Latinx Connect Conference returns with emphasis on academics


For years, Pitt has celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with cultural performances, food, festivals and other activities, but the academic component was missing.

Last year, a grassroots group led by Gina Garcia of the School of Education and assisted by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted the first Latinx Connect Conference at Pitt, which is returning this year from Oct. 27 to 29.

“All of (the cultural celebrations) matter, and it’s really important and culturally relevant,” said Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies, “but the piece that was missing was actually the critical academic intervention that allows us to spotlight the important research that’s being done nationwide on topics related to Latino cultural studies.”

Torres said there really hasn’t been a Latinx studies group formally in academia. “There’s a Latino Studies Association that’s still sort of getting its bearings in the United States and is meant to bring academics together, but this conference is one way of showcasing the really good work that people are doing.”

This year’s conference has broadened its scope to talk about Latinos both inside and outside of the United States. The Community College of Allegheny County also has joined as a sponsor.

The organizing group was interested in separating the conference this year from Latinx Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

“We were a little bit concerned initially that people wouldn’t be interested in collaborating on two separate things,” said Doreen Hernandez, a staff member in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, “but it’s been amazing how much support we received from the University.”

Hernandez, who also helped start the Hispanic Latino Professional Association on campus, said it’s important to note that she and the other organizers are all volunteering their time to work on the conference.

Most of the sessions during the three-day event will be virtual to allow more inclusivity for people who can’t make it to campus. An opening reception and panel on “Supporting Local Latinx Community Growth” at the CCAC Student Auditorium and a reception and brunch with city of Pittsburgh press secretary Maria Montaño at 2017 Cathedral of Learning will be offered in person and online.

This year’s Latinx Connect conference starts with a keynote address by Angie Cruz, associate professor of English at Pitt and author of the recently released book “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,” which has been featured in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Victor Figuereo, a School of Social Work assistant professor who came to Pitt last year as part of a Latinx Cluster Hiring Initiative, is part of the group organizing the conference. One of the reasons he came to Pitt was he felt the University welcomed research around Latinx issues, particularly Afro-Latinx behavioral health disparities, on which his research focuses.

The cluster hire has provided him a support group with people from different departments. He said they try to meet regularly just to help navigate being first- or second-year faculty members at Pitt.

The University needs to “continue not only the pipeline of diverse ethnic scholars to Pitt, but students as well,” he said. “The more of us there are as faculty that representation is so important for students to see.”

He said the conference will not only have local leaders speaking about supporting the Pittsburgh-area Latinx community, but people discussing a variety of topics that uplift different identities within the community, such as the Afrolatinidad and Latinos and Hispanics in London.

Hernandez said the conference also will provide some professional development, particularly for University staff. Brigette Bethea, who works as with the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum Executive Coach Program, will do virtual coaching for staff, faculty and other conference participants.

Angelica Perez-Johnston, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at CCAC, said the conference also is aimed at “increasing the awareness that we are not a monolith. In the region, we represent literally every aspect of Latinidad. It’s not just Mexican Americans or Mexicans that are here in the city.”

“We lean toward the stereotypical celebratory instances of Latinidad, and we don’t really recognize and acknowledge not only the representation, but the struggles and the issues that we are up against as a very small community within a larger region, and that we’re largely dispersed across the county. There is not one central location that we all live or reside or share in community.”

At CCAC, Perez-Johnston is one of just four Latinx administrators. Part of the community college’s approach is increasing access to students who don’t have other opportunities, including undocumented students. They have changed the language on applications to say U.S. citizen, visiting student with visa or neither, so undocumented students don’t have to out themselves. The school also used to charge undocumented student out-of-state tuition, even if they lived in the county. Now they charge them resident tuition. 

She said the Latinx population in the city of Pittsburgh has increased more than 170 percent in the past two years, but is still only 2.5 percent of the overall population.

The growth may be due to people hearing through their own social networks that there are greater opportunities in Pittsburgh than there might be in New Jersey or New York or Washington, D.C., Torres said.

In the past 10 years, the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corp. has grown to support the creation and development of small businesses by Latino Hispanic entrepreneurs, she said. There also are two major organizations in the city that provide family services, immigration, advocacy and educational services and support for Latino populations — Casa San Jose and the Latino Community Center.

“The word is spreading that Pittsburgh is a welcoming place; that Allegheny County is a place of opportunity for emerging communities,” Torres said. “And that’s not just true for the Latino community. We see this with the Bhutanese. We see this with other groups that have been arriving in our area over the last decade or so. What we need to do is capitalize on the fact that these groups are here to ensure that they and their children feel welcomed in educational spaces, especially in higher ed.”

Registration and more information about the 2022 Latinx Connect Conference can be found on the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion website.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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