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Pedro Rodriguez, director of the Office of Human Resources of the City of Philadelphia. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Pedro Rodriguez, director of the Office of Human Resources of the City of Philadelphia. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

“My identity as a Dominican immigrant is important for the progress of the U.S.”

Throughout the last two years, a Latino man has been the head of one of the city’s key entities in the fight against poverty and unemployment — the Office of…

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Throughout the last two years, a Latino man has been the head of one of the city’s key entities in the fight against poverty and unemployment — the Office of Human Resources of the City of Philadelphia, a body that employs more than 30,000 people in several municipal departments and services.

The man in question is Pedro Rodríguez: director, father, cook, dancer, professional adviser, activist, social leader and poet. All of this and more just begins to describe the grey-haired man with a youthful spirit who, as a good caribeño, loves engaging in conversations with others.

Rodríguez is one of the millions of American immigrants who have been re-shaping the nation’s narrative since the very first day they stepped on continental land.

To him, being both an American citizen and a Dominican immigrant is relevant because it’s in the synergy of those identities, a synergy that he and millions of other Americans share, in which the country as a whole finds its best chance to progress.

"Without the net increase of immigrants, just on that basis, Philadelphia would be suffering."

Rodríguez is a vivid testimony of America’s social, political and cultural richness, but also of the challenges that as a society we must face in order to overcome the segregation, poverty, and inequality that African-American and immigrant communities have suffered for so long,  especially here in Philadelphia.

What was your experience of being an immigrant as a Dominican kid who suddenly moved to New York?

I was a reluctant immigrant. I came because my parents were here. Once in New York City, back in those years, the Latino community was quite marginalized. They didn’t have political representation and I was a high school student.

This was the “tail-end” of the protest against the Vietnam war, things were kinda dying down and people were paying attention to other things, and then you had this community which is marginalized, and feeling the impact of everything that goes wrong with the society, and no way to get a [political] voice; there were sporadic voices here and there but nothing organized, particularly for the youth.

We organized a number of individuals across high schools in New York to try to get a voice out and to fight for some of the things that we believed leaded to change. One of them was, for example, that Latinos in high school at that time in New York were not being directed to attend colleges. It was going through vocational education or maybe community college –not that there's anything wrong with community college– but that offer was not being made to them at the time.

Even the spike of everything that was going on, that the war ended in Vietnam, there was a push to get people into the military service, and some of my high school friends did that, but we wanted choices. We wanted the opportunity to be treated like anybody else.

[...] And I think that experience was a really great teaching moment for my professional development and my development as an individual, as an immigrant and as a Latino here in the United States.

You need to really get immersed in some kind of struggle for you to full understand the society and for you to find a place from where you can voice your opinion, voice your concerns and fight for your rights.

What’s is like to be an American Immigrant?

I am an American who has a distinct background and a distinct cultural reference and I am bilingual. I am the new America and my children are the new America.

And my identity as a Dominican immigrant in the United States is relevant and important for the progress of the United States, because to be totally absorbed in the American culture, for me to deny who I am — my identity, where I come from — I think it would be a betrayal not just of myself, of my family of my heritage, but also of the potential of America.

In essence, my role has to be ever present that I have to affirm my identity as an American with my cultural roots, not to make myself relevant but to make other people understand that this is the new reality that we live in, and if I don’t do this, then I’m giving them permission to white me out, to ignore me, to not make myself relevant, to oppress me, to discriminate against me… I’m giving them permission to say that I just don’t exist.

To me it is important that we, as immigrants, reaffirm within the context of America who we are, where we come from, because that distinction is what’s really makes us an enriched society.

What are the main contributions of immigrants in the U.S.?

Let me start with the country. I think immigrants have had a long history in making enormous contributions to the development and progress of the United States of America, specifically in those cities where immigrants are a significant portion of the total population, like New York City, like Newark, like Philadelphia.

You see that immigrants in Philadelphia from all parts of the globe are reshaping the communities that were disinvested back when the deindustrialization in the U.S. happened beginning of the 1970’s. Many portions of our city were abandoned, business streets were deteriorated, and immigrants had come in to renew.

Immigrants in Philadelphia are beginning to shape the revitalization of neighborhoods  that have decayed over decades of regret and abandoned.

And [in terms of] population lost, immigrants are the ones replenishing the population of the city, and that is important for everyone who lives in Philadelphia because federal funding formulas are based on your population totals, the number of representation that you have in the state legislative or federal government is reflected on the total population. So, without the net increase of immigrants, just on that basis, Philadelphia would be suffering.

And there is more that we can do. We can provide leadership on a number of other fronts to bring the city together, to provide a different point of view on the burning problems that we have: the question of medication, the question of affordable housing, the question of having access to quality services, the question of being politically represented in the bodies that make policy in the city and in the state.

If Donald Trump were in front of you, what would you say to him?

I would say to him: “Mr. President, I respect the office, but you do not deserve to be in it. You have abandoned all sense of decency, and the best thing for you to do, for your own legacy, your children and the future of the country, is to resign from the Office of President of the United States.”

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