What Latin America Taught Me About Pittsburgh

(via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

It’s tempting to keep talking about all the obvious things that make Pittsburgh great. The sports teams, the beautiful landscape, the resilient spirit, the late Myron Cope. The list goes on and on, and every Sam McCool book can tell you all the quirky things you miss by not being a Pittsburgher, or at least not coming to visit.

Sometimes it takes a long time living outside a city to understand what makes the place truly unique. And often it means feeling different and not understanding why, until that magic moment when the answer strikes you like a thunderbolt. Double yoi, it’s attitude, and it’s everywhere.

While doing some research for a consulting project, I came across a contact at Boeing, a company we are trying to enlist to help us promote science and technology development in Brazil. The name was Donna Hrinak, and knowing nothing else about her I thought to myself, “she has to be from Pittsburgh.”

Tracing back through the bizarre thought process that brought me there, I determined I had associated Penn Hills Judge Leonard Hromyak, who always seemed to have campaign signs up around my house growing up, with Ms. Hrinak — and all the Slavic Pittsburgh bells rang.

A little more due diligence proved my instinct to be right, and it turned out that the girl from Ipanema is actually from Monaca, and is one of the most prominent American women in Brazilian business, after serving as U.S. ambassador there early last decade.

I’m in awe, not just because a Latin American economics nerd like me finds that satisfying, but because the fact that Pittsburghers prosper throughout the world and in far-flung places is testament to something important about our unique attitude. Namely, I am convinced that our direct demeanor, combined with a culture of tenacity, has contributed to what makes Pittsburghers wildly successful around the world.

Before she went to Brazil, Donna Hrinak was ambassador to Bolivia. In that country, she was famous for requiring guests, including Bolivian officials, to dress up as cowboys or rock stars as a condition of attending the embassy’s Fourth of July party. She was also infamous for saying that the then-president “didn’t have the balls” to confront narcotrafficking-related corruption in the judiciary.

Stumbling across Ms. Hrinak and her extraordinary career made clear to me, in a Latin American context, what a Pittsburgh upbringing has given me and everyone else who grew up in our singular culture.

My work brings me in close contact with Latin America, through short travel and long assignments in the region, and through research and writing. One of the characteristics that has always grated me about life in places like Mexico, Colombia or Brazil are the rigid social barriers that have been erected over time. This forces ordinary people to lock themselves into deferential positions to survive, like the four drunk rich girls in Mexico City who got caught on tape getting out of their car and berating police officers for being “salary men,” i.e., having to work for a living.

Increasingly in the United States, things are not much different. When talent is cheap, flattery can be dear, and bowing to position and privilege is something I see far too often in the workplace. In Washington, D.C., where the corridors of power can turn the fiercest firebrand into a sycophant, or Los Angeles, where the beautiful people can make anyone feel small, Pittsburghers prevail, and there’s a reason for it.

In a country and world with growing inequality and social division, attitudes matter. In Pittsburgh, in contrast to the overt social roles in Latin America and the toady culture in America’s big cities, both the hoi polloi and the high and mighty are constantly brought back down to earth.

This is the culture that bore Sophie Masloff and countless local straight-talkers. But it’s also the culture that made some of the highest-profile national figures to be the direct, take-no-prisoners personalities they are today.

Think Ron Paul, whose honesty and ideological coherence has earned him acclaim even among political adversaries. There’s Paul O’Neill, who lost his job for standing up against a bumptious White House. CNN’s Jeannie Moos can blithely bring the most serious of stories down to earth. Even the father of the Obamas’ dog Bo, who allegedly barks a lot during public events, is from Beaver County.

At the heart of it, Pittsburghers know that nobody is really better than anybody else, and that noblesse oblige is really just how you say insecurity in French. Maybe it is because, rich or poor, Pittsburgh has been the butt of jokes for years. Or maybe it is a blue-collar dignity that has outlived the city’s industrial era, imbuing us with a quiet confidence that nobody, no matter how wealthy or highfalutin’ they might be, has the right to talk down to anyone else.

When challenged by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on the air, Myron Cope captured it best: “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he should stick his head in a can of paint.”

Myron might be gone, but the attitude is as much a part of Pittsburgh as the three rivers or the Steelers, and I’m thankful for it every day.

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