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Northeast Ohio Latinos Finding a Balance Between Two Worlds

Father & daughter --- Sofia and Dante Larzabal
Father & daughter --- Sofia and Dante Larzabal

Nearly a quarter of Lorain’s population of 64,000 is Latino, a fact that Cel Rivera traces back to the employment needs of the city’s once bustling steel industry. 1300 workers were recruited from Mexico in 1923. Another 500 were brought in from Puerto Rico in the late ‘40s, including Cel Rivera’s dad.

CEL RIVERA: He came here by himself and lived in the barracks on the site at US Steel. He brought my mother in late 1949 and I was born here.

In 1994, Rivera was appointed Lorain’s chief of police --- the first Hispanic in Ohio to hold such a post. He says he’s raised his three daughters with a strong appreciation of their heritage. But, he adds that, for many Puerto Ricans, that sense of pride is colored by a misunderstanding many Americans have about his homeland. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States --- residents of the Caribbean island are US citizens --- but they often don’t feel that way.

CEL RIVERA : You get asked all the time for green cards. People don’t know the history. And I think that’s why sometimes they don’t understand why there’s a hesitancy on the part of those of Puerto Rican descent to give up their language and culture and food. It’s like, “Why don’t you just assimilate?” It burns in the soul of most Puerto Ricans.

A new attempt to preserve and celebrate Latino culture can be found on the west side of Cleveland.


Last year, Cleveland Public Theater wanted to bring more Hispanic voices to local stages, and created Teatro Publico. Uruguayan Dante Larzabal says he and the other actors, writers and backstage personnel all come from the community.

DANTE LARZABAL: We create the play, we create the script --- everything that happens on the stage is created by ourselves.

The most recent production was A Recipe Para La Vida --- a collection of family stories, cultural legends and songs centering on the preparation and sharing of food. During rehearsals, the actors swapped tales of home cooking. Sometimes those memories are not so pleasant, as in the case of a particular South American tree nut.

REHEARSALVOICE: Not all the food brings people together. If you eat Pana de Pepitas, everybody runs away. (laughter)

Food has always been an important touchstone for Dante Larzabal. He says his sense of heritage is renewed whenever he gets together with friends over a barbeque and they trade stories of home while the meat cooks. He hopes to encourage that sort of thing with his six-year-old, Sofia, as she gets older, but he realizes young people have different ideas about being social.

DANTE LARZABAL: I say, “Try to be in reunion with other Uruguayans --- your friends --- more often. Not so much Facebook, not too much internet.” (sighs). It’s a big battle.

The actors start singing an old Puerto Rican folk song that’s used in the show.

SOUND: Group singing “Ola, Ola, Ola…” UP & UNDER

Nabeska Aviles moved from Puerto Rico 16-years-ago to complete her college education. Like Dante Larzabal, her kids have grown-up in this country and she’s tried to raise them with an appreciation of both cultures.

BECKY AVILES: I want them to understand the language, I want them to know everything about the island and life there, but I also want them to appreciate all the good things they have here as well. So, it’s a balance of the best of both worlds.

And sometimes, by sharing some stories and songs, you can bring those two worlds closer together.


Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.