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U.S. House candidate Gilberto Gonzalez speaks at his campaign launch party on July 31, 2021. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.
U.S. House candidate Gilberto Gonzalez speaks at his campaign launch party on July 31, 2021. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.

From Kensington to Congress? Inside Gilberto Gonzalez’s 2022 bid for U.S. House

Gonzalez’s campaign is centered on education and the arts, two things he says saved his life growing up in Philly’s Puerto Rican community.

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Gilberto Gonzalez is fed up with Philadelphia’s political machine. 

It’s one he sees that operates much like a kingdom where leaders appoint their successors to political office, creating a cycle few with real political clout in the city have been able to crack or beat.

Of late, major blows have been dealt by the Working Families Party and members of the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but the machine still holds the majority.

Gonzalez is hoping to be the latest candidate to buck the hierarchy.

“That’s not giving people the choice,” he said of the party politics at play come election season. “People need the opportunity to vote for who they want.”

It’s why on July 31, 2021, Gonzalez launched his 2022 bid to represent Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional district in D.C. It’s a district currently held by U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle.

Gonzalez’s campaign gathering was held at Half Time Good Time Bar across from Norris Square Park in Kensington. The night began with performances from spoken-word poets and ended with songs by groups, such as Los Bomberos De La Calle, capturing the essence of the community Gonzalez wants to represent in Congress.

Betting on Latino grassroots power

The 2nd Congressional District of Pennsylvania encompasses the entirety of Northeast Philadelphia, from Spring Garden Street on the east side of Broad Street to slightly beyond the Northeast Philadelphia airport. 

In between those edges is the largest Latino population in the city of Philadelphia, residing predominantly in neighborhoods like Kensington, Hunting Park, Fairhill, Frankford and Juniata to name a few. Within that Latino population, Puerto Ricans remain the predominant nationality, but the district also features large Dominican, Colombian, and other communities from across Latin America.

According to recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Philly’s Hispanic population showed the second largest growth trend of any demographic in the city at 27% over the past decade. 

Not only was the city a refuge for Puerto Ricans escaping the devastation of Hurricane Maria, but its status as a ‘sanctuary city’ during the Trump administration also made it a perceived safe haven for immigrants from across Latin America and the world.

For Gonzalez, the growing Latino population across the city and district presents an opportunity for it to finally flex its political muscle after decades of low turnout.

“People in our community, particularly the Latino community, do not vote,” he said.

That’s especially true in parts of Philadelphia like Kensington, where low turnout is linked with a lack of trust for government officials and a system that constantly fails to address the issues in the community.

In the fight against such dismal turnout, Gonzalez called the process “heartbreaking,” but also “inspiring.”

He recalled a recent conversation with a friend and resident who expressed a sentiment heard in communities across the country where trust in government wanes.

“Y’all fucking politicians all do the same shit. You get into office and don’t do anything for us,” Gonzalez remembered his friend’s words.

The congressional hopeful spent the next hour and a half talking to them, slowly shifting their view and showing them the importance of their vote.

“If he voted, and everyone who thought like him voted, then we can get the change we need,” said Gonzalez.

But it’s not easy. 

Gonzalez’s main arguing point with his friend was that he was entering the political realm not as someone coming from the world of politics, but as a resident of Kensington.

“When have I ever been a politician,” he shot back at his friend. “I’m not a politician.”

That’s the message Gonzalez is carrying throughout his campaign. 

“We need change,” he told the small crowd gathered at his campaign launch party. “What we have to do is take that message to our neighbors and tell those neighbors to take it to their neighbors.”

He later pointed out to AL DÍA the lack of politicians or members of the political establishment at his launch party. For him, that’s just how he wants it for his grassroots campaign.

“The goal is get people active,” said Gonzalez. “What I want is community people that live down the street. Community people that live in this district to come and let’s have conversations.”

Those discussions will likely center on a community that’s always been a part of his life.

Kensington raised

Gonzalez was born in Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community when it was still centered on Spring Garden Street. He experienced the effects of gentrification that pushed the community further north to its present base in and around Kensington, where he’s spent the majority of his life.

Growing up, Gonzalez lived a life shaped by his harsh environment. It led to struggles in school and more trouble outside of the classroom. The experience is also one he thinks many students in school today can relate to.

“I loved high school so much I stayed three extra years,” said Gonzalez. “I was in violence, that was the norm.”

He’s had his head split open twice, and once overdosed on drugs. 

Everything changed on his second visit to the hospital for a head injury, when his dad bought him an Olympus OM-1 camera. The gift represented Gonzalez’s introduction to the arts.

“You need to do something with your life,” he remembers his dad’s words. “Start taking photos.”

An art and education centered campaign

Along with the camera, Gonzalez went to the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where he earned an associate’s degree in Fine and Studio Art. He would later attend the University of the Arts and get his bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design.

“Art truly saved my life,” he said. “If it weren’t for that camera, I wouldn’t be here.”

Art has remained a core part of Gonzalez’s career no matter what role he’s filled professionally. 

Following graduation from college, Gonzalez worked as director of a graphic design program at Taller Puertorriqueño before returning to his alma mater as a senior designer in CCP’s office of communications. He currently works to build community relations as part of CCP’s admissions office.

Art and education are also core components of his campaign for Congress. Much like Gonzalez’s exposure to art changed the trajectory of his own life, he wants it to do the same for other youth in Philadelphia.

Most importantly, it provided him an outlet to communicate the troubles in his life.

“Imagine if these kids could communicate through art… I promise the violence would start to reduce,” said Gonzalez regarding one of his approaches to combating the city’s astronomical rise in gun violence.

The other approach involves providing more funding and support for the police. It’s a potentially contentious stance given the past year’s rhetoric of defunding departments, but Gonzalez said such an approach won’t work in his community.

“In North Philly and in Kensington, if you defund the police it is going to get worse,” he said.

In particular, he said more money should be provided to the police department so it can better combat the flow of illegal guns into the city, which have played a part in spurring the city’s massive rise in gun violence.

“They just need money to do the patrolling, to set up a sting… to do their job,” said Gonzalez.

It’s a perspective born of experience residing in Kensington and seeing the neighborhood on a daily basis. One that Gonzalez believes is missing from the government.

“Everyone in government, they work in a vacuum,” he said. “When I draft legislation, when we propose policies to become law, it’s going to come from the perspective of the people that live this experience.”

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