How Luis Cortés Is Quietly Building a New Notre Dame in the Heart of North Philly

Luis Cortés has spent the past 30 years breakfasting with American presidents, helping Latinos, and building a nonprofit empire in Hunting Park. So why haven’t you heard of him?

Photograph by Adam Jones

Photograph by Adam Jones

When the governor called the Reverend Luis Cortés Jr. in the summer of 2000, the conversation was quick. “Reverend Cortés,” said Governor Tom Ridge. “I have a friend I’d like you to meet.”

“Okay,” said Cortés. “When?”

Cortés didn’t inquire about the identity of this “friend” because the governor had already proven to be an ally to Cortés and his organization, Esperanza. The very chair in which Cortés sat reflected the relationship. The leather swivel-back chair sat in the corner office of a building — 240,000 square feet of lovely industrial bones in which Esperanza was founding a college and a charter school — that had been paid for with a grant administered by Ridge. A few days passed before Cortés learned just whom he’d be meeting: Texas governor George W. Bush, the Republican nominee for president.

Bush had requested that the occasion be informal. Cortés and his staff were to tell no one of his visit. But of course, there were signs. The night before Bush arrived, the Secret Service left snipers on the massive building’s roof. There were also bomb-sniffing dogs. And when the future president arrived, he did so in a caravan of black Suburban SUVs with tinted windows.

Bush met with Cortés, Ridge, and around two dozen Hispanic clergy. They discussed issues such as the need for immigration reform and better educational results for kids in neighborhoods just like the one where Cortés was headquartered, deep in North Philadelphia, at the corner of 5th and Bristol streets. Cortés noted that Bush didn’t say much but appeared to listen, intently. He stayed longer than Cortés expected — more than two hours. Then he was gone.

The candidate, the Pennsylvania governor, and the many people — maybe two dozen — providing support and security rolled out in that fleet of black SUVs. Then Cortés’s phone started ringing.

He’d kept his promise to tell no one of Bush’s visit, so Cortés’s callers all pursued the same line of questioning. “Reverend Cortés,” they asked, “are you all right? Was there a drug bust in your building?”

Within an hour, Cortés was asking Ridge’s office to issue a press release about Bush’s visit. The sight of all those SUVs, of snipers on rooftops, had signified something unsavory — a big federal drug bust.

Drugs. Is that how the Rev bought that big building?

The incident captures the dramatic curve of Luis Cortés’s career: In the early ’80s, he conducted grassroots development in the Latino community. He built a five-unit apartment building for senior citizens. He constructed a laundromat and started a mortgage counseling service. By 2014, he operated schools and workforce-training programs, administered charitable grants all over the nation, and represented a network of thousands of Latino churches. He’d become a regular at White House Christmas parties, and that year he led a delegation of clergy to Guatemala on behalf of President Barack Obama. But in spite of his notable successes — and those of Esperanza — the problems afflicting his community persist.

As a demographic group, both locally and nationally, Latinos still struggle economically and in educational achievement. Racism persists, too. The Republicans — only eight years ago, still Bush’s party — have just won a presidential election with a radically different kind of standard-bearer: one who was embraced by white nationalists, who vowed to deport millions and build a wall between Mexico and America, who kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “drug dealers,” “rapists” and “criminals.”

America is under a new authoritarian and anti-immigrant leadership. Just what can Luis Cortés do about that? Well, in this instance, the past might actually foretell the future — at least, the distant future. Cortés’s history seems to dovetail with the history of this city and country and suggest just where a tale that leads from Spanish Harlem to North Philly and all the way to D.C.’s halls of power will eventually wind up.

FOR DECADES NOW, the Hunting Park neighborhood has been considered a no-go zone by many city residents — plagued by crime, drugs and poverty. The architecture speaks of faded promises and lost hope. Block after block of three-story manses loom, now carved into rowhomes and apartments for less-monied tenants. Abandoned factories stand empty — remnants of the long-gone manufacturing base.

According to 2010 census data, most people here rent homes that hold little value, selling for between $40,000 and $50,000. But in very recent years, a shift began. Color, life and commerce are returning, a slow rebirth that’s due in part to Esperanza.

Broadly speaking, the mission of Cortés’s sprawling, multifaceted organization is to strengthen Hispanic communities through education, economic development and advocacy. In sharper focus, Esperanza’s chief function is education.

Nationally, Esperanza — “hope” in Spanish — is a network representing more than 10,000 Hispanic individuals and faith- and community-based organizations centered on issues ranging from education to immigration reform. Cortés, a Baptist minister, has administered $13 million in grant money to Latino enterprises across the nation, $10 million of which came from federal grants during the Bush years. Locally, Esperanza offers a vast range of enterprises. Inside that sprawling building, Cortés and his brother Danny, also a minister and his chief of staff, preside over a nonprofit empire: Esperanza Academy is a charter middle and high school with graduation rates that far outstrip schools across the city and state. Esperanza also runs a cyber charter school for kindergarten through fifth grade, work-training programs, and mortgage counseling. Esperanza has a Christian college, too, offering courses in accounting, criminal justice, business and seven other majors.

In addition, Esperanza is a community development corporation, with ventures in real estate and planning and a grant-making arm that has dispensed funds to businesses along the 5th Street corridor — the city’s booming “Latin Quarter.” Tierra Colombiana, a Latin restaurant, has become a must-visit for city foodies. New businesses include a spice shop to open in December run by Diana Sabater, a former Philly cop who won the Food Network’s Chopped competition thrice. SEPTA has even rerouted its bus routes here, to provide more service to a neighborhood on the rise.

Luis Cortés with president Barack Obama, president Bill Clinton, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, president George W. Bush and Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

Luis Cortés with president Barack Obama, president Bill Clinton, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, president George W. Bush and Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

In the midst of such transformation, there’s a lot of credit to go around. But it’s Esperanza that has provided the community with money and something more: a new soul, a new face.

“I think I would have put my business here on 5th Street regardless,” says Sabri Ibrahim, who recently established a new Pharmacy of America two blocks from Esperanza’s campus, in the area in which he was raised. “But I made this my corporate headquarters for my seven stores, and the place where I come to work every day, because of Esperanza.”

Sabater grew up in this neighborhood, then served it as a Philly beat cop. “I swore I’d never come back,” she says. Now she lives right here in Hunting Park. She remembers what it looked like 10 years ago, when she was on the force — the streets swarming with people up to all manner of bad behavior. “But now I can look down 5th Street at 10 p.m. and it’s quiet,” she says. “And it feels like home. Esperanza deserves a lot of credit for helping to make that happen.”

The organization is far from finished. Cortés is in the midst of a $6 million capital campaign to fund a performing-arts media and technology center, a digital-media production facility and a conference center. He’s also keen on continuing to develop the neighborhood. But just who is Luis Cortés?

To this point, Cortés has appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times and papers around the country; testified before the Senate on immigration reform; and been featured as a panelist on CBS and Fox. But the focus has remained so singularly on the issues he fights for that the wider public doesn’t really know him.

“He has achieved a lot without pursuing any kind of celebrity,” says former governor Ed Rendell, “and I think it’s because he is just not interested.”

“He doesn’t give endorsements,” says Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, “but as a politician, he can put you in a room with people, and there is a value, for politicians, in just being seen with him.”

For all his involvement in civic life, Cortés seems to transcend the normal cycles of the electoral process. He doesn’t have much to say about his face time with presidents Bush or Obama, passing right over anecdotes to address the details of what they’ve done. Locally, former City Councilman Bill Green acknowledges him as a “must visit” for politicians but says, “I can’t really say I know him.” And Larry Ceisler, one of the most well-connected political operatives in the city, isn’t even sure who he is: “I’ve heard of him, but what does he do? … Honestly, I wouldn’t know him if he stepped on me.”

This sense of Cortés somehow tucking himself away inside the pages of the New York Times is crucial to his story — a key to his background and philosophy, and the plight of his people.

TODAY, AT 59, Luis Cortés has the air of a man still enjoying the meat of life. But his hair is graying, and the many pictures in his office that show him alongside presidents dating back to Jimmy Carter give some sense of how far he’s come.

His family, when he was growing up in Spanish Harlem, spent some time on public assistance. The experience, he says, helps him understand the pain many in his community feel. But his dad ultimately found steady employment in the grocery business, and Luis and Danny were around 10 when Luis Sr. came home one day on a mission.

By this point, their dad had worked as a manager in another man’s grocery store for several years. “This man had promised him that he would flip him the store,” remembers Danny, “like a profit-share equivalent, but years were passing, and it was clearly not going to happen.”

Luis Sr. had already been saving his money to acquire that store. But to open his own from scratch, he called upon every resource in the family. “He came into my bedroom,” says Danny, “and he took my piggy bank.” Their father didn’t go to church — he worked seven days a week — but Luis and Danny attended with their mother. They saw their dad mostly while helping out in the family shop. For a time, Luis Jr. made a habit of eating Snickers bars right out of the box, sometimes two or three at a clip. Each time, his father would eye him and heave a deep sigh, till one day Luis Jr. finally snapped, “What?”

His father led him through the math: the cost of a box of candy bars, the price customers paid for them, and just what his son’s grifting did to his bottom line. “You ate my profit,” his father told him. “There is no more profit in that box.”

The lessons — from father, ownership; from mother, faith — stuck and intertwined in powerful ways as both Luis and Danny earned divinity degrees. Luis studied at Union Theological Seminary, one of the most esteemed, cutting-edge seminaries in the nation. There, Luis rode the crest of a wave that was rolling out of Latin American churches: liberation theology.

For many centuries, Christians had been taught their reward would come in heaven. Liberation theology posited that a loving God would want His creations to prosper now. “This was really radical stuff at the time,” says Cortés, “and it was catching on.”

Cortés excelled academically at Union, and his professors introduced him to some of the finest thinkers in the world — people like Gustavo Gutiérrez, a leader in liberation theology. The instructors Cortés most respected taught him the power of staying out of the cycles of electoral politics. By focusing on his work and issues, by avoiding endorsements, he could grow his influence without suffering the ups and downs of politics. “It is very simple,” says Cortés. “The institution we are building remains. Politicians are temporary.”

When Cortés graduated in 1981, the Reverend Orlando Costas, a mentor he’d met at Union, hired him to organize Latino churches in North Philadelphia. The Latino population has risen dramatically here in recent years. According to data compiled from the U.S. Census and the Pew Charitable Trust, the Hispanic population (the Census doesn’t classify people of Brazilian or Portuguese descent as Hispanic) spiked from 8.5 percent of the city’s population in 2000 to 14 percent in 2015. In fact, the city’s population growth of 50,000 during that period was driven entirely by an influx of 90,000 Latinos.

But in 1982, the Hispanic population (anyone of Latin American ancestry) was about four percent. Cortés convened meetings at various ministers’ homes, where those assembled ate from deep pots of asopao, a soup of chicken, ham and rice, and began the discussions that would ultimately lead to Esperanza. The organization, dubbed the Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia, met with police and elected officials on issues related to the community and tried to figure out how to help Latino families succeed.

Members also engaged in deep philosophizing, asking questions like, What does it mean to pastor at 5th and York? What efforts would a God who wanted security and contentment for all people expect of them? “If you take it as a given that we are children of God,” says Cortés, recalling those early discussions “and therefore equally worthy of respect and opportunity, where does that lead?” Most dramatically, it led to action in the streets. The Hispanic Clergy gathered at night to sing hymns outside known drug houses, shutting down their operations temporarily. One of their number was pistol-whipped.

As Cortés’s loose network formalized, it needed nonprofit status and someone to run the organization full-time. “I didn’t particularly want to be in charge of something like this,” says Cortés.

He was married, with two children. Would this enterprise last, and if not, what would he do? But he took it on, and growth came slow but steady. A laundromat at 2nd and Huntingdon was a big step. There, the group, first dubbed Nueva Esperanza, had a chance to test its philosophy. Washer and dryer cycles are usually set at odd intervals, for instance, to keep customers in the store longer and yield more vending sales. God, Cortés thought, would not run a laundromat that way, so the appliance cycles and prices were set to get customers in and out as quickly and economically as possible. The operation still yielded revenue. Cortés was able to move Esperanza, to the floor above the laundromat, and plow additional profits into more ambitious projects.

In 1997, Esperanza built 12 units of affordable housing, providing homes — and assets — for that many impoverished families. And it moved again, to its current location, initially renting 10,000 square feet of office space in the former envelope factory. In 1998, Cortés learned that since the building was about to be sold, he’d have to move his operation. The price was $2.7 million.

This was a ridiculous number for Esperanza, a nonprofit with total revenues of $1.9 million. But Cortés was determined to buy the building. The deal that was in place was strictly verbal, so Cortés negotiated for a few weeks in which to orchestrate a miracle.

THE CHALLENGE, and opportunity, of buying the building came at a fortuitous time. Cortés had become convinced that public schools were failing Latino children.

The school superintendent at the time, David Hornbeck, was himself a graduate of Union Theological Seminary. At Esperanza’s request, Hornbeck supplied statistics that Cortés and his fellow clergy had suspected but never seen. “When we saw the dropout rates,” Cortés recalls, “it was upsetting. We did not know it was this bad.”

The Latino dropout rate in high school, he says, was 30 percent — a horrifying figure, as he knew what it meant for those kids and their families: lower employment rates and wages, higher incarceration and addiction rates. But then Hornbeck revealed the middle-school dropout rate: 15 percent.

That some kids washed out of the system by the age of 13 hadn’t occurred to Cortés. He and Esperanza’s board began strategizing, and landed on the idea of building a college. “We knew the statistics,” Cortés says. “If people could be raised to a certain degree of literacy, they could find jobs, and we’d never see them in any of our programs again.”

The huge building he might, however improbably, buy could give him the basic infrastructure he needed. He started making phone calls, and a group of prominent Latino attorneys arranged a meeting with then-governor Tom Ridge.

Cortés says he met with Ridge and perhaps a dozen attorneys, each of whom shared a friendly exchange with the governor. When it was Cortés’s turn, however, his nerves got the best of him. “Governor,” he blurted, “I need three million dollars.”

Ridge burst out laughing. “Well, Reverend,” he responded, “I appreciate your directness, but do you mind telling me why?”

As introductions go, it was a clumsy one. But Ridge remembers the moment fondly. And right there at the table, he provided some wise counsel, telling Cortés that a college for Latinos sounded like a good idea, but so did a charter school — for the kids so underserved by Philly public schools. The governor offered him a $3 million grant through a preexisting program. Under the grant terms, however, Cortés could only get the $3 million if he raised another $3 million to match it. In a circuitous deal, Cortés leveraged a bank loan off the promised grant, bought the building, and used it as collateral.

“Frankly, Reverend,” Ridge told him when the deal went through, “I didn’t expect you to get the money. But you did, and I’m a man of my word.”

Cortés suddenly had a huge real estate asset, part of which he could immediately use for schools and the rest of which he could rent out, to generate revenue toward growth for his organization and paying off this new loan. Looking back, says Cortés, the acquisition seems to have been born directly from the conversations he and the Hispanic Clergy had asked themselves years earlier: What would it mean to take on the idea that they are the hands and feet of God, here to bring about equality on Earth? “We asked ourselves,” he says, “what would that look like? What kind of place would that be?’”

Then he gently lifts his hands, palms up, and looks around, as if taking in his office and all that lies beyond — the many rooms and efforts of Esperanza.

ONE DAY ABOUT five years ago, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, the dean of Esperanza College, was startled by the wracked sobs of someone out in the hall. She found a male student there, covering his face in embarrassment as he cried.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

The young man pointed, emphatically, toward the men’s room. “That is the cleanest bathroom,” he said, “that I ever saw.”

Conde-Frazier quickly understood what must be happening. “You are created in the image of God,” she told the young man. “And that means we gotta treat you right.”

At this, the young man cried even harder.

While this story may sound so strange as to be nearly unbelievable, it’s understandable in the fuller context of Esperanza’s aims.

“That building has been very good for the neighborhood,” says Miguel Garcia, who runs a nearby rummage store. “New life.”

Garcia knows from experience. One of his daughters attended work-training classes there and then got a certificate to run her own day-care service. Another daughter sends his grandson to the high school. “He is very happy there,” Garcia says. “I don’t think he was so happy before. It is a good place.”

Some of the success is attributable to infrastructure. The work-training center and the schools gleam, a quality not normally found in city schools or government agencies. “This is all very much by design,” says State Senator Art Haywood, who worked as Esperanza’s legal counsel for 26 years. “When people walk in the door, they have entered a different environment — a place where excellence is provided and expected.”

And excellence is being achieved. Workforce training stats cite Esperanza as one of the most successful training centers in the state. Further, in a city where the most recent four-year high-school graduation rate among Latinos is a tragic 54 percent, Esperanza Academy is graduating 93 percent of its kids on time, with 68 percent going on to college. The academy’s dropout rate is less than one percent. Four years running, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Esperanza Academy as one of the top high schools in the nation, and as high as in the top 10 percent.

Jim Ford, an educational consultant who worked with the Cortés brothers when they first started planning the charter school, says he was back in Philly several years ago, walking through the halls of Esperanza Academy, when he saw a male student start yelling during a class change. A small group of Esperanza students took immediate action. Swarming over to this kid, who was evidently new, they said, “Hey, we don’t do that here. If you want to act like this, you should leave and go someplace else.’”

In this sense, says Ford, the kid Conde-Frazier encountered wasn’t crying so much because the bathroom was clean, but because he was in an entirely new environment — a building where the depression associated with poverty and violence is replaced by people setting goals and reaching them. Latino kids often don’t have an optimistic view of themselves or their prospects, says Conde-Frazier, and attaining a new vision of themselves — as capable people with meaningful prospects — can trigger deep emotions.

There are occasional complaints about Esperanza. One critic who wanted to remain anonymous questioned Cortés’s salary, which is about $250,000 now, plus benefits. That salary, however, has grown with the organization’s budget. (In the late ’90s, when Esperanza had just 25 employees, he earned less than $100,000.)

And plans for a K-5 grade school went unapproved by the School Reform Commission for several years, but that operation is now slated for the 2017-’18 school year. The middle school’s test scores have improved with the years but generally aren’t as outstanding as the graduation or college-graduation rates. (Cortés and David Rossi, SVP and CEO of Esperanza Charter Schools, say these scores should improve once they have students from kindergarten forward, and that some of the gap comes back to cultural issues around standardized testing.)

Overall, the school can only be counted as a success — and another example of Esperanza’s guiding philosophy. Ford remembers trying to talk the Cortéses into emphasizing early childhood education and starting with a K-1 grade school, then adding a grade each year. Kids who have been badly educated and exposed to violence and poverty earn the label “at risk,” and most programs these days start with the premise that those who hit age 12 without intervention are already lost. But the brothers couldn’t believe God would consider any 12-year-olds beyond redemption. So, mindful of those disturbing high-school dropout rates, they started with a high school and worked their way down.

This decision likely reflects what Cortés calls the “secret sauce” — the reason his school, and its student body, which is comprised entirely of minorities, does so much better than most schools elsewhere in Philadelphia or around the nation. As a charter, it’s free to be bold. Its success hinges on an intimate knowledge of the population it serves and a fervor to try out ideas, to shift resources and policies in ways too dramatic for any large school district to match.

About five years ago, amid concerns about the implementation of an after-school tutoring program, Cortés sought and got approval from his board to take a big step. Rather than keep certain students after school on a regular basis, the school day was extended by an extra period. For everybody.

Problem solved.

“I was part of that decision, or at least included in the discussion,” says Ford. “They did it because they thought it would be good for everyone to be there longer, learning and keeping kids in that productive environment.” (Similarly, the college’s semesters last 20 weeks instead of 14, to allow professors to bring up to speed students who may have been undereducated in public schools.)

The question arises, again: Given all that Esperanza and Cortés have accomplished, why aren’t they better known? Part of it is Cortés’s relentless focus on ideas and causes. But at least some of the explanation is likely racial: “We’re still invisible,” he says.

Latinos, Cortés notes, are the largest non-white demographic in the U.S., at 16 percent — higher than African-Americans. Yet TV, movies and music coming out of Latin culture remain largely marginalized. Actor John Leguizamo penned an op-ed last October for the New York Times, “Too Bad You’re Latin,” in which he recounted white colleagues telling him he’d be a much bigger star if his heritage was different. One producer, he wrote, told him flatly: No one wants “to see Latin people.”

In the past five years or so, Cortés has been looking to make a slightly broader push. “We’ve accumulated 10 to 15 years of data,” he says. “And now I feel comfortable approaching national foundations and saying, ‘Come in and look at what we’ve done. Is this a model?’ I believe it is, and that we can take our organization elsewhere and do this all over the country.”

TO UNDERSTAND CORTÉS’S master plan, he suggests we look at the experience of other American ethnic groups — from Jews, African-Americans and Italians to the Irish. This part of our history seems largely forgotten, but Irish immigrants in the 1800s were subjected to extraordinary discrimination. Periodicals regularly published cartoons depicting them as subhuman.

Notre Dame University was founded by a 28-year-old Catholic priest in 1842 in that environment, at a time when the Irish had few opportunities. This is Cortés’s model. “I want to build a new Notre Dame,” he says. “I am building a new Notre Dame.”

The comparison isn’t exact. But the idea is the same. “Notre Dame provides a bridge for people to be educated and qualified to gain employment,” Cortés says, alongside those who once rejected them. Seen this way, each of Esperanza’s services provides a bridge for Latinos to move into what Cortés calls “the mainstream of America.”

There is deep irony in any sense of Latino “otherness.” The Spanish were here ahead of English speakers, founding St. Augustine before the Brits settled Jamestown. Hispanic soldiers fought for America’s independence. At least 10,000 Mexican-Americans fought in the Civil War. More than 250,000 Latino-Americans served in World War II. Despite this, Cortés acknowledges the hurdles Latinos still face. They are considered brown in a society where the power structure is white. And for immigrants, English is a second language, heightening a sense of foreignness. But these issues, too, he says, will wash away. Italian immigrants came here speaking another language and, in time, achieved acceptance and economic success.

Cortés recently added another prestigious platform to his cause. Early last year, he landed a spot on a new Urban Institute initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The VS Partnership on Mobility From Poverty will seek out people and organizations with records of success and try to determine if their programs are replicable. Cortés is cast here not only as an expert, but perhaps as one of these case studies. “Nothing has been determined on that,” says program chair David Ellwood, a political economics professor at Harvard and former dean of its School of Government. “But I toured Esperanza, and I was very impressed with what I saw, and they are certainly deserving of this kind of analysis.”

Cortés is optimistic — both about how Esperanza will hold up as a model, and about the future of Latinos in this country. He adopts a phrase from Star Trek, employed by the Borg, a race of cyborgs bent on taking over the universe: “Resistance,” he says, “is futile. We’ve got the numbers.”

The Pew Research Center’s report on demographic trends projects Hispanics to comprise roughly a quarter of the U.S. population just two generations from now. That explains why in the run-up to the latest presidential election, Cortés was less ruffled than many by the candidacy of Donald Trump. The ugliness Trump revealed wasn’t surprising to him. “This is nothing new,” he says, referring to the lack of support immigration reform has gotten from Republicans dating back to the Bush administration. “And in the fullness of history, this will be a blip.”

The morning after the election, he issued a different kind of statement:

Now that the election has passed, I hope we can enter into a time of introspective reflection. Divisions exist within our country, and that is normal within a democracy. As a nation, we need to focus on civility, mutual respect, and the space to dissent without violence or punishment. We can uphold the values of respect, integrity, and difference of opinion in a democracy. I pray that our next leader will embrace our country’s diversity and use this new beginning as an opportunity to rebuild our civic virtue.

The forward-looking, even conciliatory tone suggested the hand he has to play — the long view, the kind of wide lens deployed by theologians and philosophers.

Cortés wants progress to happen as fast as possible. But victory, he says — ultimate victory — is already assured by the math. “We have no choice,” he says. “If we continue to resist helping Latinos, we will have such a strain on government and social services that we will not be able to withstand it. That’s what we are trying to do — to get Latinos who are in poverty to a place of self-sufficiency. So the question is one of time: Will we respond now, and mainstream the Latino population through education and job training, or will we wait — and prolong this pain?”

In this long riff, Cortés makes a neat — and seamless — transition, using the word “we” to refer to Latinos, who are growing in numbers; to Esperanza, which is helping that population transition from poverty; and to America, which continues to struggle with issues of racism and how to incorporate this fast-growing population.

Tellingly, Cortés places no particular emphasis on that word “we” in any of its iterations — a signal of the degree to which all our fates are intertwined.

His brother Danny further deepens this idea of a unity underneath all the politics, even the racism, by typifying Esperanza as a Latino organization that isn’t particularly Latino at all. “We do not want people to look at Esperanza and see ‘Latinos,’” he says. “I want people — white, black, Irish, whoever — to look at Esperanza and see themselves.”

It’s a sentiment with which Luis wholeheartedly agrees. “When you look at what Esperanza does,” he says, “we help people get a job, buy a house, educate their children. This is what we all want. All people are united in this.”

The upshot is, we never really needed to “meet” the Reverend Luis Cortés Jr. at all. We already have. In the great sweep of American history, he has always been clearly visible, under different names, in the various ethnicities that have immigrated here over the centuries. In these terms, he and the people he represents are, simply, us.

Published as “The Invisible Man” in the December 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.