully.

It was around that time Fairhill saw the founding of some of its neighborhood institutions, like Taller Puertorriqueño (1974) and the housing and neighborhood service organizations HACE (1982).

Rafael Damast and José Ortiz-Pagán
Rafael Damast and José Ortiz-Pagán in front of Taller Puertorriqueño, on which is hung the outdoor sculpture “El Maestro de Dos Mundos.” (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“I think what happened specifically in Philadelphia in ‘76 cemented a lot of what happened afterwards,” said Ortiz-Pagán. “Many of those people ended up working in many of these institutions are actually part of the people who founded these institutions.”

Ortiz-Pagán designed cards to fit inside the pushcart pieces with QR codes taking users to web pages describing historic moments, people and places in the neighborhood. The carts can be manipulated on the map to form a geographic narrative.

“The magnetic pushcarts are like an endless walker,” he said. “This person walking, looking at the neighborhood, interacting with people. To me it’s this eternal migration, to be constantly moving all the time.”

map artwork
“Cartografía de Otro rincón,” by Artist José Ortiz-Pagán, inside the atrium of Taller Puertorriqueño. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“Estamos Aquí” is designed to literally move through the streets. Taller Puertorriqueño is a partner organization of Experience Eastern North, which develops neighborhood walking tours around specific topics. It will be guiding groups on informative tours of Fairhill’s Puerto Rican history.

Ortiz-Pagán created pairs of large wall sculptures for the exterior walls of Taller Puertorriqueño depicting the pitirre bird pulling strands of string, suggesting both a nesting instinct and ties to faraway places. He calls the pairs “El Maestro de Dos Mundos” (“Masters of Both Worlds”) in reference to the Puerto Rican immigrant experience.

art on the building's exterior
“El Maestro de Dos Mundos,” by Artist José Ortiz-Pagán, outside Taller Puertorriqueño. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“‘We are here’ matters a lot,” Ortiz-Pagán said. “The neighborhood is changing. Gentrification is happening. To some extent this is literally raising a flag: ‘We are here, we have been here for a while,’ and that means a lot.”

Taller Puertorriqueño is hosting a launch party for “Estamos Aquí” on Saturday, May 4, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with family activities and live music.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal