Census, community groups work to accurately count Hispanics

February 11, 2020 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Spanish music played in the streets of Beechview as a restaurant worked through its lunch crowd. Spanish-language signs advertising products filled the windows of the Las Palmas IGA Market on Broadway as customers of all ethnicities filtered in and out, purchasing authentic Mexican food.

English and Scotch-Irish immigrants settled the once-thriving, blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood that also has been home to Welsh, Irish, Germans and Italians. Now, it bustles with western Pennsylvania’s growing Latino population, working to fill empty storefronts and to bring life back to the city’s outskirts and surrounding counties.


While less prominent in rural areas such as Westmoreland County, people of Latino descent are spread across the county, living in places like Derry and Greensburg. Among that community are doctors, professionals and business executives — some being first-generation immigrants, but most coming from other cities for opportunities and decent costs of living, said Guillermo Velazquez, director of the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corp.

“One thing about the newcomers to the area, I think they’re working people and they want to make a difference and live well,” Velazquez said. “When someone wants to live well, usually they make a contribution to the economy and to the society because you bring with you your thoughts.”

Growing population

Almost 31,000 Hispanics are spread across Allegheny (26,800) and Westmoreland (4,200) counties, census estimates show. The bulk live in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Brookline and Beechview.

“It’s nice because, I mean, at least for (Mexicans), they just feel that they are home,” said Joksam Reyes, of Robinson. He and other Puerto Rican migrants are not facing a similar fear other immigrants are because they are U.S. citizens.

“They just feel that they have built their own community, their own style of living and everything, and you feel like home even though you’re so far,” he added while sitting in Anthony Cuts in Beechview.

Census data shows that in 2019 about 9,330 people of Latino descent lived in Pittsburgh.

Those numbers have markedly increased since the 2010 census, when almost 17,630 Latinos were reported in Allegheny County and just over 3,900 lived in Westmoreland. That number also increased across the state, from 656,500 in 2010 to about 972,950 in 2018, according to census estimates.

Roughly 60 million Latinos lived in the country in 2018. According to the Brookings Institution, there are roughly 10.5 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants across the United States.


An influx of refugees along the southern border in recent years threw the Hispanic community into the spotlight. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the number of refugees in custody ranged from 50,165 to 56,000 last fiscal year, a 19% increase since 2018.

ICE deportations and an increase in those detained caused a wave of fear to settle over the Latino community since President Trump took office in 2017, according to Rosamaria Cristello, executive director of the Pittsburgh Latino Community Center. Trump’s three years in office have been marked with a slew of policy changes regarding Latinos, debates over a border wall, changes in immigration laws and the possibility of a citizenship question on the census.

The citizenship question had been the center of back-and-forth court decisions since January 2019. The effort was dropped because of the legal fight and Census Bureau deadlines. Still, the possibility of the question left local leaders concerned over who would answer the once-a-decade population survey.

For those who are not citizens, are undocumented or are living with undocumented family members, government interaction, like with the U.S. Census Bureau, can spark fear.

But a decision not to answer the census could have drastic impacts. A May report from the National Latino Commission predicts the survey will be “inaccurate and incomplete, causing national damage.” The nonprofit group predicts political representation will be less democratic, federal funding will be misdirected and organizations and businesses will base decisions off erroneous population data.

Across the country, areas that are almost half Latino residents had a 37% self-response rate to a test survey sent out last year, while areas with between 11% and 49% Latino residents had a 48% self-response rate.

“It’s kind of 50-50,” Reyes said about answering the census. “It depends on the person — the position, the person, how they are. If they’re hiding from something, they will not respond well to that.”

Overcoming fear

Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer, 45, didn’t start to feel the weight of what it meant to be an immigrant in the United States until 2016. That same year, she started incorporating political commentary into her artwork that once depicted her own immigrant experience.

“In some instances, there are people that, of course, are going to fear (the census),” said Cuellar-Shaffer, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Hempfield. “There are many people that risk their lives to be here. … They’re not crossing just because, ‘Oh, it’s so much nicer here.’ No, it’s because they have life-threatening situations in their home countries and that’s why they leave. It’s not fun to do all that.”

Several local organizations are working to overcome that fear in hopes of getting an accurate census count.

Across the city, the Pittsburgh Latino Community Center is sending out surveys that identify gaps in knowledge about the census.

“We see our role as giving our community all the information possible to understand the importance of the U.S. Census and being honest with them when they ask, ‘But who can use this data?’ ” Cristello said. “We believe knowledge is power, and that our role is in providing them all the information and having community members make the best decision for them and their families.”

Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are recruiting Spanish-speaking census takers to help collect an accurate count, despite census forms being sent out in only English. Online census forms come in 13 languages, including Spanish. Census materials, such as help guides and videos, can be viewed in 59 languages, including Arabic, Thai and Yiddish.

But with populations largely spread across both counties, distributing census information is proving difficult.

“What we hear from families is that they have connections to different neighborhoods,” Cristello said. “They, like most Pittsburghers, get comfortable within the neighborhood they arrive to.”

While she said she appreciates the diversity this brings to western Pennsylvania, the goal of outreach organizations changes to connect immigrants with local law enforcement officials and other community resources, all while working to make people feel less isolated.

“We have a community that is mixed status, very much first generation,” Cristello said. “Parents who have sacrificed everything to give their children a better life, a life free of violence and full of potential to pursue their right to happiness.”

When Jose Berumen emigrated from Mexico City, his main goal was to provide a better life for his future family, said his son, Joseph, 19.

“I believe, since my dad was born over there, he suffered and was poor moneywise,” said Joseph Berumen. “And basically me, I was born here with more possibilities to advance in life, do college, all that. It just helps a lot more with money and jobs.”

That desire for a better life is a goal shared across the community. That includes Natalia Cardona, 37, of Greensburg, Sandra Kantor, 50, of Derry Township and Cuellar-­Shaffer — three Colombian immigrants who are raising children in Westmoreland County.

Cardona has two small children — Maria, 4, and Cristbal, 6. By teaching her children Spanish, taking them on trips back to Colombia and to her husband’s native country of Mexico, Cardona is keeping their heritage alive while raising them in the United States. She believes it will give them an advantage later in life.

“I want them to be bilingual,” the stay-at-home mom said. “That is something that is going to open a lot of doors for them, so I don’t care. I try to speak English when I am around people. But with my kids, I don’t care if I am at Walmart, or wherever, I speak Spanish.”

Cardona said she often gets looks from people when she speaks Spanish in public, much like Cuellar-Shaffer’s mom, Jenny Tenorio, 62, of Hempfield, who works at the bakery in Sam’s Club in Hempfield.

“Sometimes people that call, they can’t understand and maybe they have less of patience,” Tenorio said. “Sometimes people say, ‘I want to talk with another person.’ (One time) a lady said, ‘This is frustrating for you and for me.’ That is frustrating for me because I am doing my best.”

She added that those moments make her feel sad because she is working to better her English, adding, “It’s my problem. It’s something I have to solve, to learn English.”

Pushback from the community comes in different forms, Cuellar-Shaffer said, remembering a time she was asked if she had cocaine simply because of her Colombian descent.

“It’s hard,” said Kantor, who teaches at several local schools. “It’s hard to do it when there’s not surrounding help or support, especially family.”

Shared faith

Several hundred people file into churches around Pittsburgh for monthly Mass services in Spanish, an important aspect of their culture, said Jorge Vela, director of the Hispanic Apostolate with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

According to Pew Research, about half of Latinos are Catholic, a number that has been steadily declining since 2010. About three-quarters identify as Christian, the data shows.

Religious figurines are tucked onto shelves at Las Palmas in Beechview. Pictures of saints on the side of candles and rosary beads and bracelets with dangling crosses are proudly displayed for sale next to the checkout lanes.

The Pittsburgh diocese offers several Spanish Masses, a years-long initiative, at several churches across the city, including St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Beechview, Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline, St. Rosalia Church in Greenfield and areas of Wexford, which Vela said has a large Hispanic community.

The Diocese of Greensburg recently started its own Spanish Mass last year.

“So when you get here (Pittsburgh) … It’s Sunday, you have to go to Mass even if you don’t want to,” Vela said. “It’s like a chip. So, that’s why most of the people they want to go to a service. Here, around 30%, 40%, they don’t speak English. So why have the service in Spanish? If not, I don’t understand anything.”

Members of Westmoreland County’s Complete Count Committee are using religion as a way to reach parishioners they may not contact otherwise, said Deborah Thackrah, member of the committee.

Through churches and the Greensburg Christian Layman thrift store, Thackrah hopes members of the Latino community will learn about the importance of the census. The Christian Layman store already had a sign placed near the door advertising census-related jobs.

Members of the Complete Count Committee also are looking to schools that offer English as a Second Language classes. According to Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, collecting that data will help pinpoint where people of Latino descent live throughout the county.

Initial data collected in June 2018 shows there about 640 Latino students living in Westmoreland County. Almost 120 of those faced a language barrier. Koch added, however, that the data does not account for Latino students who already speak English.

For Vela, the goal is to encourage community members to not only understand religion but to live their faith daily. He said members of Casa San Jose, a nonprofit community resource center based in Beechview and East Liberty, are scheduled to speak about the census at the monthly Spanish services.

Once members of the Latino community become comfortable around Vela, he said he becomes a space where they can talk about their citizenship status while having a small piece of home. Officials encourage them to visit organizations that can provide help necessary to get immigration papers.

“I say, ‘Don’t worry, we never had this conversation, so I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Vela said. “But at least they can spell it out.”


What it means

The U.S. Census Bureau defines people who identify as Hispanic or Latino as those hailing from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South or Central America and other Spanish cultures or origins regardless of race.




Information from: Tribune-Review,