La Villa Hispana begins a new chapter with the food entrepreneurs who helped shape it

Four years ago, in 2014, Haguit Marrero was in something of a crisis. She had just arrived in Cleveland from Puerto Rico, gotten divorced the year prior, and had three daughters and a son to raise. And she had to make a living.

“I was studying fashion design, working as a cleaning lady,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I knew somehow I wanted to make a change. For women. Que si se puede luchar.”

When Haguit Marrero got word that the Hispanic Business Center, organized by Jenice Conteras, was assisting Hispanic startups, it sparked an idea: she would cater the same recipes her mother and grandmother had taught her on the island when she was a kid. Enter Pura Cepa (‘full-blooded’), which Marrero viewed as a culinary attempt to return Puerto Rican cuisine to its farawayroots. “When you’re on the island,” she says, “people always ask, ‘Are you pura cepa?’ I want other people like me to be proud of saying, Si, soy.”

Today Pura Cepa is one of four businesses spotlighted in La Villa Hispana’s latest development in business incubation: Las Tienditas del Mercado. Pura Cepa joins Café Social Latinoamericano, Ortiz Art Drafts Designs, and a yet-to-be-named tenant in the Las Tienditas space, which celebrated its grand opening on Friday, September 21. Designed to be an incubator for Hispanic and Latino businesses, Las Tienditas is based in the former Caribe Grocery bodega space once owned by the late Julio “Cesi” Castro (nicknamed the “Mayor of W. 25th”).

The introduction of Las Tienditas doesn’t just boost neighborhood businesses, but also safeguards them from a type of failure easily seen without a community’s full-fledged backing—as well as legal quagmires. Without CDCs pushing them to brick-and-mortardom, many Puerto Rican restaurants in Ward 14 may be in violation of City Code, based on the lack of regulations. Las Tienditas helps provide a structure that keeps them safe from potential fines or even jail time.

“But there’s still a lot of hesitancy on their part,” says Ricardo Leon, managing director for the Metro West Community Development Organization. “I don’t want to say pushback. Getting everything up to code, taking this underground gray market, and formalizing it. Getting mom and pop out of their car, though? It takes work.”

Leon’s mindset is in line with La Villa Hispana’s 2016 Action Plan, which positions the model of incubation around “business literacy,” often instructing families with good intentions how to operate in the right legal structure—and how to make money. In addition to the four shops apart of Las Tienditas, La Villa Hispana hopes to see up to 100 more businesses uplifted by the time 2022 comes around, a direction they aim to finalize next spring.

For Marrero, her path to growth as Pura Cepa enters its own new phase is peppered with more certainty, as she expands her social media presence with HBC’s help. She’s digging the La Villa Hispana concept so much she’s taken up event planning for the community’s sake. Karaoke. Un Noche de Bohemia. Bachata classes.

“It’s all about returning to our roots. Nuestro raizes,” Marrerosays. ‘So, in my opinion, we can continue to growth. Poco a poco."

Cooking, family, and the future

Like Pura Cepa, Panchita’s is another eatery being lifted to officialdom by the continuing development of La Villa Hispana neighborhood while keeping cultural heritage front and center. In fact, Panchita’s was one of the original home food businesses to open with La Villa’s guidance.

Owned by Heribelto Montanez, the catering business is a living ode to Montanez’s mother, Francisca—affectionately known as “Pancha,” or “Panchita,” for her short stature. After all, Francisca never pushed past five feet, never made it to the third grade, never learned to read or write, never learned English, and never, ever measured out ingredients. But despite immigrant setbacks, Pancha’s homecooking spoke volumes.

“Everybody in the [neighborhood] knew who my mom was,” says Heribelto. ‘’Her pastelillos and pasteles, man. All the weddings and baptisms had ‘em. That was her love. Cooking and family.”

Cooking and family have always been at the heart of the Montanez lifestyle, ever since Pancha was born the second oldest of 36 siblings in a village outside of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Pancha’s life, as was for islanders before modernization, was rote: Stay home, raise siblings, feed them plates of arroz con pollo in a 25-pound pot. When financial straits came, the Montanez family turned to selling staples like pasteles out of their front door. It was textbook Latin commerce: Find something to specialize in. Do it without hesitation. Day in, day out.

As Nationalist Party revolts began to rattle the island, Pancha relocated with her husband Francisco “Sico” Montanez, a laborer, in the early 1950s to Ashtabula. They were following a First Wave of Puerto Rican immigrants, many of whom would find a wide helping of jobs across the state in steel mills, greenhouses, at the National Tubing Company. The title “Little Puerto Rico” began to be thrown around sometime in 1958, and homes in the Clark-Fulton area became refuges for back-home-type eateries. Pancha’s included.

In 1972, seven years after Heribelto was born, the Montanezs suffered their first American tragedy. Pancha’s 12-year-old son Reynaldo died from the effects of brain cancer. Everyone, especially Sico, was devastated. He became an alcoholic. “Weaker,” Heribelto recalls, “while Mom got stronger.”

The family, especially Pancha, needed catharsis. “We turned to selling food right out of the house,” Heribelto says. “I remember being 12 or 13. Mom sitting us down at the table, teaching us the ropes. Whenever we ran short of money, she’d call her friends, saying, ‘I’m making alcapurrias,’ or, ‘I’m making chicharrones!’”

About five years after Pancha began selling pots of rice out of her home in Clark-Fulton, Heribelto traveled in 1993 to Puerto Rico for the fifth time in his life. He spent weeks in his aunts’ homes in Yabucoa, taking notes walking around San Juan, observing food preppers pointedly. “Even the business model,” he says. “What sold, how they sold it. What were the foods they liked? What’s going to remind people here of those roadside stands?’”

Even though Pancha had been churning up empanadas since the 1980s, it wasn’t until Heribelto, his wife Anna, and his daughter Alysia began participating in “La Placita”—a test-market for La Villa Hispana—that their catering became “official.” In the spring of 2016, they accepted a makeover with HBC’s guidance, one including, as Alysia says, “Checking accounts. Saving accounts. New signs. To really bump up that professionalism.”

Efforts paid off. This year, they've expanded operations out of the neighborhood, appearing at everything from bike show pop-ups to Cleveland`s Ingenuity Fest. A leap not easy, Alysia says, for other neighborhood entrepreneurs “cooking just to pay those bills at the end of the month.”

But highly worth it. 2018 was their first year in the green. Alysia reports a 20 percent growth increase annually since Panchita's inception. ”I don't think that would be possible if we hadn't gotten help,” shesays.

Like the rest of the Montanez family, and their future neighbors in Las Tienditas, Alysia is energized by the big-picture idea of La Villa Hispana—which, once finished, could be the first instance in nearly 60 years of the city fully recognizing its gigantic population of Hispanics. “Finally giving us,” notes Alysia, “an official identity.”

Heribelto has no doubt that Pancha, who passed away two years ago at the age of 87, would agree.

“Oh, man, she’d be all for it,” he says. “Anywhere she could go and talk and mingle with the people? Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt in my mind.”

Las Tienditas del Mercado is located at 2886 West 25th Street Cleveland, OH 44113.

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.