Like millions of Americans, Isabel Manrique felt the effects of the pandemic early on, when her employer cut her days at the restaurant where she worked. However, by giving her Latinx community what she could as a volunteer at Pittsburgh Latinx community center Casa San Jose, Manrique found a new purpose.
“When the pandemic started, I became completely depressed. I used to work at a restaurant and they cut my days,” Manrique, now a community leader for Casa San Jose, said in Spanish. “I didn’t work for four months. Then, I became a volunteer, and I felt much better helping somebody and seeing how people were so thankful and wanted to help, too. Being a volunteer changed my life.”
Manrique was one of three speakers at Friday’s town hall event, titled “COVID-19: The Pittsburgh Latinx Community Experience & Response.” The town hall covered the impact of COVID-19 on Pittsburgh’s emerging Latinx community and featured Latinx speakers from the School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity and Casa San Jose.
The event is one of many the University is hosting as part of Hispanic Heritage Celebration Month, which is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. To ensure all Latinx community members could feel welcome and participate, the event made a live Spanish interpretation available through Zoom.
Dr. Patricia Documet, the director of Latinx Research and Outreach for the Center for Health Equity, presented data about the social determinants of health that often disproportionately affect the Latinx community. According to Documet, the determinants that fall in the categories of living conditions, work, health care and policies have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Documet said Allegheny County has seen an emerging Latinx population over the past two decades. According to Documet, Latinx only make up 2.2% of the population in Allegheny County, and out of 130 zip codes in Allegheny County, Latinx individuals are in all except 18. However, there are only 12 zip codes with more than 500 Latinx people. She said the scattered population leads to a lack of information and services as well as a nominal sense of belonging and a feeling of invisibility among the Latinx community in Pittsburgh.
“The challenge we have is to reach out to a scattered, disconnected, low-income population who mistrusts the system, and I would say with very good reason,” Documet said.
But the community has been working to combat these challenges. Casa San Jose is a nonprofit community support center in Pittsburgh that provides access to food, resources for English language learners and financial services.
Veronica Lozada, a community organizer with Casa San Jose, discussed the new role the center took on during the pandemic.
“We had to improvise, emptying the desks and tables in our office to just focus on what is needed for the community. We started receiving donations and collecting fresh foods to send out,” Lozada said.
Lozada said during the pandemic, everyone at Casa San Jose understood they needed to adapt their services to better fit their mission of “advocating for and empowering Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency.”
“But the need was not just food. Around this time there was insecurity about COVID, and we needed to find a way to send information to the community,” Lozada said. “So, the volunteers delivering the boxes started educating the community about COVID, how to keep safe and where they could find food pantries.”
According to Lozada, the volunteers sent 50 boxes of food and information a day to neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. A health care professional also monitored the procedures to ensure Casa San Jose complied with health safety guidelines. Lozada said there was a lot of learning on the go since this was more demanding than the organization’s usual food services.
Lozada said Casa San Jose has seen an influx of volunteers in the last few months. One of these volunteers is Manrique, who participated in Casa San Jose’s leadership program. She has been helping members of the Latinx community adapt to their specific needs.
“We were trained on how to be leaders and learn about the needs of people to help them or refer them so they could find the help they need. We informed others on what to do in different situations,” Manrique said. “For example, if ICE comes to the door, what rights do they have? And with childrens’ schools, there are times language is a problem, so how can we fix communication between parents and teachers?”
Manrique became a volunteer during the pandemic, and she said the need she saw in her community marked her life personally.
“Sometimes you wouldn’t know what to do because there are so many people that have needs at the moment,” Manrique said. “We appreciate Casa San Jose — they were a light in our way. During times of so much need, they were like an anchor.”
Lozada shared the unfortunate reality of discrimination against the Latinx community, especially during the pandemic. She said she encourages everyone to adapt the mindset of helping your community out, no matter how similar or different you may be.
“The Latino community got hurt the worst. They’re paying taxes, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but most of them didn’t receive any help from the government,” Lozada said. “We are lucky that we have jobs and we’re obligated to help them. We have a voice, they don’t. Use your voice to help your neighbors.”
Documet said she wishes to tell the public that Latinx individuals aren’t here to hurt anyone. She urges everyone to use their voice in any capacity they can. She said in times like these, sharing the rich Latinx culture is more important than ever.
“I want to call people to action. Please vote. Educate people about our community. We’re a unique culture — the music, the food, the customs. We’re here because we love this country and we want a better life for our families and children. We’re not here to hurt anybody,” Documet said.
Manrique said working with Casa San Jose influenced not only her, but her three children as well, who attended youth groups and Casa San Jose events.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you think no one’s listening. But thanks to Casa, even my children are learning to share and help other people,” Manrique said. “They’re keeping themselves informed and helping inform those around them. It makes me feel really good, teaching my children and giving them a good example of how to help.”
Lozada emphasized how important it is to be there for the Latinx community and said she thinks it’s the only way through the pandemic.
“I was touched by the kindness of our community. They were the first ones jumping in, asking how they can help,” Lozada said. “We’re all humans, sharing the same air, we’re all equal. This pandemic doesn’t discriminate. If the more vulnerable are working to help their own community, we need to ask, ‘Why can’t I use my privilege to help them?’”