Maria Manautou-Matos sits in Mellon Green Park in Downtown Pittsburgh on September 29, 2023. She started going there during her lunchbreak when she worked in the area to meditate and dream. It is where the idea of Presente was born. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource).
It doesn’t happen often, but calls of “go back” or “speak English” or “build the wall” remind me that Latino contributions deserve a voice in Pittsburgh.
More than 20 years ago when I came to Pittsburgh as a student, it was common to have people staring at me when I spoke Spanish. Outside the city and college campuses there wasn’t much diversity.
When I would share that I was born and raised in Puerto Rico some people told me they had visited and how much they liked it there. But not always. I often met with ignorant responses like, “Do people drive there?” or “Oh, I love tacos!” Other times I, an American-born citizen, was asked by airport security or rental car reps to show my passport because, they insisted, Puerto Rican driver’s licenses were “not” a form of U.S.-issued ID.
I wasn’t the only one. These were the normal experiences Latinos were having in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, and they got me thinking that there needed to be more education about Latino cultures in this region. Armed with a mission as part of Carnegie Mellon’s Spanish and Latin Student Association’s leadership, I planned CMU’s first Latin American Food Festival to encourage the community to go beyond stereotypes and learn what different Hispanic foods were really like. It was a great success that immediately had people asking when the next event would be. I felt like my mission was accomplished.