Artist Alison Zapata (left) and volunteer Mia Tamburri add finishing touches to a giant “picture frame” style mural at the Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXTPittsburgh)
Artist Alison Zapata (left) and volunteer Mia Tamburri add finishing touches to a giant “picture frame” style mural at the Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXTPittsburgh)

This story was originally published by NEXTpittsburgh, a news partner of PublicSource. NEXTPittsburgh is an online publication about the people advancing the region and the innovative and cool things happening here. Sign up to get NEXTpittsburgh free.

On a warm Saturday in July, Alison Zapata was on a ladder painting a mural of Mexican folk art inside the new headquarters of the Latino Community Center in East Liberty.

“The whole vision is for the space to be vibrant, uplifting, joyful and welcoming,” said the artist from Aspinwall who chose bold shades of turquoise, magenta and mustard-yellow for the design she created for the lobby and welcome center at the community center’s new home on the second floor of 5750 Baum Blvd.

“We wanted the place to have charm and for employees and clients to feel good when they come in,” said Zapata, 47, whose late grandfather came from Mexico to Pittsburgh at age 13 to lay railroad ties.

“He didn’t speak English and there were almost no Latinos in Pittsburgh at the time,” she said.

Latinos still comprise only a fraction of local residents. About 9,000 Latinos live in the city of Pittsburgh accounting for 3% of the population, while about 24,000 Latinos reside in Allegheny County making up 2% of the population.

Launched in 2017, the nonprofit Latino Community Center provides assistance with legal referrals, healthcare, housing, education and other social services. Intense demand for such assistance — especially during the pandemic — has spurred rapid growth for the nonprofit.

The organization worked with about 800 families in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from 500 families the prior year, said Rosamaria Cristello, founder and executive director of the Latino Community Center and a native of Guatemala.

Staff grew from five in 2018 to 35 full-time employees this year and its annual budget now totals about $2.5 million.

Volunteer Martha Cortes paints a room at the new Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXTPittsburgh)

“Maybe more families reached out to us during the pandemic plus our team did a lot of more outreach,” including setting up vaccine clinics, assisting families who needed computers so that students could attend remote classes and providing food and other donated supplies to those who were laid off or furloughed, she said.

Her staff, said Cristello, “had flexibility and ability to pivot and address the needs of families in the moment.” 

This month the center is settling into its new home, which totals just under 10,000 square feet. At its prior location Downtown, the nonprofit leased 1,500 square feet from Catholic Charities and had enough room for only five employees to work on site.

The Latino Community Center selected the East Liberty space after surveying and holding community meetings with families, employees and other stakeholders to obtain their input for a new location. 

Volunteer Sara Kaufman (left) and artist Alison Zapata work on a mural that will greet visitors to the Latino Community Center. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXTPittsburgh)

The majority wanted it in the South Hills, specifically in or near Beechview and Dormont, which have growing Latino populations and a number of Latino-owned restaurants. Downtown was the second most popular choice followed by the city’s East End. Most of those surveyed wanted the location to have parking or good access to public transportation.

While Beechview-Dormont was a top choice, few buildings there could offer adequate space to accommodate existing programs and future growth, said Cristello, adding that Downtown parking is a challenge for employees and families.

The East Liberty location “is ideal” because of nearby bus lines, street parking and parking lots, space for all staff and activities, plus room to expand, she said. And many Latino families live in the neighborhood.

Cristello was nine months pregnant and isolating at home with COVID-19 when her staff and Latino Community Center families toured the new site. 

“I got text after text” urging her to seal a deal for it, she said.

Volunteers spent several weekends painting and building furniture for the space before the move. 

In the Latino Community Center welcome center, individuals and families will be greeted as soon as they step off the elevator by staff who conduct intake interviews and make referrals to case managers, community health workers, the education team or others for assistance.

Beyond the welcome center is a large open space with exposed brick walls that can be used for meetings and ceremonies. There are two kitchens plus smaller rooms and private offices for staff. A teen center will feature a ping-pong table.

“It’s nice to see the place transformed — to take plain walls and make art to instill pride through our heritage and identity,” said Zapata, who works as a teaching artist and has collaborated on projects with the Latino Community Center since its founding. 

Many Latino Community Center clients experienced job layoffs during the pandemic because they work in hospitality or construction but have since returned to work, said Cristina Ballarta Silva, lead case manager for the center. But challenges for those families remain. 

Single working mothers struggle to find reliable child care since many centers closed or lost staff during the pandemic. Many families run into roadblocks securing housing because they don’t yet have credit histories, documentation or enough income to satisfy landlords. 

Mia Tamburri adds some touches to one of the murals staff and volunteers painted at the Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXTPittsburgh)

Silva said her team also continues to battle misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines — particularly on social media — and is now focusing on providing vaccines for young children who recently became eligible for the shots. While Pittsburgh Public Schools has done a good job providing information to Latino families in Spanish, she said some others in Allegheny County issue communications only in English.

The Latino Community Center offers college readiness and mentoring for high school students at its headquarters and operates after-school programming for K-8 students at Pittsburgh Beechwood PreK-5, Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8 and Pittsburgh South Hills 6-8. It plans to expand those programs to the Moon and McKeesport school districts.

The Latino Community Center will hold an open house event for its partners and families at the new space on Saturday, Aug. 27.

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. 

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