Pittsburgh became an unexpected refuge for Ivan Cordoba and Maria Paparoni when they had to flee their native Venezuela in 2017.
Working respectively as an attorney and a judge, the couple enjoyed a comfortable life with their young daughter in their oil-rich homeland. But when Paparoni began resisting political pressures in her courtroom, the family faced escalating threats and harassment from corrupt officials.
After Cordoba was kidnapped and severely beaten during a cross-country road trip, they decided it was time to get out. They joined a friend in Pittsburgh, where they planned to stay indefinitely — but after a few weeks they felt they could not return home.
They abandoned everything and began piecing together a new life in a city once built by immigrant labor. Just a few years later, the couple were running their own roofing company, Pittsabana Contracting Services, and had settled into a spacious suburban home in Bethel Park.
“We never thought at the beginning [we would stay] because of feasibility, but after spending time here, I wouldn’t change Pittsburgh,” Paparoni says.
Cordoba and Paparoni are among a wave of new arrivals from across the Latin-American world who are making their home in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, bringing with them culture, food, and enterprise.
Census data shows Allegheny County’s Latino population nearly doubled from roughly 19,000 to more than 33,000 between 2010 and 2020. Guillermo Velazquez, executive director of the +, says this is welcome news for a region that’s long suffered from loss and stagnation.
“The only reason why the population remained stable was because of [the growing Latino community],” Velazquez says.
Since 2019, PHDC has been based in a city-owned office block that anchors Beechview’s small business core. It was founded in the same neighborhood six years earlier, and has so far helped launch more than 90 businesses — some in Beechview, but plenty also North and East of the city, where Latino communities are growing up at a similar pace.
“Our mission is really focused on improving the lives of Hispanics,” Velazquez says. “So we believe that if we improve their lives, they will generate positive outputs … for themselves, their family, and also the region.”
Starting about 10 years ago, Beechview established itself as the de facto hub for Pittsburgh’s nascent Latino community. Since then, the blue-collar neighborhood has seen its withering business district revived by an influx of Latino-owned businesses.
Monica Ruiz, executive director at the nonprofit organization Casa San Jose, says as the first dedicated source of Mexican imports, the original Las Palmas restaurant and grocery store anchored and energized the region’s Latinos when it opened in Brookline nearly 15 years ago.
Not long after, the Las Palmas franchise expanded into neighboring Beechview. Now, the Pittsburgh neighborhood has no less than eight Latino-owned businesses packed into its small main street.
“I would say that, initially, what drove people here to this part of the city was that it was still fairly affordable. The other thing is that they have access to the T [light rail system], which can get them to and from Downtown fairly quickly and inexpensively. And then once the [second Las Palmas location] opened here in Beechview, we started to see other restaurants opening here.”
As the community has grown, Ruiz says, it has also diversified.
“Initially, we saw a lot of folks from Mexico … then I would say within the last five years or so, we’ve seen more people coming from El Salvador or Honduras, and then within, like, the last two years, I would say we’re seeing more folks from Colombia and Venezuela, and other countries in South America.”
Walking along Broadway Avenue in Beechview, you encounter a vibrant, bustling community. Clusters of Latino-owned businesses bookend the bifurcated main street with a half-mile residential stretch in the middle.
At the southern tip, restaurants Alquisiras Paleteria, Mexican Sazon Lichita, and Chicken Latino sit clustered around a gentle bend in view of the Casa San Jose headquarters. At the other end, El Paisano Mexican restaurant, La Cocina de Betty, the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation, and the Las Palmas grocery store and restaurant hold up the bulk of the neighborhood’s historic business district.
Liz Torejano, the owner of Mexican Sazon Lichita, opened up her small restaurant front last summer after preparing food for construction crews out of her kitchen for several years.
She named her business after her mother, Lichita, whose recipes are now enjoyed each day by people across the city. Torejano serves distinctive dishes from Mexico’s Puebla province, including huarache, tacos, and gorditas.
“Everything is my favorite, because everything is made with lots of love,” she says.
Torejano quickly maxed out her small kitchen’s capacity and is hoping to expand sometime soon.
“It’s a small space, but it’s where everyone starts,” she says.
Two doors down, Shelbin Santos has, since 2020, been serving Peruvian fare within a colorful spacious eatery, when she relocated her long-established business from the Strip District.
Back in 2007, when she opened Chicken Latino, she recalls, it was one of the first South American eateries in the city. But since then much has changed.
“When I came here I noticed there were no Latino restaurants in Pittsburgh,” says Santos, who first came here as a graduate student studying psychology. “Now the community has grown so much there are Venezuelan restaurants, Colombian restaurants, mom and pop stores … back then, there was nothing. I’m glad now there are more options.”
While Beechview remains a hub for Latino enterprise, its spokes stretch throughout the South Hills.
Two years ago, Jose Flores and Jazmin Hernandez opened the region’s first dedicated Mexican bakery, Panadería Jazmin, in the upscale suburb of Mount Lebanon. Each day, the couple bake fresh sweet breads, cookies, and custom-made cakes, selling them over the counter as well as to a wider online customer base.
In Mount Oliver, husband-and-wife Victor Schmidt and Yvette Rodriguez-Schmidt found within the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity to launch the area’s first Puerto Rican restaurant.
Ecuadorian native Evelyn Aikin treats skincare clients across the region at her Green Tree spa, Skin Boutique. Aikin met her husband during a summer program in Maryland in 2003 and followed him back to Pittsburgh shortly after. Years later, she took a chance on her own venture after studying cosmetology and working in various spas.
Cordoba and Paparoni’s roofing company is headquartered in Castle Shannon, but each day takes them all across the county as they take on jobs wherever the demand is.
While many Latino business owners work within a close geographic community, some have set their sights much wider.
Like Rodriguez-Schmidt, Grecia Diaz seized on pandemic-era uncertainty to launch her own business: SnackEver. As a health-conscious consumer with a vegetarian husband, Diaz was accustomed to scanning the web for specialty food items. After quitting her job in 2020, she decided to try staking a living out of sourcing them for other people.
In less than three years, she’s outgrown two warehouse spaces, and in January, she launched her own product line: ConsciousSnack. The novel brand supplements her main market with custom-made wafer snacks manufactured by a small business in Mexico using gluten-free amaranth flour instead of wheat or corn.
“We want to include more product drops inside of the line of ConsciousSnack,” Athena says. “We think that this will be a label that’s really important for us. We want to get contracts with the government since we know that they can be a great support for us. And we want to try to get into more supermarkets.”
Across the region, Velazquez foresees more growth for Pittsburgh’s Latino community, as others seize on the opportunities the city affords.
“We should pay attention to other cities that have gone through the process, like Philadelphia … [and ask] how can we prepare better to accommodate all this change,” Velazquez says. “This isn’t anything new. This is the story of the United States.”
This report was a collaboration of Pittsburgh City Paper and Presente Pittsburgh Latino Magazine which was made possible with financial support from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.