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Pittsburgh's 'invisible' Latinos are emerging as part of a national population explosion

Sunday, October 03, 1999

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When she arrived in Western Pennsylvania in 1948, the woman many local Latinos now know as Angeles Stiteler carried a much more freighted name from Mexico. It was a mouthful of family history that her new culture would soon pare down.

  Elcy Gonzalez-Sandora, 30, of Mt. Lebanon and Luis Montaño of Highland Park perform the "Cumbia," a folk dance from their native Colombia, at the Latin-American Cultural Union Picnic in Schenley Park on July 31.(Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

As her husband, Ed, went to work for his father selling coal-company insurance in Greensburg, María de los Angeles López-Portillo y Vernon de Stiteler set out to find Spanish speakers. These were the days before Lucy and Ricky on TV.

That first Christmas, she called the University of Pittsburgh to invite people who spoke Spanish to her Mexican party. Pitt sent a U.S.-born student of Mexican parents and his wife for what was undoubtedly the quietest Mexican fiesta in history.

"I said, 'That's all?' " Stiteler recalls of the meager showing. "I was desperate to find people."

For more than 30 years, she taught Spanish at Seton Hill College. Today, retired in Pittsburgh, Stiteler belongs to the most rapidly growing census group in the city, as well as the nation. By next year, the number of Latinos locally are projected to have at least doubled since 1990, when the U.S. Census counted 8,700 Latinos in Allegheny County.

This rate puts local Latinos in step with the national trend: Whether in 2015, 2010 or 2005 -- you hear all these dates -- a projected 36 million Latinos very decidedly will represent the largest minority in the United States.

"Hispanic" is the government's official designation for their minority status and is preferred by many older Latinos, but used this way it neglects the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. "Latino" aligns aurally with Latin America, which is almost all of the Western Hemisphere south of the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau considers "Hispanic" a subgroup; on most forms, the box appears down from "black/white/other." But Latinos represent an almost impossibly hard to categorize splay of cultures. Like the rest of us, they are members of the great American mosaic.

Imagine that tens of millions of United States and Canadian citizens went to a country that counted them under the name "Usas." With roots all over the world, we would be black, white, parts of both, indigenous and all jammed into the box marked "Usas." We would stop each other on the street and talk like lost cousins. We might hold festivals to celebrate our common bonds. As Usas, an African-American from California, a French-speaking Quebeçois and an Appalachian Presbyterian would have more in common than ever before.

This is how Latinos find themselves and each other in the United States today -- a tremendous melange whose numbers are growing at a rate seven times faster than the whole.

Newsweek reported in July that nationally, the Latino population has grown by 38 percent since 1990, mostly with legal immigration.

On a chart of the state's cities (see page G-13), vertical bands represent the reach of each city's Latino population as of 1994. Lancaster's the winner, its 20.6 percent beating Reading's 18.5 percent by a half inch. York, West Chester and Harrisburg all line up at 7-plus percent, outdistancing Philadelphia's 5.6 percent. Furthest left, barely out of the gate, a notch represents Pittsburgh's 0.9 percent Latinos.

But even in a Latino microcosm as micro as Pittsburgh, this diverse subgroup finally feels the support of a national trend that acknowledges the dynamic force they are bringing to bear on the United States.

  Pittburgh's 'invisible' Latinos

Quotes from the new boomers: Pittsburgh's 'invisible' Latinos

PG On-line graphic: Percent of Latinos to total population in Pennsylvania cities

Local resources:

Latin American Cultural Union: 412-361-7633
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: 412-201-9140
Latin American Family Outreach/Family Resources: 412-363-5742
Latin American Children's Fund: 724-834-4346
Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs: 800-233-1407


Ten travelers assemble in the pre-dawn dark of a Monroeville parking lot, their greetings in Spanish. It will be a killer of a day: On the road in a rented green van by 6 a.m. for Pennsylvania Latino Day in Washington, D.C., back home after midnight.

Seventy-five Latinos statewide will bring issues to the conference room in the Hart Senate Office Building. Senators Rick Santorum, Arlen Specter and Utah's Orrin Hatch will man the podium.

Hatch is on the Senate's Republican Task Force on Hispanic Affairs. Born in Pittsburgh, calling himself "Pennsylvania's third senator," he will tell his story about living in a South Hills chicken coop in an effort to ally himself with the struggle of underprivileged Latinos. Inexplicably, he will say he considers himself a Latino.

But the assembly -- most from eastern Pennsylvania -- is worried about Latino children, whose public school drop-out rate of 6.7 percent almost triples the state average; concerned about the disparate levels of commitment to their health care and about diabetes, an oft-cited "Latino" disease; appalled that though they make up less than 5 percent of the state's population, their brethren contribute at least more than double that percentage to the state's prisons.

Before the green van plowed home in a heavy rain that night, a little dream of Pittsburgh got voice. Brent Rondon, president of the Latin American Cultural Union (LACU), stood and told the assembly that Pittsburgh's Latino population is dispersed and without a focal point: "We want to pursue funding, maybe a grant, to establish a community center. In Pittsburgh, we have no 'place.' "

The Latino presence in most cities is concentrated in neighborhoods called barrios, where cuisine, shopping and support services cater to them. In such a community center in Harrisburg, Rondon began learning English when he came from Peru 11 years ago.

The timing of Rondon's proposal coincides with a changing Latino demographic in Pittsburgh: "In the last six or seven years," he told the assembly, "we have seen a growth in our population of workers in jobs that are not professional." Unlike Pittsburgh's earlier phalanx of Latinos, this population will struggle longer for position, for a second language and for a sense of community.

Long-time Latino residents say they see new faces in dance clubs and at the grocery store. They see men they're sure are fellow Latinos walking with lunch pails and Latinas boarding buses with their children. These are the people who most need a place, says Rondon; the reason there was never a barrio was because the professional classes never needed one.

"My vision is of a place where people could be free to stop by and get help and advice," he says. "I know a doctor who told me he is willing to do free consulting, but where? Women who are isolated with children need day care so they could learn English better or explore opportunities. Our center could have day care."

The center would also need a staff. Rondon devotes time to LACU in addition to a job managing international programs for Duquesne University's Small Business Development Center. But he has been as influential as anyone in the blossoming of Latino cultural presence in the city.

LACU members dance at fund-raisers, holiday events and festivals. They team with The Andy Warhol Museum for Day of the Dead celebrations and exhibits. Their authentic cultural displays have helped build esteem for the annual Latin American Folk Festival at the University of Pittsburgh.

For now, the Latino presence is portable. People flutter to the flame of a variety of clubs and restaurants that didn't exist 10 years ago -- Cozumel and the Fajita Grill in Shadyside, Kenny B's Downtown, La Fiesta in Oakland, Mago Latino in Bloomfield, El Campesano in Monroeville, Club Rios on Mount Washington and Club Havana in Shadyside. At a new South Side club, Angels, one of the managers is former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen.

This little bloom of night life has given rise to several Latino bands. Miguel Sagué's Guaracha is the most venerable, dating to the late '70s. More recently, Orquesta Tropical, Latin Impulse and the traditional Andean band Musuhalpa have gained footholds.

Sagué, Cuban born and Erie raised, has built Guaracha into a cross-over band since the late '70s. The Gateway Clipper hired them for dinner cruises, and Sagué brought dancers from LACU aboard. In the early '90s, impresario and musician Karl Mullen began booking Guaracha at Rosebud in the Strip, where the very first Latino night led to more at other clubs. Now, almost every night of the week, if you want to dance salsa or merengue, you can find dance partners and instructors at various clubs in the city.

At the same time, the Latino presence here risks being defined within the almost clichéd confines of salsa dancing and salsa dip. Latinos have not made an intensive claim on this city, partly because no barrio was ever established, partly because the professionals who made up most of the Latino population for so long didn't project their being Latino on the rest of the city.

Many non-Latinos think the chicken enchilada they always order is an ethnic experience. They may never know about pigeon peas, fritters or seafood stew. Many non-Latinos believe all Latinos are Catholic, but significant numbers belong to Mennonite, Jewish, Evangelical and other congregations. Further, if you think someone looks Latino, his accent may be a better indicator.

Patricia Documet, a Peruvian native and doctoral student in public health at Pitt, says, "People ask if my children are Chinese because their hair is straight and black and their eyes go up a little." Documet, like most Peruvians, is part Indian.

Mexican-born Juan Bravo, CEO of Harbison-Walker Refractory Co., says, "I'm a Mexican of Italian descent, but when I'm in London, everyone confuses me with being an Arab. My wife was speaking Spanish with our daughter one day in the supermarket, and someone asked if she was a migrant worker."

Because Latinos are considered a minority group, they often are misperceived as a separate race, but an estimated 25 percent of Latin Americans are African Americans. The dominant European ancestry is Spanish, with American Indian ancestry dominant in Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Juana Roman of Peru develops art-related mentorships for at-risk youth at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. When Pedro Meyer, a Mexican photographer, exhibited there, the African-American children in the program interviewed him in their public-school Spanish. They had not previously considered the link between African and Latin Americans, Roman said.

Through the outreach program of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Latin American Studies, children at Miller Elementary, in the Hill District, have for two years been learning capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts dance and discipline with roots in Angola.

Kenya Dworkin, an assistant professor of Spanish at Carnegie Mellon University, is the Cuban-born daughter of a Cuban mother and a father whose Jewish family fled Poland in the '30s. She recalls two of her daughter's experiences in race relations at school: "When she went to middle school, she was asked what she was. One frustrated classmate said, 'You have to pick black or white.' " Later, in high school, a teacher would not let her write about a Cuban general for Black History Month: "She said he wasn't an American.' "

Cuban-born Miguel Sagué, founder of the band Guaracha, jokes with children during a song-and-story session of the Latin American Cultural Union in Oakland. Sagué's family moved to Erie when he was 11, and he moved to Pittsburgh in 1977.(Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette) 

Pittsburgh's most visible Latinos have always been Pittsburgh Pirates. The former 6th Street Bridge now bears the name of the most famous of all, Roberto Clemente. Another, Sanguillen, has lived here off and on since his playing days in the '70s. The current roster of Latinos includes Jose Silva, an American-born Mexican, Abrahim Nuñez, a Dominican, and Francisco Córdova of Mexico.

In spite of their glamorous status, some Latino players live in isolation, talking only to each other, not venturing out much, shy of fans who speak English.

During Clemente's first years in Pittsburgh, as he struggled to be cogent in his second language and was chided in print for his accent, Edward Litchfield was building an empire in the neighborhood where he played. Litchfield, the chancellor at Pitt from 1956-65, believed in the importance of having Latin America in that empire.

Latin America made its academic debut at Pitt when the national psyche was occupied with the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Today, the 35-year-old Center for Latin American Studies bears witness to Litchfield's prescience.

He hired Cole Blasier, a prominent scholar who had Latin-American foreign service experience, to build the center. Blasier hired Eduardo Lozano, an Argentine who has for 30 years been developing a Latin-American collection of books that number now about 380,000 volumes. It is one of the 10 largest such collections in the country.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago became the center's second director in 1977, nine years after assisting Blasier. In charge of social security reform for the Cuban government before Castro, he fled his country in 1961, at age 27. Previously a lawyer and a professor, he received a Ph.D. in economics from Cornell University.

During his tenure as director, government funds brought Latin-American engineers to study at Pitt in exchange for Pitt engineers, and the medical school began recruiting doctors from LatinAmerica.

A film buff, Mesa-Lago started the Latin American Film Festival in 1968 and, in the early '70s, a Latin-American theater series. The center also sponsored art exhibits at the Frick under his direction and established the first Latin American Folk Festival.

Brent Rondon remembers that festival, just a few weekends after he arrived in Pittsburgh for classes at Pitt. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is great. There must be a lot of Latinos in Pittsburgh.' "

If that ever seems so, it seems so in Oakland, where Latinos are seen and heard the most.

For about 20 years, the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese has offered 1 p.m. Sunday Masses in Spanish at the Cardinal Dearden Center. The service was set in Oakland because of the number of Spanish speakers in academia, but the Rev. Bill Lies said the congregation has grown in recent years from 40-60 a week to about 120-150, with many new faces: "It's more of a trickle than a wave, but it is something."

Spanish and Portuguese can be heard on the radio, too. Four years ago, the program director at Carnegie Mellon University's radio station wanted to fill an open slot with a program in Spanish. Martha Mantilla, a Colombian, was starting doctoral work in education. A friend convinced her to take the slot. She and another doctoral student designed a program of news, music, sports from Latin America and community event announcements. The Latin American Radio Magazine airs on WRCT-FM (88.3) from 6 to 7 p.m. on Mondays. The last Monday of each month, Brazilian Carla Murillo is host of the show in Portuguese.

The 300 or so local Brazilians, whose tongue is very similar to Spanish, nevertheless find solace in their own community. A music and dance group sprang from a Brazil Nuts Portuguese Club at Pitt, and many of the members are nonstudents, Murillo said.

Students, grad students, researchers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and other professionals have long contributed most to Pittsburgh's unique Latino make-up. But one drawback of academia as your greatest lure is the exodus. After two- and three-year programs, many take their training to larger cities or back to Latin America.

Echoing many, Mantilla says, "I don't know yet whether I will stay. I hope to finish my dissertation in a year. But I like the mix of cultures here. It seems there's room for people."

As Rondon and others hash out plans for a Latino community center, the city's third most notable Latino-focused entity is reconsidering its mission. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce formed in 1994 around the business interests of three men, Kenneth Rodríguez, Tomas Vasquez and Gilberto Zavala.

Rodríguez, the chamber's chairman, came to Pittsburgh in the '70s and '80s to manage construction projects for a New Jersey firm. In 1993, he convinced the firm to open an office here. He has since started his own company for international trade, Rodríguez & Offspring Enterprises on the North Side, and lives in Beaver.

"We were trying to be in business, having obstacles with the language and issues particular to us," says Zavala, whose company, Zavala Inc. has been named Hispanic magazine's 18th fastest growing Latino-owned business in the United States. A contractor of traffic and highway sign structures and street lighting, Zavala reported revenues of $3.5 million in 1999, a 116 percent growth rate over 1998.

Zavala met his wife, a Pittsburgher, while both were in college in Monterrey, Mexico. After college, his wife suggested they spend the summer here. "The summer turned into a year into a life," he says. At the time, he saw the same three or four Latinos, usually in the Strip or in Shadyside restaurants. "Suddenly, they are popping up everywhere."

In 1993, he was laid off as a project engineer for a construction company. So far from home and committed to a rooted family, he says, "you sink or swim."

With emotional support from Rodríguez and Vasquez, their fledgling business association became a network that was as much social as anything. Others joined, but as their businesses took off, they didn't need the benefits of each others' contacts and found less time to devote to the chamber.

Today, the chamber's 23 members include PNC Bank, the Port Authority and People's Natural Gas, companies the chamber helps recruit Latino employees and helps make contacts for business in Latin America. Its president and vice president are not Latinos, which worries a few members who are. But one chamber goal for greater efficacy is to strengthen its ties to the advocates of Latino culture, namely LACU. Rob Jones, the chamber vice president and a manager at Consolidated Natural Gas, says he wants a neon sign at the entrance to the Fort Pitt Tunnel that reads "Bienvenidos!" -- "Welcome" -- in Spanish.

The chamber's impetus to plan a new future is based in part, says Rodríguez, "on who we are." A survey he took of Latino households several years ago showed that they were almost $20,000 richer than the average $45,000-a-year in Pittsburgh. Lately, it has become clear that "who we are" is increasingly the troubled and invisible Latino.

One day in May, a Mexican family called the chamber. They may have been referred by police.

The family's son had been in Pittsburgh, undocumented, perhaps working in food service. He and three other young Mexican men got into an argument one weekend night in Bloomfield and one pulled a gun. The son and another of the men were killed. The family couldn't afford to fly the son's body to Mexico and asked the chamber for help.

To Rodríguez, this was an example of there being too few services for Latinos.

Another call not long ago further confirmed his opinion. A restaurant owner called the chamber to report that some antagonists outside a bar spotted an employee of his walking to work. The man was obviously ethnic, in fact a Mexican, said Rodríguez, "and they beat the hell out of him."

The restaurant owner asked Rodríguez what he should do. "I said 'Take him to the damn hospital.'" But the owner, who claimed he didn't know his worker was undocumented, was afraid of being fined by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The INS reports the undocumented population is up. A 1996 report of an estimated 37,000 statewide did not specify countries of origin. George Hess, officer in charge of the INS office in Pittsburgh, says, "It is my perception that we have more illegal Mexican nationals working in the area." The most common workplaces, he said, are Chinese restaurants, construction sites, in landscaping and agriculture. But when people call INS to report seeing illegal Mexicans in these jobs, he asks them, "How do you know they're not legal?"

Legal non-citizens carry any of several documents. For the past several years, all green cards need to be renewed, with updated photos. Work and tourist visas are granted for various lengths of stay. People can qualify for immigrant status through established family or an employer-advocate. Another class, refugees, can get a green card after a year.

Most large cities' Latinos were laborers first and foremost. In Chicago it was railroads, in Los Angeles, agriculture, and in New York, waves of Puerto Ricans sought opportunities after World War II. Pittsburgh never lured large numbers. Steel mills were filled with European émigrés.

Southeastern Pennsylvania attracted many Latinos to the mushroom industry, and northeastern cities have experienced run-off from New York and New Jersey. The earliest groups of Latinos in Western Pennsylvania were Puerto Rican grape pickers around Erie and the hundreds of Mexican men the railroads would load up and haul north for breaking strikes.

The U.S. Census Bureau has staff in the field to improve on the 1990 count. But furtive Latinos will need convincing that being counted doesn't mean being found out. Beyond one's name, details on a census form are sealed for 72 years. Being counted is a record of proof of residence in case of future naturalization. A true count also will help the Latino population get all the federal moneys and services due them.

The U.S. Census Bureau, in a follow-up to the 1990 census, estimated that it missed counting 5.5 percent of the state's Latinos.

Crimes like the ones reported to the Hispanic chamber are less common than crimes Latinos are committing. The Department of Corrections reports that of 36,523 prisoners in the state system, 4,346 are Latinos. At 11.9 percent, that's more than double the percentage of the state's Latino population.

Jamil Assaf-Bautista, a management consultant in Philadelphia, is researching a book on the subject. His interviews indicate that one-third of the state's population behind bars is Latino. And while many Latinos inhabit what he calls "a failure environment," he believes police have "a visual fixation" against types and would be more inclined to haul in a Latino for a minor offense than "an Anglo in a Volvo."

"I'm not making excuses, I want a solution," he says, citing high-school drop-out rates: In Philadelphia, for instance, the rate is 71 percent. The national average for Latinos is 65 percent. "At the rate we are going, our people are helping to fill a lucrative prison industry."

Drop-out rates are not Pittsburgh problems; the city's public school system doesn't signify ethnic categories for drop-outs, and of 40,000 children in city schools, just 164 at most recent count, in '98, were Latino. Crime also doesn't rate a problem, say police, but advocates here are concerned about the local incarcerations of Latinos.

Sergio Pinto, a native Guatemalan, once used his Spanish for children on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Most recently, he has been using his Spanish in the Allegheny County jails and in court, for the federal public defender's office.

"Not all Latinos are dancing at Cozumel," says Pinto, whose full-time work is running the 31-language Multinational Translation Services, with offices here and in Washington, D.C.

"The Hispanic jail population is growing," he said, adding that the majority of his clients are in for drugs and shoplifting. Without language intervention, many would move through the system not understanding a word being said. "In cities with more Latinos, there are more instruments of support for the ones in need," he said. "The Latinos in need here are invisible."

It took numerous phone calls to the Allegheny County Jail to get no call backs or information about the numbers of Latinos processed in recent years. Shelley Stark, chief of the federal public defender's office, said the numbers of Latinos in the federal system has not seemed inordinately high. But she said, "I have heard horror stories about people sitting in jail for months."

Pinto and other advocates speculate on the comparative disadvantages of being a Latino in a traffic stop, but the Pittsburgh Police Department is trying to counter criticism. It runs an outreach program, with help and oversight from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff has both recruited employees and led cultural diversity classes for Chief Robert McNeilly. She says the department employs at least five Latino officers and several non-Latinos who speak Spanish: "The criminal element is quite small, but we have seen an increasing number of Latino surnames on reports," as victims of universal kinds of crime, such as car and house burglaries and stolen property, she said.

One Pittsburgh agency has already started an outreach effort, largely to help families avoid problems that lead to family breakdowns. Family Resources, based in East Liberty, created a Latin-American Family Outreach service last year with a grant from the Allegheny County Mental Health Department. The grant was renewed this year for $30,702.

Salomé Servían leads the outreach, which has advised "hundreds of families and worked with about 50." With her focus on preventing domestic abuse, she deals with universal Latino issues, including the stress of culture shock, language limitations and feelings of isolation.

Servían, of Paraguay, advertises the service by appearing at festivals and at the Spanish Mass on Sundays. "We need more Spanish-speaking volunteers because we are looking at more need. The population is definitely growing.

"I know this, because at our agency picnic, you wouldn't believe all the children."

Diana Nelson Jones is a Post-Gazette staff writer.

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