Beechview a big draw for Pittsburgh's Latino residents

Affordable housing, rail line and jobs are attracting many to the South Hills neighborhood


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After climbing out of mom's SUV, four teenagers stand at the Shiras stop in Beechview, laughing, talking and playing on their phones. Standing next to a stranger, they talk openly about their plans for the evening -- in Spanish. But when the trolley arrives and the other rider gestures for them to board first, one says "thank you" in perfect English.

Such scenes have become increasingly common in Beechview, a South Hills neighborhood that has become a hot spot for Latinos, especially Mexicans. And the increase has prompted entrepreneurs to open businesses and provide services that cater to the needs of the growing community that stretches into neighboring Brookline.

They are drawn by inexpensive housing, the light-rail line and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Many immigrants stopped first in places such as New York City and Chicago before coming to Pittsburgh for better work opportunities. Some call the Steel City home, while others hope to return home "algun dia" (someday). These are some of the people who give this city neighborhood a distinctly Spanish accent.

Saul Franco Jimenez

When the "abierto" (open) sign is on at Tienda La Jimenez, 1663 Broadway Ave., you'll see many Latinos hanging out, chatting and buying Jarritos soda, Bimbo baked goods, tortillas and other Mexican items. The store also sells calling cards and allows customers to wire money home or pay bills in Mexico or Central and South America.

"People miss all of the things in their country, like goodies, that are hard to get here," said owner Saul Franco Jimenez.

Mr. Franco Jimenez, 41, and his wife, Samantha Franco, 34, opened Tienda La Jimenez in 2002, moved once for more space and are planning to move to expand again. They said Broadway Avenue is a great location due to the area's expanding Latino population and close proximity to the trolley.

Mr. Franco Jimenez, a native of Mexico, first settled in Chicago with his family in the early 1990s. During a visit to Pittsburgh in 1996, he met Ms. Franco, a native of Lawrenceville, and decided to stay.

The couple live in West Mifflin with their four sons: Saul Jr., 15, Giovanni, 12, Angelo, 11, and Samuel, 10. At home the family speaks a mix of Spanish and English and the kids work at the store, which forces them to practice their Spanish.

The store's Latino customers don't always speak the same language. Ms. Franco has heard the Quiche dialect of Guatemala and Nahuatl from Mexico and El Salvador. The store owners have also heard derogatory and racist slang words aimed at Latinos, which they said is not tolerated. The family travels once a year to visit Mr. Franco Jimenez's mother and two sisters in Mexico.

"I want my kids to see where I grew up and where I came from," he said. "I don't want them to take things for granted."

He believes it's possible for immigrants to find the American dream. "It depends on how hard you wanna work. But, yeah, you can find it."

Quinceanera

One popular Latino cultural tradition that has survived here is a girl's 15th birthday, known as a quinceanera. The celebration is often compared to a bar or bat mitzvah, cotillion ball or sweet 16 party.

In June, more than 50 family members and friends gathered at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Overbrook for Andrea Rivera's quinceanera. Wearing a purple ball gown, Andrea participated in choreographed dances as the guests played games, ate and socialized. They cheered when her father presented her with a doll during La Ceremonia de la Ultima Muneca (ceremony of the last doll) as a symbol of her transition from childhood to womanhood.

Alberto Cirigo

Alberto Cirigo was born and raised in Mexico City. He started studying English at an early age and continued at the Universidad Tecnológica de México. He had to relearn English in the U.S.

"When I move here, it's a huge difference. I know how to read -- that was perfect for me -- but to go out to speak ... was different."

In 2004, he received a student visa and went to live with his aunt in New York City. At one point, he lived in a studio apartment with seven other people. He said some immigrants put up with difficult living conditions so they can return home and pursue their dreams. Some are simple, like putting a sturdy roof on a house. Others are more complex, like saving money for children to go to college. "Everybody has a different one," he said.

Mr. Cirigo, 33, found that rent in New York was too expensive and left. He was introduced to Leah Smith, 33, at a deli in New Milford, Conn., when she asked its owner, a friend of Mr. Cirigo, for someone who would teach her Spanish. The couple married seven years later and live in a house in Swissvale.

"I love the country because it give me my wife," he said.

Mr. Cirigo repairs and sells computers and other electronic gadgets. The majority of his clients are Latino. He said many immigrants come to Pittsburgh for jobs but decide to stay when they embrace -- and are embraced by -- the city.

"This is the country to make it. This is the dreamland. Today, that's still the thought in the hearts of many people," he said.

Working in Steelers Nation

The immigrants who come to Pittsburgh are familiar with hard work, determination and the Steelers. Mr. Cirigo said the football team is one of the first things futbol lovers feel a connection to when they arrive.

"They take that flag as if it was the Mexican flag. People are always happy to embrace people to Steelers Nation," Mr. Cirigo said. "The jersey and the team can put cultures together."

"There's even a Terrible Towel in Spanish," said Jesabel Rivera, 26, president of the Latin American Cultural Union. "It's impossible to not get infected by Steelers mania."

Many Latino immigrants hear there are jobs in Pittsburgh, but finding work isn't always easy. Ms. Rivera has seen dentists, doctors and lawyers who want to work here. "The wife is a professional and she's very brilliant, but she doesn't speak English well and doesn't have a permit to work."

It is often easier for men to find jobs. Pedro Alvarez, Domingo Corio, Rigoberto Vasquez and Martias Carranca all work long hours, send money home and plan to return home one day.

Mr. Alvarez, who shares a common surname and first name with the Pirates slugger, works eight hours a day at a deli, shares an apartment with one other person in Dormont and is trying to learn English.

Mr. Corio speaks very little English, works 40 hours a week and sends money to his family in Guatemala to fund the education of his two young children.

Mr. Vasquez works 48 hours a week as a cook in a Chinese restaurant, lives with four other people and hopes to work for two or three more years before returning to Mexico.

Mr. Carranca, a Honduran native, works as a landscaper and has moved frequently throughout the U.S. to find reliable work and better treatment. He said he's finally found that in Pittsburgh.

The city is also making more connections to the Latino community. The first ever Latino Day at Kennywood is scheduled Saturday, kicking off Hispanic Heritage month.

Antonio and Laura Ruiz-Fraga

Antonio Fraga's relaxed demeanor, dangly dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-shirt pair well with the Mexican and Caribbean-influenced food served at his eatery, Casa Rasta, 2056 Broadway Ave. Mr. Fraga, 37, a native of Mexico City, lives just a few blocks from his restaurant with his wife, Laura Ruiz-Fraga, 35, and their daughters, Mia, 9, and Marcelia, 7.

Mr. Fraga met his wife, then a student at Chatham University, while she was studying Spanish in Mexico. Ms. Ruiz-Fraga was raised in Butler, where her mother was born. Her father was born in Mexico.

"When I was growing up, my family was the only Hispanic one living in the community and people had a lot of rude things to say.

"It's nice that there's a lot more Hispanics living here," she said of Beechview.

Mr. Fraga learned English as a second language at school in Mexico, which made it an easier transition. He worked various jobs but always dreamed of opening a restaurant.

He opened Casa Rasta in 2011 and recently moved a short distance for more space. He enjoys being his own boss, but not all of his experiences have been positive. He said people often assume, after noticing his long dreadlocks and abundance of tattoos that he's a worker and not the owner.

"When they see tattoos, they assume you've been to jail or you're in a gang," he said. "I think people shouldn't focus too much on what people look like."

Mr. Fraga said the Latino community in Pittsburgh seems to be rapidly growing and "preparing for something bigger. America is changing. Hispanics are working to adapt with the system."

His restaurant draws a mixed crowd. "We have more people from the Caribbean and many [non-Latino] people."

He has heard that some Latinos mistakenly believe the owner is not Latino. "It's like a little bit of judgment, if we look authentic or not. But once they come and like the food, they keep coming back."

Mr. Fraga said his Beechview neighbors have made his family feel welcome, but other Latino immigrants have had more trouble assimilating. Most live on the northern end of Broadway Avenue, where housing is more plentiful and rent more affordable. "They don't want a nice house because they're never at home," he said.

Ms. Ruiz-Fraga said they teach their daughters about Mexican holidays, history and culture. She hopes both girls will celebrate their 15th birthdays with a quinceanera. The girls speak a little Spanish and attend Pittsburgh Phillips K--5, a Spanish-emphasis school in the South Side.

"Anything we can do to help them learn Spanish is great," Ms. Ruiz-Fraga said. "We should probably be doing more at home."

Despite their language classes and parents' encouragement, Mia and Marcelia are shy about speaking Spanish. They are not as comfortable with the language as the teens who sometimes come into the restaurant, their mother said.

"You see high school kids that hang out and come into the restaurant and speak Spanish. But when they talk to the server, they speak perfect English."

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Katie Foglia: kfoglia@post-gazette.com. First Published September 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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