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Esperanza founder to be the first Hispanic to receive the Philadelphia Award

For Cortés, the fourth clergy person to win the award that celebrates those who have improved the lives of Philadelphia’s underserved, the honor follows a lifetime of helping Latinos.

The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., 62, is the founder, CEO and president for Esperanza.
The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., 62, is the founder, CEO and president for Esperanza.Read moreCourtesy Esperanza Arts Center

The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr. is often described as a person who lives in the future.

His ability to identify the struggles of Latino communities and envision long-term solutions has made him an “opportunity capitalist,” said the Rev. Danny Cortés, also a pastor, of his brother’s decades of work.

“Luis is constantly asking: ‘How do we continue to advance the mission?’ " Cortés said.

Luis Cortés Jr., one of the founding members of the Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia, is the founder of Philly’s Esperanza — an ecosystem of Latino-centered institutions based in Hunting Park, created to strengthen disadvantaged Latino communities.

This year, the author of five books, one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in 2005, and the person who delivered the invocation prayer at Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration luncheon, will become the first Hispanic to win the Philadelphia Award.

Together with Amy Goldberg, surgeon-in-chief at Temple University’s Health System, and Nicole Kligerman, founder and director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, Cortés, 62, will receive $10,000 at a virtual ceremony Wednesday.

For Cortés, the fourth clergy person to win the award that was created in 1921 and celebrates those who have improved the lives of Philadelphia’s underserved, the honor follows a lifetime of building up Latino communities.

In 1986, Cortés founded Esperanza with a mission to serve “the least of these” (from the biblical passage Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”).

Now, with 500 employees and a $43 million annual operating budget, the organization serves 25,000 families each year with programs that offer community revitalization efforts, immigration and legal services, financial literacy education, as well as other initiatives.

From Florida, where he’s recovering from COVID-19 on a three-month sabbatical, Cortés spoke to The Inquirer about the continuing goals of Esperanza, his favorite transformative moments, and how he’s planning for an organization without him.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Congratulations, Rev. Cortés. How do you feel about this recognition?

It’s great to be recognized. On July 1, it will be the 35th anniversary of Esperanza’s foundation, and that means that I’m celebrating. You work hard. You know, you do what you gotta do, and then, all of the sudden, you get old enough and you win awards.

Do you think it took too long for a Latino to receive this award, for you to be distinguished?

A social critique, right? But, some people do a lot more and they never get recognized. So, it’s good to be recognized.

Why build such an emporium of institutions?

Well, when I came to Philadelphia, [the church] learned early that the more we helped the person through the church’s services, they left Philly. They would go on and find jobs elsewhere. So, it was like the more we helped, the farther they moved away. So, we figured that we needed to have a different strategy, because if you invest so much in them and they leave, the community is at a loss.

But, you can’t tell people to stay, right? Because the whole idea is to improve people’s lives, so they could do what they want to do. And so, the strategy had to be to build Latino-owned and -operated institutions that would eventually become the leading organization within that sector, in the community. If you built the Latino institution, it doesn’t matter how many people leave, because the institution stays. So, now you can help them find a job, help the kids do better at school, help them buy a house, ... help people leave and not feel bad about it.

Esperanza means ‘hope’ in Spanish. Is that the end goal of the nonprofit, or is there more to that?

This is about inspiring the possibility. Each one of these institutions we built can build on, what I like to call, a transformative moment. That moment when one thinks: ‘Anja, yo puedo [I can],’ is the most important thing we could do for anybody! “Oh, I could buy a house” is the most powerful thing in a person’s life.

Latinos kept waiting to inherit something from someone else, you know, and it doesn’t work that way. You have to build your own institutions, you acquire education and economic stability, you create your our own narrative and interpret yourself — not allow a narrative or interpretations by the external.

So, let’s get this straight: We are not poor. We have two cultures we could live in, two languages that are primary, we have two perspectives in life that are different, so we are not poor. We are rich. Because, in my perspective, we sometimes use poverty as an excuse. The [economic] disadvantage is real, but it’s not an excuse for not competing.

Which are those moments when you feel the proudest about your work?

The one that I most enjoy, personally, are the graduations. Traditionally, we did our graduations at Penn with 1,000 Latinos, outside of our neighborhood, celebrating the lives of 140 to 160 students that were taking the next step into college. Here is when you can see your work. Another case is when the kids in the hood come to our facilities to watch the stars on telescopes worth millions of dollars, brought to us with a partnership with the Franklin Institute. Nothing can compare to hear them dream that they could be scientists or the first Latino on the moon. But, you know what I’m also proud of? The performances that take place at the Teatro. To see our dancing troupes perform with the Pennsylvania Ballet, the best of the world, and to have the people of my community and people from downtown listen to the orchestra at our Teatro, interacting with them and asking questions. Those are transformative experiences.

What can you share about the future projects Esperanza is currently working on?

Well, we are building an affordable-housing land trust so that we can purchase as many homes in El Barrio, to keep them affordable. We have to figure out how to make the Teatro work after COVID-19. We are still building up the newspaper. We hope to have Esperanza radio programming in Spanish and English radio stations, to communicate to our folks. And we need to keep building on the synergy among all institutions. We are not successful, yet, but we are on the way.

What should we expect from you as soon as you come back from your sabbatical?

One of the reasons why I’m on the sabbatical is that I need to work on what our change of leadership will look like. After 35 years, this is the last part of my work as the founder of Esperanza, to have a conversation that answers questions like: ‘What does the future look like for Esperanza? What does Esperanza need to get involved in? How do we motivate 25,000 families outside of the things that we normally do, and for what?’

We are in a tough time in this country. Now that we’ve seen [Black Lives Matter], what does the Latino community do? Do we join them? Do we have a Hispanic response in solidarity? That’s what I’m thinking about.

I’m not living forever and I shouldn’t be the head forever. So, I’ve started to look at this, to determine if it will be a five-, seven- or nine-year process, and to answer those big questions that I’m trying to figure out.