When work began on the five-year action plan for La Villa Hispana in 2015, there was a lot of energy and electricity behind the scenes around transforming the neighborhood into a vibrant “intersection of culture and commerce,” but within the residential community, it barely made a ripple.
“Because the concept of La Villa Hispana was actually three decades old, the community thought it wouldn’t happen,” explains Jenice Contreras, executive director of the Hispanic Business Center and Northeast Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We needed to find a way to create hope and start to get the residents excited about what was happening.”
Enter La Placita, a pop-up outdoor summer market meant to evoke memories of similar markets that are popular throughout Latin America. Featuring local vendors and artists, live entertainment, and traditional Latin foods, the first La Placita event kicked off in May 2015 as a way to infuse life and promise into the long-dormant vision for the neighborhood.
“The event brings familiar sounds, smells, and an environment that makes you feel like you’re in your hometown,” says Contreras. “It creates a sentimental connection that resonates.”
La Placita’s growth over the last four seasons shows that it has, indeed, resonated—escalating from approximately 750 attendees the first season to 8,500 last year. The 2019 season kicked off on Saturday, June 14, with Latin jazz band Los Tres Sonidos, salsa music by Grupo Kawakan, dance lessons, youth dancers, and an appearance by the Miss Latina Image participants.
And, of course, lots of food. Peggy Cruz, owner of Cha Firo, is now in her second year participating in La Placita as one of 20+ vendors who take part in each event. A native of the La Villa Hispana neighborhood, the home-based caterer specializes in authentic Puerto Rican dishes with a healthy twist.
“My thing is taking Puerto Rican favorites, cleaning them up, and making them wholesome so that everyone can enjoy them, including vegans and vegetarians,” says Cruz, who was inspired after her son went vegetarian at age 15.
For instance, Cha Firo not only offers pork pastelas, but also pastelas made from chickpeas and mushrooms. Her rellenos de papa (or mashed potato balls) are offered the traditional way—stuffed with ground beef—but also in a version stuffed with broccoli and cheese.
Cruz says La Placita has given her the confidence to go bigger with her business. She officially started the catering business three years ago and is now working on getting a vendors license that will enable her to vend anywhere in Ohio, as well as a catering van.
“I’m just grinding,” says Cruz, who graduated from culinary school this May. “I’m working toward my dream, and I feel so darn good about it.”
Contreras says that helping home-based entrepreneurs like Cruz expand their business presence was one of the big motivations behind starting La Placita. It was also the launching pad for Las Tienditas del Mercado, the HBA's business incubator space that opened in fall 2018.
"La Placita has been fabulous, but it's a three-hit wonder in the summer, and that's it," says Contreras. "We needed a consistent [year-round] way to grow the businesses, so that's where the business incubator came in."
Both La Placita and Las Tienditas del Mercado are laying the foundation for an even bigger part of the overall La Villa Hispana plan: El Mercado, a permanent market that will house 20 micro-businesses, as well as an adjacent public plaza that will become home to La Placita in the summertime. A groundbreaking ceremony is expected to take place later this summer.
"Our community has never done a project of this scale, not even close," says Contreras. "It's going to be truly transformational for the neighborhood and Northeast Ohio as a whole."
But, in the meantime, La Placita invites locals—as well as all of Greater Cleveland–to come and celebrate the neighborhood's momentum and the people that make it special. Says Cruz of Cha Firo, "It's an opportunity for all of us to come together and have an easy, breezy Latino time."
La Placita takes place on July 20 and August 17 at the intersection of W. 25th St. and Clark Ave in the La Villa Hispana neighborhood. Get more information here.
This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.