Latino Family Center holds grand opening in Squirrel Hill

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In any language, it's an easy question for most children.

"¿A quien le gusta chocolate?"

Who likes chocolate?

A dozen squirming boys and girls thrust their hands in the air as soon as Shawn Alfonso Wells spoke the Spanish words yesterday afternoon in a storefront on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. She then led them in a chant: "Bate, bate, chocolate!"

Mix, mix, mix the chocolate!

It was the grand opening for the Latino Family Center, a hub of support services for the Pittsburgh region's small but growing Hispanic community. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit is running the center with the help of grants from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and the Heinz Endowments.

"It's important to us that she doesn't lose her roots," Roberto Boyzo, a Mexican immigrant, said of his 4-year-old daughter, Hillary, as she danced with the group.

"Faster!" she shouted in Spanish, her pigtails bouncing.

AIU operates a dozen similar centers across Allegheny County, but this is the first one to target Spanish speakers. Located at 2215 Murray Ave., the center will help immigrant families navigate their new home, offering English literacy programs for both parents and their children and advice about health care resources and school preparation.

It will also give local Latinos a place where they can connect with people who share their background.

The center has a three-year budget of $300,000.

"It's a real sign that the county is recognizing the presence of the Latino population and the need to provide services to the population," said Sister Janice Vanderneck, the center's community outreach coordinator.

Before taking the position, Sister Vanderneck spent six years helping Latinos in Pittsburgh through Catholic Charities. She has seen the group grow rapidly in that time period.

According to census figures, there were 17,743 Latinos in Allegheny County in 2008, up from 11,166 in 2000. Meanwhile, the county as a whole has continued to see a population decline.

In February, Pittsburgh's first Spanish-language newspaper, La Jornada Latina, started publishing. It has a monthly circulation of 6,000 and is distributed at 160 locations, according to Alejandra Quezada, the paper's director of operations.

"People love it," said Ms. Quezada, a former television reporter and producer for Univision in San Diego, who was covering yesterday's event for the paper.

At least 50 people packed the family center, with parents munching on chips and salsa while children danced, sang and had their faces painted.

Mexican "papel picado," or sheets of colorful paper sliced into elaborate patterns, covered the center's white walls. The names and flags of 21 Hispanic countries, from Uruguay to Guatemala, also were on display.

"We're diverse," said Samaria Arzola, the site director. "In Pittsburgh, there are Latinos from everywhere -- Brazil, Puerto Rico, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina."

Ms. Arzola, a nurse, came to Pittsburgh from Puerto Rico for work eight years ago. At the time, she spoke no English, and there were few resources to help her get settled.

But she thinks the region, with its lower cost of living, is an attractive destination for young families with children.

That's one reason Mr. Boyzo and his wife, Eliana, have decided to raise their two children here. Mr. Boyzo, 36, moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago to work in a North Side restaurant.

"I like it here," he said in Spanish. "It's much more relaxed."

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at or 412-263-1183.


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