Groups want Pittsburgh to tap Latinos' economic power through growth

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 11:36 p.m.

Cesar Miguel Herrera came to the University of Pittsburgh from Venezuela in 2001, followed the next year by his girlfriend, Neyju Rondon, who was an accountant at a South American corporation.

She did not know English but studied the language here, as the couple married and had a son. She got a job cleaning houses and, within a few years, they started a cleaning business from their home in Reserve. Their weekly income grew from $200 to more than $1,000.

“If you work hard in this country, the sky is the limit,” said Herrera, 45. “I came here with nothing.”

The number of Latinos in the Pittsburgh area is growing slowly, and businesses and civic organizations hope to boost their population through a campaign, Hola Pittsburgh, as a way to fill job vacancies and stimulate the regional economy.

The nation's largest minority group — 53 million people, according to census figures — is an increasingly powerful economic force. Some regions of the country are cashing in on it. Latino buying power is projected to reach $1.5 trillion nationally by 2015, according to a 2012 study by Nielsen.

Although immigrants from Central and South America make up the largest part of international immigration, “It's also the immigration flow we have not had much of in Pittsburgh,” said Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research.

Indeed, although Census Bureau figures show the number of Latinos in the Pittsburgh area nearly doubled from 17,100 in 2000 to 34,145 last year, they represent just 1.4 percent of the population. Latinos represent 6.1 percent of Pennsylvanians and 16.9 percent of Americans.

As Latinos' influence grows, organizations are reaching out to them: The Pennsylvania Republican Party hired its first person dedicated to Hispanic outreach, and PNC Bank, a supporter of Hola Pittsburgh, recently did a study of Hispanic millennials in the United States.

“They're more optimistic about their financial success and see themselves making greater progress than their parents,” said Carrie Ann Quintana, vice president of multicultural marketing for the bank. She is an Irwin native whose father is from Puerto Rico.

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States is expected to double from 1.57 million in 2002 to 3.16 million this year, according to a report by Geoscape, a business intelligence firm. The amount of money they made grew from $254 million to $468 million during the period.

Melanie Harrington, CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, which works to diversify the workforce, said Pittsburgh probably missed out on the rise of the Latino population nationally in the 1980s and '90s because the city was adjusting to the loss of steel mills and thousands of jobs. As the economy rebounds, Hola Pittsburgh hopes to lure Latinos with not only jobs but affordable housing, attractive neighborhoods and college scholarships for city school graduates.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, said Hola Pittsburgh targets Latinos living 300 to 500 miles away, not those living abroad.

“It's less likely somebody would move from Miami to Pittsburgh, but Columbus (Ohio) isn't as much of a change,” he said.

He said the campaign set a goal of increasing the Latino population by 10 percent, or 1,700 people. Even so, the population exceeded that goal naturally between 2010 and 2012, increasing by 4,186 people.

Using $150,000 from an anonymous foundation, Hola Pittsburgh began with an ad campaign to show the contributions of Latinos living here — an attempt to ease any misgivings Pittsburghers might have about welcoming immigrants.

“One hundred years ago, Pittsburgh had the largest percentage of immigrants in the United States,” said Fred Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation. “In a lot of ways, this is just taking the city back to its roots, trying to get Pittsburghers to embrace the fact that the roots are in their diversity.”

Alberto Benzaquen, a native Venezuelan who is executive director of the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corp., recruits Latino families from south Florida: “They want to come to a safe place.”

Yet not all Latinos achieve economic success here.

Jesebel Rivera came from Puerto Rico three years ago and earned a master's degree in public health from Pitt. After a year of job hunting, she works part time outside her field and is president of the Latin American Cultural Union.

She likes Pittsburgh but, speaking for herself and not her organization, Rivera said she could not encourage others to move here.

“What am I going to say?” she asked. “ ‘Come to Pittsburgh; it's a great place to find a job.' And they say, ‘Yeah, you don't have a job yourself.' ”

Patricia Documet, a native of Peru who is scientific director of the Center for Health Equity at Pitt, said the city needs interpreters, more signs in Spanish and training to familiarize receptionists and others with different cultures.

“Receptionists are the first person you talk to, and if they yell at you, you don't come back,” she said.

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or

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