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Johnny Irizarry started working at La Casa Latina about 11 years ago.

Credit: Ritin Pachnanda

Johnny Irizarry, who has been director of the La Casa Latina cultural center for the past decade, is retiring in April. 

Irizarry started working at La Casa about 11 years ago, after spending several years as a community organizer in Philadelphia. In addition to his work with La Casa, Irizarry teaches an Academically Based Community Service course under the Latin American and Latino Studies department. He will continue teaching at Penn after stepping down from his post as director.

"I sincerely feel that the success of La Casa Latina is due to Penn’s amazing students and yes, the people at La Casa Latina across the years that have supported them," Irizarry wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. Irizarry declined an interview because he said he did not "feel comfortable with interviews of any kind."

Students who know Irizarry called him “el abuelito” — Spanish for "the grandfather" — for La Casa, College sophomore Diego Caceres said.

Losing Irizarry will be like “losing a piece of [La Casa’s] heart because he’s given so much of his own life," College senior Lisa Romero said. She has worked with Irizarry as internal affairs chair of the Latinx Coalition. 

Credit: Luke Chen La Casa Latina is located in the basement of the ARCH building.

Romero said Irizarry's care for everyone at La Casa shows, as he even takes special care of the house plants. 

Sociology Ph.D. student Angie Ocampo said she admired him for bringing “a perspective of a broader community” because of his extensive “experience working elsewhere in Philadelphia." When Ocampo wrote a paper on undocumented students in college, she said Irizarry helped connect her with sources. 

2019 Master of Public Administration graduate Danny Pérez, a 2016 College graduate, has known Irizarry since his time as an undergraduate student.

He said Irizarry is always able to find a solution and “bring a smile” to everyone’s faces. He described the director as “super self-aware of everything.”

When College senior Cinthia Ibarra first met Irizarry while visiting Penn as a senior in high school, she said his inviting nature stuck out to her. After she enrolled at Penn, Ibarra worked closely with Irizarry as chair of external affairs for the Latinx Coalition. 

Ibarra said he is "an amazing individual [who's] rare to find," and that she did not know “if everyone truly understands just how much of his life Johnny puts into the community on campus.”