IT TOOK demonstrations, political pressure and perseverance for Latinos to break into the mainstream media in Philadelphia.

There were no Latinos either in front of or behind the TV cameras, despite the fact that Philadelphia had a large and thriving Hispanic population. Latino news rarely got reported, either on the air or in the local newspapers.

Juan Antonio "Tony" Leon Jr. and a few other activists set about to change that. In the late '60s they protested outside television stations, charging employment discrimination, and negotiated with station officials for jobs.

A few politicians, such as former City Councilman Angel Ortiz and his wife, Lydia Hernandez, helped put on the pressure.

"That small knock on their door opened the door for a few of us to be hired at WPVI," Tony wrote in a reminiscence last July.

He went on to become a highly regarded cameraman, documentarian, producer and editor - first for WPVI-TV, Channel 6, and later for KYW-TV, Channel 3 - as well as a dedicated activist in the Hispanic community.

He died Thursday after a long fight against cancer. He was 56 and lived in Fishtown.

During his career, Tony's editing contributed to the winning of two Emmys for two KYW-TV specials in 1984, and he won honors for his community activities.

He also became a music promoter, and as such presented salsa concerts here for a number of years.

Tony was born in Philadelphia to Guadalupe and Juan A. Leon Sr. He graduated from Northeast Catholic High School and went on to Temple University.

At Temple, he wrote, he got more than an academic education.

"It was at TU, during the Vietnam War, that we learned to protest and boycott," he wrote.

Tony dropped out of Temple to take a job at WPVI as a documentary-film cameraman for the public-affairs unit. After a year, he was transferred to television news.

As a news cameraman he covered all aspects of city life.

"From the regimens of business, education, military, religion, police and fire - you name it - from presidents to the queen of England, I was living a new aspect of it every day, and I was a very fast learner.

"I worked all aspects of the form, from audio to cameraman, capping it all off as an editor/video producer.

"I worked internally in TV news, continuing to open more doors for Latinos in mainstream media and making it a point to remind management that news in our communities was entitled to equal and fair coverage, a daunting task even to this day.

"Life was very, very good during those years."

"Tony was extremely passionate about journalism, especially about getting stories told in Philadelphia's Latino community, and about passing on his knowledge to up-and-coming Latino journalists," said Regina Medina, Daily News reporter and former board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

"Tony really felt it was important that Latinos were inside newsrooms to report the stories that impacted Hispanics in Philadelphia and around the country, and to make sure they were involved in making news decisions.

"Tony's voice and commitment to journalism will be irreplaceable."

"He was a happy man," said his niece Jenny Zayas. "He was intelligent, brilliant. There was no problem that he didn't have an answer for. He was just an all-around guy, full of life."

His community activities included serving on various boards, from the Centro Loyola Youth Club, which provides education and recreation programs for Latino youth, to the Open Borders Project and the Delaware Valley Voter Registration Project, which he co-founded.

"I've marched for housing, for jobs, and better education," he wrote. "The bottom line is that each experience helped to enrich my persona."

In 1963, Tony entered the world of music promoting. Along with Julio Olmo and a few others, they took over Sciolas Nightclub, near 5th and Pike streets, renamed it Exodus and promoted salsa concerts.

He and music promoter David Maldonado held "salsa extravaganza nights" at the Wagner Ballroom, at Broad Street and Girard Avenue, in the late '70s and early '80s.

Tony's career in journalism was cut short in 1994, when he was diagnosed with cancer.

However, he continued to be active. "Every now and then I still venture out to document activities in our barrio," he wrote in July. "I still like to photograph people . . ."

He also started studying classical piano and music theory.

"I love my family, great music, fast cars, good clothes, to dance, and the opportunity to have been born Puerto Rican," he wrote. "And I wouldn't have it any other way, never!"

He is survived by his wife of 33 years, Migdalia "Dolly" Leon, and two sons, Juan Antonio III and Nicholas Leon.

Services: Funeral Mass 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Peter/St. John Neumann Shrine, 1019 N. 5th St. Friends may call 9 a.m. at the Kociubinsky Funeral Home, 305 E. Girard Ave. Burial will be in Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem.