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First Latino Pope brings hope to Spanish Harlem

Pope Francis's historic trip to the United States whips into East Harlem, a community built by proud immigrants but beleaguered by poverty and need.

Nancy Rivera will try to get a glimpse from the window of her 13th floor apartment in East Harlem. Margarita Ortiz will be watching on television from about 10 miles away, from a prime spot on her living room couch in Queens. Dozens of Catholic school students will get up close and personal. 

“I’m going to have a birds-eye view,” said Rivera, pointing up to her apartment that sits high above the Our Lady Queen of Angels school in East Harlem, where the pope will greet well-wishers and meet with a hand-picked group of Catholic students from across the city on Friday.

“This is like the Puerto Rican Day parade but bigger,” Rivera said earlier this week as men in suits commiserated with clip boards and construction workers lugged barricades in preparation for the pope’s visit. “It’s a big deal. Everyone loves this pope. He’s like, a people’s pope.”

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Indeed, Pope Francis, described by some as “The People’s Pontiff,” has drawn the adoration of countless Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his humility, relatively progressive ideals and his outreach time and again to the world’s poor and most vulnerable.

On Friday, Pope Francis’s whirlwind tour of the United States comes to East Harlem, a storied neighborhood in upper Manhattan once known widely as Spanish Harlem. When the pope travels uptown to East Harlem, he’ll find a sea of open arms and hearts, throngs of the faithful squeezed behind barricades and poking their heads from windows all with the hopes of getting a glimpse of His Holiness.

"He is an incredible example of how we should all lead."'

As the Holy See’s first Latino pope he’ll find a culture and community in East Harlem largely built on the vibrancy of generations of Hispanic immigrants. About 55% of the population of East Harlem is Hispanic and 21% of its residents are foreign born. But he’ll also find a population that has weathered as much economic and social malady as any other in the city.

Today, the neighborhood is perhaps as troubled as it is historic, with deep pockets of poverty, violence and unemployment.

According to the census 46.8% of residents living in ZIP code 10029 where Our Lady Queen of Angels is located live below the poverty line. An estimated 30% of children in the neighborhood suffer from asthma, with a rate of asthma hospitalization for children under 4 at 152.6 per 10,000, twice the city rate for children the same age. Health issues are exacerbated by deteriorating housing and poor air quality.

One long stretch of the neighborhood has been described by the epithet “Convict Alley,” a seven-block stretch along Lexington Avenue that in recent years has been home to the highest concentration of formerly incarcerated people in the city. A striking 1 in 20 men in East Harlem have been convicted of a felony.

Pope Francis has been an ardent defender of prisoner’s rights and has spoken out against the death penalty, the evils of human trafficking and environmental concerns. He’s also been vocal about offering compassion to immigrants.

"The shooting. The drugs. They just killed a guy around here the other day. I hope he blesses this community, blesses us all."'

The pope’s visit this week, his first to the U.S., included a ceremony at the White House and a meeting with President Obama as well as midday prayer with a gathering of Bishops at St. Mathew’s Cathedral in Washington. On Thursday Pope Francis delivered remarks at a joint meeting of Congress, in which he called for Congress to make a “courageous and responsible effort” to “avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”

Pope Francis added that now is the time to foster a “culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

“The words ‘I too could be here’ are rarely heard in American society when referring to prison. In his visit to the United States, Pope Francis boldly calls all persons to join him in humbly reflecting on this reality,” said Julio Medina, executive director of Exodus Transitional Community, an East-Harlem based group that aides formerly incarcerated people. “For the Pontiff, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation stand as foundational pillars for effective criminal justice reform … He is an incredible example of how we should all lead.”

RELATED: Pope Francis calls on Congress to bring 'hope and healing' to the world

Earlier this week, Margarita Ortiz sat on a bench in the courtyard of a housing project that sits next to the Our Lady Queen of Angels school and the shuttered church parish by the same name, which once fed the school with nuns and young student parishioners. The closing of the parish, amid a reorganization and consolidation of the dioceses amid shrinking numbers, sparked protests. Today, former parishioners hold services in the street in front of the old church.

Ortiz, who lives in Queens but spends most days shuttling between there and East Harlem to visit her daughter and her five grandchildren, said she hopes the pope’s visit will bring a bit of sunshine to a community often dimmed by the clouds of misfortune and violence.

“It’s like a blessing, especially for this neighborhood,” said Ortiz, who has three grandchildren who attend Our Lady Queen of Angels. “The shooting. The drugs. They just killed a guy around here the other day. I hope he blesses this community, blesses us all.”

Beyond any hopes for papal blessings and healing, there’s a giddiness and true sense of wonder, even disbelief that the pope is actually going to visit this neighborhood and this particular school.

"I'm just hoping I can see him, just a little bit," said Mari Quinez, who has two children at Queen of Angels, a first and a fifth grader, who were playing in a park next to the school on a recent afternoon. "We live just two blocks from here. We just need his blessings. They keep raising the rents and pushing us out. We need him. We are so proud of him. He's one of us. He's Hispanic. He cares. He gets us.”

Twenty-four third and fourth graders from Catholic schools spread across the city, as well as a handful of area 12th graders, will get to personally meet Pope Francis when he visits Our Lady Queen of Angels after touring the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum on Friday afternoon.

The younger students have been making signs and dioramas and preparing questions they hope to ask Pope Francis. The older students are reflecting on the Pope’s ideas about helping the poor, the political implications of his visit and how his guidance of the church is ushering in a new culture into the typically stodgy values.

“I think he’s really progressive in such a good way. A lot of people, I think, feel that the church is very strict.  The Catholic Church has so many rules. And, you know, nobody’s perfect. We all break those rules now and then,” said Kara Fragola, 17, a student at Maria Regina High School. “And a lot of people almost feel that they don’t wanna go back because they don’t wanna be judged. Pope Francis has this attitude that Jesus loves you no matter what.  God loves you not matter what.  No matter what you do he doesn’t love you less.  And he’s making that known to everyone that you’re welcome in the church.”

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For Fragola, a standout student who plays two varsity sports and is editor of her school’s student newspaper, the pope’s visit couldn’t be timelier. Her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, a diagnosis that has rocked her family.

“That’s been a struggle for my family. And if I have the opportunity I would just be so blessed to be able to ask him if he could possibly say a prayer for my father,” Fragola said. “That would just be amazing to me.”

Another student tapped to meet the pope is Patrick McAvoi, 17, a student at Albertus Magnus High School who is a varsity athlete and a Eucharist minister. McAvoi described the opportunity as “an awesome memory for my senior year.”

But, it also means so much more.

“I’d probably ask him to give him a blessing for my grandfather. He’s pretty old. He’s elderly, he has dementia. So give him a blessing,” McAvoi said. “Hopefully that’ll be, he’ll be able to do that for me.”

The pope is scheduled to greet 250 students at the school, visit a classroom and meet with the two dozen younger children separately before meeting with 12 honor students, including Fragola and McAvoi. Later the pope will hold Mass at Madison Square Garden before heading to Philadelphia over the weekend where among other things he’ll meet with various bishops and visit a prison.

But before leaving New York City the pope will meet with a group dear to his heart, immigrants, including some among a group of women who are part of a sewing group who embroidered the table cloths and other linens that will be used during his visit to the school and mass at Madison Square Garden.

Esmeralda Hoscoy, regional director Catholic Charities Community Services of Westchester County, which supports the sewing group, said the pope is reaching out to a sometimes demoralized group in need of goodwill and hope.

“It’s been too long that immigrants have been sort of kept in the shadows unfortunately due to our immigration system, and right now I think that that message of, ‘I want to see you, I want to know who you are,’ really is bringing them out of those shadows, and having them feel that their valued,” Hoscoy said.

“Pope Francis has really above else shown humility, he’s teaching us that we’re all the same, we’re equals he’s really given us a new face. What I value is that he sees us as equals he is removing those racial barriers and making us feel like we’re worth something,” said Ignacio Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant who is part of the sewing group. Each of the women in the sewing group are married to day laborers. Their husbands built the bench the pope will sit on during the Mass at the Garden.    

With tears in her eyes, Gonzalez lamented the sacrifices she’s made to come to America.

“I have my heart in two parts because one part is for my family here – my daughter, my husband – the other part is for my father and my mom,” she said of her loved ones still in Mexico. “I don’t have (my) sister, brothers. I need my mom, want her hug. My dream is to see my family, my father and my mom.”