For the culturally inquisitive, Pittsburgh’s Latino scene can seem like little more than a smattering of taco places and weekly salsa nights. Tara Sherry-Torres, the founder of community project Café con Leche, is changing that. Through a series of events celebrating Latino culture, Sherry-Torres aims “to connect the Pittsburgh Latino community, promote Latino culture in Pittsburgh, and be a space for dialogue and creative problem solving.”
Monthly events at different locations around the city feature art, music and dance from local artists and performers, and food from local cooks and restaurants. Café con Leche events draw 75 to 175 people from various cultural backgrounds; about half of each event’s attendees are Latino. The ten events hosted so far include Herencia Africana, a celebration of Latino culture’s African roots; The Amazing Plantain, featuring plantain-based art, poetry and food; a Salsa Night showcasing a wide variety of salsa dancing styles; and a Chilean Independence Day celebration. No matter what the theme, the focus is on food and music, and the potential they have to connect people. “Food is the most basic human need,” says Sherry-Torres. “Breaking bread with somebody is a great way to start building a relationship.”
Café con Leche began as an artist’s residency at Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery. “It was really Nina [Sauer] from Most Wanted that framed it for me,” says Sherry-Torres, “She was like, ‘You’re going to be an artist in residence, and your art is going to be food and building community.’” Sherry-Torres, who is half Puerto Rican and half Polish, describes a sense of transience for Pittsburgh Latinos: inadequate visibility within the greater community, and a lack of identification with what it means to be a Latino in Pittsburgh. She was born and raised in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic hub of Brooklyn, and when she came to Pittsburgh seven years ago, it didn’t take her long to start missing the presence of Latino culture.
Latinos are a small portion of the Pittsburgh area’s population—only around 3% of Allegheny County. But that population has grown almost 200% since 2000, and will continue to expand. Café con Leche is about building community connections. “In my experience in organizing and in working in communities,” says Sherry-Torres, “the one single thing that you can do to really benefit any advocacy movement…is just building relationships for the sake of building relationships.” Sherry-Torres sees a diverse cultural fabric as a crucial part of Pittsburgh taking its place as a true cosmopolitan city.
Café con Leche’s greatest challenge has been a marker of the project’s success: “Ironically, [it’s been] finding space,” says Sherry-Torres, to accommodate the events’ growing crowds. The other great challenge is a marker of Sherry-Torres’ thoughtfulness: ensuring that events are as broad and inclusive as possible. At Café con Leche events, she interweaves Latino culture’s popular aspects with its more overlooked and undervalued ones. Past events have focused on pan-Latino identity, African roots in Latino culture, and what it means to be a Latina woman. An upcoming event will celebrate LGBTQIA Latino identity.
A Seed Award from The Sprout Fund and support from the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation have sustained Café con Leche events through this summer, but Sherry-Torres has big plans for the future. She hopes to turn this social enterprise into a viable consulting business that teaches local businesses how best to provide services and foster an environment that will attract Latinos to Pittsburgh. She plans to continue holding several events each year, but “the events are really the low-hanging fruit,” she says. There’s a lot more to be done in weaving the Latino community into Pittsburgh’s cultural fabric, and Sherry-Torres intends to spearhead that effort.
Sherry-Torres is telling her story with Café con Leche with the hope of inspiring others to get involved. “I don’t want to be the only person. I’m doing what I know from my own experience, and putting it out there. I want others to do the same…to be self-authorized [in] creating what they need to see in Pittsburgh,” she says. “Because that’s how great cities are built: people have ideas and they just start doing stuff.”
Café con Leche’s next event, Brisas del Caribe, will take place during the downtown gallery crawl, at Katz Plaza tonight, Friday, April 24th, from 5:30 to 9:00pm. It will feature live performances of music and dance from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti; tarot card readings; a dance workshop; and an interactive art project called “What Does it Mean to Be a Pittsburgh Latino?” The event is free and open to all. To sign up for Café con Leche’s newsletter, send an email with the word “Subscribe” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.