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A new historical marker honoring Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez was unveiled at Philadelphia City Hall on Friday, October 8. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA. 
A new historical marker honoring Latina LGBTQ activist Gloria Casarez was unveiled at Philadelphia City Hall on Friday, October 8. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA. 

Honoring an LGBTQ icon: Pennsylvania unveils first historical marker of a Latina

Gloria Casarez was memorialized with a marker dedication at City Hall on Friday, Oct. 8.

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For the first time in history, Pennsylvania has a historical marker dedicated to honor a person of Latinx descent.

On Friday, Oct. 8, a historical marker honoring Gloria Casarez, a Philadelphia native, notable civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, was officially unveiled near City Hall. 

“We’re thrilled to be here today to honor the life and legacy of Gloria Casarez,” said Erik Larson, Deputy Director of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia. 

Celena Morrison, Executive Director at the Office of LGBT Affairs, described Casarez as “a true representation of LGBT activism, past, present and future.”

“Gloria was instrumental in community organizing, political activism and mobilizing efforts to improve conditions for marginalized folks, especially people of color and LGBT+ people,” she added. 

In 2008, Casarez was appointed the first director of LGBT Affairs by then-Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. In the role, she continued the work to increase the rights and protections for all LGBT residents in the city. 

Casarez’s appointment as the first director of LGBT Affairs was symbolic, given much of the work she did throughout her life. She passed away from cancer in 2014. 

Dr. Christopher Fiorentino, President of West Chester University — Casarez’s alma mater — praised the work she did as a student, and later as an alumna. 

This included spending her weekends creating homes for the homeless, and becoming one of the first and founding members of the Empty the Shelters, an organization that acquired abandoned properties in Philadelphia and transformed them into living spaces for the homeless. 

“When it comes to the topic of leadership, I think Gloria teaches us a valuable lesson,” said Dr. Fiorentino. “the lesson that someone must always be willing to go first.”

After graduating, Casarez frequently visited the campus and spoke to students. 

In 2014, a scholarship bearing her name was established at West Chester University, which goes to a West Chester student who demonstrates leadership in the Latino community. 

“We hope that those student leaders will appreciate a key lesson from Gloria’s life, nothing is ever accomplished unless someone is willing to go first,” added Dr. Fiorentino. 

Ninoshka Montas is a graduate student of social work at West Chester, and social worker at Congreso Health Center, where she helps Latinx and immigrant communities facing barriers to healthcare.

She noted how Casarez’s many accomplishments are a reminder for her and many that dreams are attainable.

“Gloria’s groundbreaking work sparks a fire inside to lead by example, and following her footprints to advocate for my community,” said Montas. 

The new historical marker is significant because a large mural of Casarez at 12th and Locust streets created by artist Michelle Angela Ortiz was painted over by a New York development company in Dec. 2020. 

“For those of us who have been working on this work and trying to continue her legacy for so long, it was crushing that this beautiful piece of public art… was actually erased at that moment, erasing Gloria and erasing our history,” said Rue Landau, Director of Law and Policy at the Philadelphia Bar Association and friend of Casarez.

“What I can say today from this marker and this monument that is in the cement here at City Hall, it’s not going anywhere,” she added.

There are nearly 2,500 historical markers located across the state, chronicling the people, places, events and innovators of Pennsylvania’s history.

“It is hoped that this marker will not be the end of the story, but will instead provide encouragement for future study and discussion,” said Robert Armstrong, board chair of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. 

In addition to the marker unveiling, the pride flag was raised to celebrate LGBT History Month.

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