When he first came to Pittsburgh nearly 25 years ago, Edgar Alvarez wasn’t all that familiar with the region. “I was like ‘where the hell is Pittsburgh?’ I didn’t know anything about it,” he admits.
Since then, Alvarez has made a name for himself as the proprietor of Edgar’s Tacos in the Strip District. His tacos were just voted the best in the city on the first-ever Top 10 Favorite Latino Places in Pittsburgh. While it’s not an all-inclusive collection of Latino businesses in town, list curator Tara Sherry-Torres says it’s a place to start.
“I just wanted to find out where people go, and let them know about other great Latino businesses in town,” she says.
Despite our still small Latino population, Pittsburgh was just named one of Latin Post’s list of Best Cities for Latinos, for its affordability and job opportunities.
Sherry-Torres came to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn about eight years ago, and while searching for authentic Puerto Rican beans and rice, realized there were a fair number of Latino restaurants in the area. But she had a hard time finding a central meeting place or organization that was bringing all Latino businesses together.
She founded the Cafe con Leche blog in January of 2014 to create neighborhood-based spaces for Latinos to connect in Pittsburgh. Her Latinoburgh survey, which polled a few dozen followers of her blog, let her discover some spots even she hadn’t heard of yet.
“It’s nice to see people are making these connections,” she says. “It can really be a challenge, especially when you first come to Pittsburgh and don’t really know anyone else.”
Latinos are a small but growing minority in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. According to Census figures, in 2010 Allegheny County’s population was 1.56 percent Latino. That figure had inched up to 1.9 percent by 2014. While that’s an uptick, it’s still behind the state figures, which showed Pennsylvania had a Latino population of 5.2 percent in 2010. That increased to 6.6 percent in 2014.
Ron Alvarado, chairman of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce says a common challenge for Latino business owners is getting the collateral needed to cover startup loans and other costs. Microloan programs like Kiva provide invaluable resources, he adds, but “the region in general could do a better job providing access to capital.”
Contrary to popular belief, Alvarado says, the majority of Hispanic Chamber members are not entrepreneurs like Alvarez, but rather those who work within companies in the Pittsburgh area, at tech companies, insurance agencies or other local firms.
But business challenges aside, for newcomers to the area, just getting acclimated can be overwhelming. “For a lot of new people to the area, they just want to know ‘where can I get my platanos,’ and where the other Latino businesses are,” Alvarado says.
In May 2014, Mayor Bill Peduto launched the Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative, part of the Welcoming America group of communities, to show the city’s commitment to growing immigrant and minority businesses. Welcoming Pittsburgh convened an advisory council to develop a list of priorities and recommendations for a community-driven planning process.
Then in August, the mayor’s office partnered with New Sun Rising, a social entrepreneurship incubator, to put together a focus group of immigrant entrepreneurs and small business owners. The goal was to discuss obstacles and share success stories, and the participants included business people from various sectors.
Sister Janice Vanderneck, director of the nonprofit organization Casa San Jose in Brookline, says the biggest barrier for Latinos in Pittsburgh is still language, both for Spanish speakers and Brazilian Portuguese speakers. “Finding services in their own languages, where to register for school, how to buy a house, and learning how to get around Pittsburgh,” are some of the things the Sisters of St. Joseph tries to help with, says the Sister, who speaks Spanish and Portuguese.
While there have been improvements in available resources, particularly through the Latino Family Center and Welcoming Pittsburgh, Sr. Janice says there are always improvements to be made. For instance, just before the November elections, she was approached by someone who had just received citizenship seeking guidance on whom to vote for. “The League of Women Voters puts out a good guide, but there was nothing available in Spanish,” she says.