Friday, July 22, 2005

A Barrio Within Walking Distance of Home

From time to time, I have occasion to ride the trolley from my suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood through the Beechview section of the city. Broadway Avenue, Beechview's main drag and one of the few remaining portions of the trolley route that still uses the street rather than a railroad right-of-way, has not changed too much in the last twenty years. Then, a few months ago, I noticed a Mexican grocery while riding the rails. "That's different", I thought to myself. A short time later, I noticed another just a few blocks away. That's more than just different. It's a sign that things are changing in Beechview.

Sure enough, there is a growing Mexican immigrant community in the neighborhood. A growing and, perhaps someday, thriving immigrant community can remind the rest of us locals of our roots in America. Several neighbors of mine speak with Greek accents which remind us that all of our families were, at one time, composed of immigrants who struggled and succeeded.

Sadly, some of the Beechview neighbors are making sure that the struggle continues for the newest arrivals:

Samantha Franco has heard derogatory references to Mexicans in the store she owns with her husband, Saul Jimenez, and some in Beechview say they haven't dined at Maya because they see too many Mexicans inside.
These customers -- assuming that they are actually in the store to shop -- have a lot of gall to speak so openly about Mexicans in a shop run by Mexicans who are, actually, their hosts. Beechview does not have a reputation as home to any particular ethnic group, except maybe white people in general. Perhaps the locals have gotten a little too comfortable with homogeneity.

The immigrants have also been discussed in a more formal setting...as if they are some kind of problem.

Some longtime residents are far from excited about the new immigrants.

Don Bell, president of the Beechview Merchants Association, said residents at a recent Weed and Seed meeting "expressed concern about the rapid influx of Mexicans, of the illegals who have no rights and can be easily exploited, and issues such as over-occupancy and health code violations."

"Someone asked, 'How do we know there aren't ads in grocery stores in Mexico that say 'Move to Beechview,' " he said.

Concerns rise more easily when you have a commercial street that is "moribund," he said. When for food you have two Mexican grocery stores, a Mexican restaurant and a Foodland, he said, "it's like, 'Whoa, what's happening? It's rapidly going in one direction.' "

What is he talking about? Where in the article is there any mention of illegal immigrants? Does he realize that Pittsburgh is located in the northern US and not along the Mexican border? For crying out loud. This guy is one step away from demanding a Mexican diaspora in Beechview. It wouldn't be so bad if he were just a harmless crank, but keep in mind that he is president of the local merchants association. Perhaps he ought to consider a fact finding tour of groceries in Mexico so he can determine whether there are any "Move to Beechview" signs.

There are those who welcome the Mexicans into town. Most notably, the local Roman Catholic church has added a Spanish language mass for the newcomers. PNC Bank has a Latino outreach program. And then there are those who remember what it was like to adjust as immigrants, once upon a time:

Palmo Cicchino, who himself emigrated from Italy 26 years ago, owns P.C. Auto Repair on Broadway Avenue.

"They remind me of the people, like the Italians, who came to America and were hard workers who never said 'no' to work," and saved and improved their lot, he said. He said he's concerned about how those who don't speak English will fare, though.

Just like it reminds me of my Irish grandfather, who took work as a driver and raised eight kids, and my German immigrant ancestors, who worked in mills, bars and groceries. One of these days I might just take a walk (or a trolley ride) into Beechview for some Mexican food.

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