Rift seen in growing local Latino population

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As the region's Latino population continues to grow, so does a rift within the local Hispanic community.

On the one side are the documented immigrants from Central America and South America, many of whom are professionals and educated workers. On the other are the largely undocumented immigrants who take lower-paying jobs.

Interaction between the two groups is limited. It is the sort of stratification that reflects the socioeconomic inequality that is so common in Latin America, said Sister Janice Vanderneck of the Pittsburgh Latino Catholic Community.

"There is classism among the Latinos here, just like any other part of society," she said. "Some well-placed Latinos are very passionate and do all they can to help lower-wage workers. But others resent being associated with undocumented immigrants."

"Those who are professionals and who have achieved the American dream don't want to be confused with 'los Mexicani- tos,' " adds Alfonso Barquera, of the Community Justice Project.

"I don't think that this is outright ill-will among professional Latinos. But they definitely ignore the working class and their challenges."

Even St. Hyacinth's Church, a mainstay of the Hispanic community in Oakland, is divided during services.

The upper-class Latinos sit in the front, and the lower-class sit in the back, said Mr. Barquera.

Officially, the Latino population in Allegheny County has grown 11 percent since 2000, to an estimated 12,360 in 2005.

But some believe the numbers are far higher because the figures fail to take into account undocumented workers such as Juan Manuel, who came here four years ago from Guanajuato, Mexico.

Mr. Manuel, who works in restaurants to make in 10 hours what he would make in one week in Mexico, does not feel that everything about Pittsburgh is welcoming.

He cites a familiar refrain of not enough young people and a Downtown lacking vibrancy.

He also faces logistical challenges, such as the inability under Pennsylvania law for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses or a GED high-school equivalency diploma, and a dearth of translation services.

Mr. Manuel has worked for some employers that he says have exploited him by taking away his tips at restaurants and making him work 12-hour days.

And socially, he has experienced some cold shoulders. While speaking in Spanish to his friend at a restaurant one evening in Beechview, for example, a man turned around and yelled at him to "speak English!"

"This type of intolerance is very common," said Sister Janice, who has experienced similar situations while working with low-income workers.

But this classism extends to the Latino community itself.

Cultural organizations such as the Latin American Cultural Union and the Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association typically don't include working-class Latinos, said Leonardo Baloa, who helped form the Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association in 2003.

"These associations are formed out of a desire to be with people with similar cultural standards or morals, who laugh and speak and dance like you," he said. "But they are made up mostly of professionals. It is rare to see members who are struggling."

The Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce speaks out on the issue of immigration, but mostly involving issues affecting documented immigrants. "Mostly we try to clarify the fact that not every Latino in the U.S. is illegal," said Victor Diaz, the chamber's chief executive.

Many professional Latinos express a desire to break the stereotypical image of low-wage workers they feel many Americans see when they meet people from Latin America.

When Brent Rondon, manager at the Small Business Development Center at Duquesne University, came to Pittsburgh, he was asked by a woman why he was not wearing traditional Incan clothing when he told her he was from Peru.

"People who arrive to Pittsburgh come from different backgrounds, and to classify all of them under assumed stereotypes is to forget the diversity that every country and culture in the world has to offer," he explained. "We want to break these stereotypes, but we also don't want to discriminate against our own people. In regards to immigration, everyone has something to offer to the new country."

Although Mr. Barquera agrees that this separation between classes reflects society in many Central American and South American countries, he also said, "One would think that it would be different in the U.S. because the law here tells us that we are all equal."

Related graphic

Chart: Western Pennsylvania Latino population


Kate Pielemeier, a Coro Fellow who spent four weeks at the Post-Gazette as a staff writer, can be reached at kpielemeier-fp@coro.org .


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