A Quick Thought on Philadelphia’s​ “EL BARRIO” and The Dominican Diaspora

Known as the “melting pot city”, Philadelphia is very much diverse but culturally segregated at the same time. From its Asian community residing in South Philadelphia to the Latinx community in the North, the city’s residents seem to racially stick together in neighborhoods.

El Centro de Oro

Driving north up Fifth St., past its intersection on Lehigh Ave, is like entering an Americanized Santo Domingo, San Juan, or even Havana; with its two rows of steel palm trees parallel to each other and Spanish music coming from speakers placed in front of local shops. In reality, you have entered “El Centro de Oro” meaning the center of gold. An area that is labeled as the “Badlands” by many, but considered “El Barrio” to others. El Barrio, which means “the neighborhood” in Spanish, is the neighborhoods which once ranged from Eighth and Girard to the boulevard, but due to gentrification was cut shorter – the entrance is now on Fifth and Lehigh Ave. El Centro De Oro is also known as the “Golden Block”, a strip also known for its multi-cultural offices, Latino-owned businesses, and restaurants.  


Latinx is the fastest growing minority in the U.S., with many Dominican immigrants moving into Philadelphia and specifically El Barrio, one may wonder when the moving “spark” happened, considering that the beloved Golden Block was once predominantly Puerto Rican. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, back in the year 2000, 4,337 Dominican residents lived in the city of Philadelphia. That number went up 72% by the year 2010, with a population number of 15,963 residents.


Early years – She said Whaaaaat???

The number of Dominican friends I had in my early elementary years was quite low, many people had little knowledge about the country or culture. I remember an instance in which a basketball teammate asked if bachata was a fruit *laughs out loud*. My freshman year in high school I was explaining to a group of girls- who had no awareness of who Dominicans were and where the country was located, as well as explained the difference between nationality, race, and ethnicity. One of the girls that were the most vocal about her confusion about my race and culture then went on to speak about different beaches she’s vacationed in and expressed with joy how exciting it was to swim with the dolphins in Punta Cana *double facepalm*. I couldn’t help but look at her and tell her ” So you’ve never heard of the Dominican Republic but you swam with dolphins I their beaches?”

Truthfully though, that was a much better experience than the time a girl from another Latin American country – I will not say which one – said in a conversation we were having in a group ” I don’t know, I’ve never met a pretty Dominican. My stepfather is Dominican and his whole family is puro negro.” Puro negro translates to pure black. At that moment I couldn’t believe what I had just heard, she offended my people, to my face and little 13-year-old me was at lost for words. All I could say was “I’m Dominican” to which she replied “Oh, Really? But you don’t look it you’re very pretty.” Again, I was lost for words. It was then that I realized how racist Hispanics can be, what I once thought was impossible was acted out right before my eyes. There are days that moment pops into my memory and I wish I could have responded differently – faster.

As I grew into my teen years, however, more and more neighborhoods were becoming populated by Dominicans. Many Dominicans migrated from New York in the 2000’s, fleeing expensive rent. They wanted affordable housing, and with that migration came many bodegeros, corner store owners, who opened up stores in El Barrio as well. Another factor that contributed to the diaspora I Philadelphia was a by word of mouth and service. The first Dominicans all migrated from the same Providences in the Dominican Republic. Moncion and Cotui being the top Providences. A family would move to Philadelphia and tell their neighbors or family members back home – and the word spread. Today, you see many communities of Dominicans that know each other from back home for that same reason.

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The Golden Block today is a symbol of Latinx unity and the “home away from home” for Hispanics in this city. As Latinos grow in numbers, it will always be the welcoming spot for new residents to Philadelphia.