The Puerto Rican Experience in Bucks County

Photo of Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, courtesy of © Glenn Francis,

Hannah Boscola

Plena, a genre of music that originated in Puerto Rico with African, Spanish and Caribbean influences, played through the speakers as students arrived in anticipation for the inaugural roundtable discussion celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month on Oct. 6 at the Bucks County Community College Epstein Campus.

Joel Berrocal, director of operations for the National Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, and an organizer of the event, warmly welcomed panelists and students, “Buenas tardes, konnichiwa, asalaam alaikum, nǐ hǎo, shalom, guten tag, good afternoon, everyone!”

Students joined the discussion on the Epstein campus and on zoom, as they prepared for an in-depth discussion about the Puerto Rican experience in Bucks County. The contemporary Latin music faded into the background as the discussion began, as Bucks students turned to the five-person panel on stage.

Rafael Collazo, executive director of UnidosUS Action Fund, part of the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, was the first expert panelist to speak.

Collazo is a seasoned activist and political leader who is one of the foremost experts on non-partisan Hispanic civic engagement and issue-based organizing campaigns. Collazo has led or supported numerous campaign initiatives, from elevating the Latino perspective on COVID relief, tax policy or voter integrity.

Collazo discussed the vibrant history shared by Puerto Ricans in the Philadelphia and New Jersey region.

“Whether you came from Puerto Rico in the 50s for farm work in South Jersey, in the 60s to work in the manufacturing sector, or you’re a more recent arrival, being an economic or climate change refuge, there is rich history and culture in the Philadelphia and New Jersey region that Puerto Ricans share,” he said.

Collazo passed the discussion to Berrocal to share why the Puerto Rican experience in Bucks County is an important discussion to have. Berrocal says Puerto Ricans have been part of our community since World War II and wants to recognize “how far we have gotten in a century.”

Puerto Ricans have succeeded in every way, “through the good, bad, and ugly, Puerto Ricans have fought in wars, held public office, built successful businesses and so much more,” said Berrocal, and shared how he hopes the panel inspires future conversations, and leadership.

Collazo expressed how conversations, like the panel’s “shows the diversity of leadership and talent in the Puerto Rican community, in the Latino community, in our local community and beyond.” He says the five panelists gathered to share their unique perspectives on Puerto Rican life including activism, arts, business, politics, media, sports and culture.

The conversation was passed to Amaris Hernández Padgett, the national president for National Conference of Puerto Rican Women (NACOPRW) and co-commissioner for the Pennsylvania Commission on Latino Affairs, who shared her unique experiences in the Philadelphia region.

Padgett says Latinos are the greatest growing population in the state of Pennsylvania, and the challenge of diversity has become apparent in recent years.

Padgett noted part of the NACOPRW’s mission is to enfranchise language minority citizens through increased language access, specifically the services provided by the Department of State. She, among others, has worked hard to increase language access, which motivates limited English proficient individuals to vote through accessibility.

Padgett says “diversity and inclusion is a necessity throughout our communities so that Puerto Ricans, among other minorities, can succeed.”

Padgett, an IT professional, says, “Latinas make up only 1% of the tech industry,” so it was important to her to pave her own way and start her own IT consultant company. Padgett is the founder of Cybher, whose mission is to promote the engagement of minority women in technology fields.

To get involved in advocating for the Puerto Rican community, which she does often, it’s important to take initiative in dedicating your talents to the community,” says Padgett. “Find out what is in your neighborhood and the organizations available in your community and get involved,” she urged.

Berrocal, who volunteers his time on the Bucks County Community College’s DEI Community Advisory Board, chimed in, “you can come from any discipline or skill set and still contribute to your community.”

Collazo brought up popular Puerto Rican rapper and singer, Bad Bunny, on stage, who has addressed issues impacting Puerto Rico in his music.

Collazo emphasized the intersection between Puerto Rican arts and community, referring to Samuel Kanig, coordinator, community organizer, filmmaker, musician and leader of Trenton’s Puerto Rican Civic Association, who has seen the Puerto Rican community respond through cultural expression.

Kanig says the Puerto Rican community often finds their identity through cultural expression, making it the easiest way to organize a community, so it’s important to “create spaces where people can connect to Puerto Rico, even if it’s just for a day, for an event.”

By creating these spaces the door opens for “civic and political engagement,” he said. “Even if it’s just an art or music event for a Puerto Rican artist, it gives an opportunity to start a conversation and bring communities closer.”

Julia Rivera, chief external affairs officer for Congresso de Latinos Unidos, and a member of the Puerto Rico’s women’s field hockey team, also spoke during the discussion addressing the organizational relief efforts made in local communities to support Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Rivera, who moved to Philadelphia shortly before the 2017 hurricane, shared how amazing it was to experience “the landscape of Puerto Ricans in the Philadelphia area.”

The Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia is one of the reasons she was drawn to the city. Rivera explained how connected the local community is to the island, especially after natural disasters like the hurricane. “Everyone in the community wanted to help. Many people had family, friends and houses in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Rivera, who was honored as a member of AL DÍA’s “40 Under Forty Class” in 2022 and in 2020, noted how blown away she was by how many organizations, community leaders and members, stepped up to bring attention to ongoing issues on the island, as well as support Puerto Ricans arriving into Philadelphia.

Rivera says those arriving were quickly connected to the Puerto Rican community and worked to support those at home.   She added that Congresso de Latinos Unidos recognizes challenges found in Puerto Rican communities in our region, including poverty rates, access to internet and pandemic recovery.

Though several organizations continue to work hard on these issues, “there is still a lot of work to be done. But it makes it easier when we have those opportunities to come together to celebrate our culture and successes and experience the Puerto Rican community together,” she said.

Berrocal concluded the panel discourse emphasizing that although this discussion is a small sample of the contributions, “Puerto Rican experience has been an important part of Bucks County, and the Philadelphia region.”