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These Philadelphia-area Latinos had significant achievements in 2020

In the Philly region, Latinos suffered many losses in 2020: their jobs, economic stability, and health and wellness. But there have been prominent milestones and firsts as well.

Gabriela Watson-Burkett, Kristal Sotomayor and Melissa Beatriz are the Latinx filmmakers behind ¡Presente! Media.
Gabriela Watson-Burkett, Kristal Sotomayor and Melissa Beatriz are the Latinx filmmakers behind ¡Presente! Media.Read moreCourtesy Burkett Photography

In 2020, we experienced the first pandemic in the last century. We saw a new social justice movement ignited. We heard loud calls for structural reform to achieve real equality.

In the Philadelphia region, Latinos, who make up 15 percent of the population, have suffered many losses: their jobs, economic stability, and their health and wellness.

But there have been prominent milestones and firsts as well.

After speaking with local community leaders and residents, The Inquirer created a list to highlight some significant accomplishments of 11 Latinos in 2020.

The list is by no means complete. But it acknowledges the talent, effort, and impact of public servants, religious leaders, community journalists, and others. Throughout 2021, The Inquirer will continue to report on the work of Latinos in the region.

Help us report on the communities’ achievements by recommending Latinos for their work in 2021. Fill out this online form or send a text message to the Latino Communities WhatsApp number: 267-908-1438.

Health care

Natalia Ortiz-Torrent, president of the Philadelphia County Medical Society

Natalia Ortiz-Torrent, 45, is a board-certified physician in psychiatry and neurology who in June became the first Hispanic woman elected by her peers to serve as president of the Philadelphia County Medical Society.

From Cayey, Puerto Rico, Ortiz began her career in the field of chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, and later received her medical degree at the island’s Ponce School of Medicine. She completed her residency training in psychiatry at Temple University Health System in Philadelphia.

She is a professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. Ortiz leads the psychosomatic medicine clinic and is chief of consultation and liaison psychiatry at Temple University Hospital. She is also the president of the Society Ibero Latin American Medical Professionals and runs a mentoring program for Latinos interested in medicine.

Philadelphia City Hall

Diana P. Cortes, Philadelphia’s acting City Solicitor

Diana P. Cortes, 39, is a lawyer, who in late January is to become the first Latina City Solicitor in Philadelphia.

A graduate of Villanova University’s School of Law and the daughter of Costa Rican parents, Cortes began her legal career as a clerk for Judge Juan Sánchez in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a lawyer at Morgan Lewis, and served as an assistant district attorney for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and as then as a lawyer representing municipalities and school districts for Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. In 2018, she became the chair of the litigation group in the city’s Law Department.

In November, Cortes was appointed as acting City Solicitor by Mayor Jim Kenney to succeed Marcel Pratt in overseeing the 330-employee operation. The native of Dover, Morris County, N.J., has been acting City Solicitor since Dec. 10, until her appointment is voted on by City Council.


Perla Lara, editor-in-chief at Impacto

Perla Lara, 48, is a Mexican journalist and the editor-in-chief for Impacto — a 17-year-old Philadelphia-based Spanish-language publication that was purchased by the nonprofit organization Esperanza in 2019.

Lara started as a broadcast journalist in Mexico in 1992. She built a career with Televisa as a news anchor for both radio and television. In 2007, she became Televisa’s news director.

After she received death threats and was asked to leave Mexico by a high-ranking government official, Lara left the country with her three children in 2011. She later worked as a freelancer for WHYY and produced her own show with Radio Latina in Allentown.

Since being hired for Impacto in January 2020, Lara has worked to improve the newspaper, which publishes every Thursday. She manages staff in the United States, Venezuela, Spain, and the Dominican Republic. She has brought on more than 20 local writers who volunteer their time, and added new coverage topics. She launched a home-delivery service of 13,000 newspapers to readers in Philadelphia and Camden.

Gabriela Watson-Burkett, Kristal Sotomayor, and Melissa Beatriz, founders of ¡Presente! Media

Gabriela Watson-Burkett, 36, Kristal Sotomayor, 25, and Melissa Beatriz, 32, are the Latinx filmmakers behind ¡Presente! Media — a journalism collective created in March to produce bilingual features and documentaries on social justice.

The community journalists of Brazilian, Peruvian, and Uruguayan descent have won multiple awards for their work and leadership covering racial and immigrant justice, education equity, arts and culture, and gender and LGBTQ rights. They have received awards from the Sundance Institute’s Press Inclusion Initiative, the International Documentary Association, the Lenfest Next Generation Fund, Leeway Foundation, the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival, and the BlackStar Film Festival.

With productions in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, the journalism collective has produced 13 articles, four videos, and a 30-minute documentary about the social inequities impacting Latino neighborhoods and communities of color, with financial support from the Independence Public Media Foundation’s Community Voices Fund, the Solidarity Fund for COVID-19 Organizing from the Bread & Roses Community Fund, and the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund.

In December, the media makers were selected by Doc Society and PhillyCAM for the Good Pitch Local Philadelphia 2020 grant-funding program — for high-impact storytelling focusing on community and social change.


Nelson Pérez, archbishop of the Philadelphia Archdiocese

In February, Nelson Pérez, 59, became the first Hispanic to lead the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Pérez was installed as Philadelphia’s archbishop on Feb. 18 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. He is the youngest Roman Catholic archbishop in the United States and one of the only three Hispanic archbishops in the country.

Born in Miami and raised in New Jersey, the son of Cuban parents was ordained a priest for Philadelphia on May 20, 1989. He served in local parishes for more than two decades in West Chester and Philadelphia’s Olney and Lawncrest neighborhoods before being named a monsignor by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and a prelate of honor by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in Long Island, N.Y., in 2012, and was installed as the 11th bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland on Sept. 5, 2017.

Yesenia Alejandro, priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania

Yesenia “Jessie” Alejandro, 49, is a religious leader, who became the first person to complete a nonconventional path to priesthood within the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. After seven years of local service and academic studies, Alejandro became the first Latina priest to rise within the state’s diocese and remain here to serve Hispanics and immigrant communities in Pennsylvania.

She had served as a pastor in a nondenominational church for 11 years and has spent 20 years leading the Mothers Mission ministry in Kensington. During her 10-month transition from deacon to priesthood, Alejandro was reassigned from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Chester County to St. John’s in Norristown, where she served a mostly Spanish-speaking congregation.

She helped communities in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and the surrounding counties with food distribution and door-to-door spiritual and emotional support during the pandemic. She created two ministries and led the creation of a support network for Guatemalans in the Philly area with relatives in Central America.

After she was ordained a priest on Oct. 10, Alejandro was appointed the Hispanic Missioner of South Philadelphia at the Church of the Crucifixion.

Community Service

Luis Cortés Jr., CEO and president of Esperanza

This year, the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., 63, became the first Hispanic to receive the Philadelphia Award, which celebrates those who have improved the lives of Philadelphia’s underserved.

The honor recognizes Cortés’ lifetime of work building Latino Philly: He is one of the founding members of the Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia and the founder of Esperanza in 1986 — an ecosystem of Latino-centered institutions based in Hunting Park.

At Esperanza, which serves 25,000 families each year, Cortés has led programs around community-revitalization efforts, immigration and legal services, financial literacy, education, and the arts.

Cortés is the author of five books, and delivered the invocation prayer at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration luncheon.

Franklin Medrano, president of the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce

Juan Francisco “Franklin” Medrano, 51, is the president and cofounder of the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce — a nonprofit that serves the community of small-business owners of the Latino communities in the Philadelphia area.

Medrano started as a local businessperson in 2004 when he owned the Family Grocery at the corner of 35th Street and Allegheny Avenue. He began building relationships with local business owners while also developing a career in broadcast media, just like he did in his native Dominican Republic.

Medrano, who is better known as Franklin, and cofounder Angie Millán, 43, were notified on March 20 that the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce had officially won state approval in Pennsylvania.

In the midst of the pandemic, Medrano has provided technical and language assistance to small-business owners in Philadelphia and South Jersey, helping businesses obtain $4 million in PPP loans.

Law Enforcement

Gabriel Rodríguez, Camden County Police Department

Capt. Gabriel Rodríguez, 38, is a police officer and East Camden native, who on Jan. 1 will become chief and the first Latino to lead the Camden County Police Department.

A graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and the son of Puerto Rican parents, Rodríguez has been in Camden law enforcement for 18 years, having joined the former Camden City Police Department in January 2003. He served in the Community Policing Unit, in specialized units such as K-9 and SWAT, and as a detective for the Violent Crimes Task Force and the Strategic Multi-Agency Shooting and Homicide Team.

As a sergeant for the Camden County Police Department, he served as a supervisor in multiple areas within the Operations Bureau, Community Safety Team, and in the Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center. Now a captain, Rodríguez will replace Camden County Police Chief Joseph D. Wysocki, who announced his retirement in October.