Latinx Community Building in Pittsburgh

My name is Oscar Zapata and I am a third year Ph.D. student at the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures. Through theoretical frameworks drawing from cultural studies, ethnic studies, critical queer studies, and science and technology studies, my current research project is a transdisciplinary analysis of Chicanx, Black and Latin American speculative fiction artifacts (e.g. films, literature, and graphic novels). My research interest focuses on how genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror) created by people of color and migrants could be understood as decolonial tools. I strongly believe in the power of migrant, people of color, and Global South narratives as speculative projects that can reimagine new futures, different forms of community building, and more responsible interactions with our environment.

This summer, through the support of the Humanities Engage Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellowship program, I worked with Casa San José as an Editorial Assistant. Casa San José is a community resource center that advocates for and empowers Latinxs by promoting integration and self-sufficiency. This center has worked with the Latinx community in the Pittsburgh area for several years, helping Latinxs to navigate the health and legal systems, and providing social services to help them survive and to thrive in this community. For the accomplishment of this mission, communication strategies of the programs and activities performed by this center among the members of the community are crucial, specially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a graduate student, sometimes you focus mostly on academic work and spend too much time in libraries. Considering my research topic, I felt I was lacking social engagement with my community. Prior to coming to Pittsburgh, I completed a bilingual M.F.A in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso as a Fulbright scholar, and worked as an Editorial Assistant for the Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea, one the most important academic journals in the US focused on contemporary Mexican Culture. In contrast to El Paso, where almost 80% of the population is Latinx, in Pittsburgh only between 2% and 3% of people identify as Latinx. However, there is an important community of Latinx students, construction workers, academics, small business owners, meat packers, landscapers, housekeepers, and all sorts of migrants and Latinx descendants trying to integrate and succeed in the Pittsburgh area.

Taking into consideration Casa San José’s needs, as well as my professional humanistic background, we decided to work together on a social media communications strategy. Among other activities, while working in Casa San José, I helped to re-design their Amigos newsletter, created a Social Media Protocol, and designed a template for the annual report that Casa San José shares with the public, donors and board members about the activities and programs done through the year. I also assisted with Bilingual copywriting and content writing for Casa San José communications and conducted a survey among public and staff to improve communication strategies.

Nonetheless, the most important thing I got from my immersive summer experience with Casa San José was the opportunity to learn community building strategies. Watching and collaborating with a highly skilled, professional and committed group of activists at Casa San José had a huge impact on my academic project and political commitments. Rather than gaining only professional career building experience, I was able to learn from a strong and generous community a set of community building skills, which no academic program could offer.

Through the weeks I was working in Casa San José’s office and after several exciting conversations, I realized that my academic project could also be understood as a social activism project as well. I hope I gave back some of the knowledge I have obtained through my academic career to my own community. As graduate students, we often do not engage with the local communities outside the university environment. I strongly encourage other migrant and Latinx students like myself to engage with their local communities. They may even follow Casa San José’s example by helping each other to thrive in Pittsburgh.

Oscar Zapata
Hispanic Languages and Literatures
September 2021

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.