More than 20 years ago when I came to Pittsburgh as a student, it was common to have people staring at me when I spoke Spanish. Outside the city and college campuses there wasn’t much diversity.
When I would share that I was born and raised in Puerto Rico some people told me they had visited and how much they liked it there. But not always. I often met with ignorant responses like, “Do people drive there?” or “Oh, I love tacos!” Other times I, an American-born citizen, was asked by airport security or rental car reps to show my passport because, they insisted, Puerto Rican driver’s licenses were “not” a form of U.S.-issued ID.
A few years later, I was reminded there was still work to be done.
I was working in Oakland one afternoon during rush hour; I was tired and couldn’t wait to get home. Standing at the bus stop I noticed someone approaching on the sidewalk. He was acting erratically. I was alone and as he asked me for money, and to avoid an interaction, I replied in Spanish: no entiendo. He stared at my face momentarily, walked away, and seconds later turned around to look at me again. Then, he screamed from the top of his lungs: “Go back to your [expletive] country!”
I felt a knot in my stomach, but I kept pretending that I didn’t understand him. Funny thing about this incident is that, as a citizen born in Puerto Rico, the U.S. is actually my country. But, did I belong or was I an outsider?
Settling in (mostly)
Even after this incident, I always chose to look on the bright side and focus on the positive. Sure, there were ignorant people, but there were plenty of friendly people here, too. Some of them had taken me in as a member of their family and even visited my family in Puerto Rico.
By 2013, I had completed a masters degree and had been working in design, marketing communications and building websites for over 10 years. I lived in a North Hills neighborhood without much diversity, although it was beautiful, safe and with amazing, friendly neighbors. My Chilean spouse and I were raising two children. I was also a sandwich generation daughter caring for my elderly mother who lived close by. We loved our schools and community.
I wanted to shield them from that kind of person. I thought whoever said that was a coward, because they hid behind the aisle to say their rude remark. How about approaching me and my mother, in her 70s and using a cane, and saying that to our faces? I knew not everyone was like this, but for a while this incident left me once again feeling like an outsider.
By the late 2010s, I’d been in the area for more than 15 years, but it was still hard to find Latin American events to attend with my children. You had to search countless Facebook groups to find out what was happening. I realized Latino leaders were doing wonderful things for the community, but they — and grand events like the 2019 Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala — would get sparing coverage in regular news outlets.
The region barely knew of the outstanding work done here by Latinos, led by groups such as Casa San Jose, Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation, the Latino Community Center, and the Hispanic Chamber PMAHCC. The lack of Latino-focused information inspired me to think of ways to improve our communication.
Bridging the gap
That’s when the idea for Presente’s Pittsburgh Latino Magazine was born. It launched in 2020 to help connect Latinos, celebrate our cultures and accomplishments, and empower our community to succeed and contribute to this great region that has become a home for so many of us. The publication started online providing essential Latino news in English and Spanish and our first printed edition was published in September.
Two decades after I moved here, there is much more diversity now in Pittsburgh. Latinos are the fastest-growing population segment in Allegheny County and are creating businesses — from restaurants to spas and construction to technology — at a similar rate. We are contributing neighbors, extremely grateful for the opportunities the region has offered, and we’re giving back. But I’m reminded sometimes that not everyone sees us this way.
Last year I went to visit my 80-year-old mother at the senior building where she lives. A place she loves for its friendly and caring neighbors. At the entrance I overheard a new resident say, “Had I been in office, that wall would’ve already been built.”
During the same conversation, I heard her say when her daughter wanted to go to college the family could not afford it. The blame was put squarely on “foreigners” crossing the border today and all the money that is being spent on them. She went on to say that she would’ve been tough “with that foreigner [expletive].” The resident she was talking to looked a bit embarrassed, maybe she recognized me, but she still smiled and nodded at her words.
I was kind of speechless at having witnessed these comments right there, in the community where our partly immigrant family lives, and where I like to think of myself as one more contributing member and neighbor.
The knot in my stomach was deep.
When people hear over and over about bad Latino people crossing the border, they lump together all immigrants and foreigners in one group. Resentment and prejudice take over without the facts: who’s coming, why and how, who’s undocumented or not, who actually benefits from immigration? They also overlook parts of the system that encourage people to come here and work. The main thing: They forget their ancestors were also immigrants and foreigners when they moved here.
I wanted to tell the new resident about the Latino immigrants I know here in Pittsburgh. Most are not on welfare and they are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet. Some have started their own companies with a goal of building better futures for their families and making a difference for Pittsburgh and this country, of which they are grateful to be a part. Companies actively recruit others to do what many native-born citizens don’t want to — landscaping, roofing and cleaning.
Some have made enormous sacrifices to get themselves (or their kids) through college and become professionals, educators or health care workers. All of these people are living proof that the American Dream still exists.
Clearly, the mission that started with a Latin American food fest and evolved into a magazine is not yet accomplished.
There’s so much we can learn from each other and we can help everyone feel welcomed and included. In a city that is full of bridges, let’s connect our communities through curiosity, appreciation, and respect for one another no matter our backgrounds.
Maria Manautou-Matos is President and Founder of Presente Pittsburgh Media, publisher of Pittsburgh Latino Magazine. She was recognized with a POWER 100 Who’s Who in Latino Pennsylvania award in 2022. You can reach Maria at LatinoNews@PresentePgh.com.