Despite living through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, several businesses and restaurants in Gainesville represent cultures of love, hard work and community through this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month.
Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the culture and contributions of Hispanic and Latinx Americans. The month of celebration begins Sept. 15 and lasts until Oct. 15, overlapping with eight Latin American countries’ independence days.
People of various cultures come together to enjoy the food, music and talents of Hispanic and Latinx Americans. Here are some Hispanic-owned businesses in Gainesville.
“All the little things you normally miss that you can’t find in town — that's our specialty,” said Peter Ynigo, who co-owns La Aurora Latin Market and Mi Apá Latin Café with his wife, Aurora.
When the Ynigos arrived in Gainesville from Miami in 1995, they couldn’t find a lot of international food in grocery stores. So four years later, they decided to open their own store, La Aurora, located at 3733 W University Ave., which they stocked with goods bought in south Florida.
In 2003, the couple founded Mi Apá to provide customers with already-cooked meals like arroz con pollo and Cuban sandwiches with plantain chips.
Over the years, Mi Apá, located at 114 SW 34th St. and 15634 NW Highway 441, has connected Gainesville’s Hispanic community through food, music, salsa classes and domino tournaments, Ynigo said. It’s also provided a learning experience for students on a field trip trying to order their meals in Spanish and a couple hoping to keep the Spanish heritage alive for their adopted Honduran daughter.
“Culturally, you'd be amazed how similar we are and at the same time how different we are,” he said.
Serenity Beauty Lounge offers manicures, pedicures, nail extensions, body waxing and eyelash extensions, according to its website.
The lounge at 1212 NW 12th Ave. is led by Sofia Lopez, a Mexican American who has been doing nails for more than 20 years.
Lopez said Serenity Beauty Lounge experienced a dip in customers during the pandemic, as the luxury of getting nails done professionally is one of the first things to be cut out of a budget. However, the salon has been following safety protocols and has increased sanitization.
After years of cutting hair at different barbershops in Gainesville, finally having his own shop was “a dream come true” for Israel Mujica, the 37-year-old owner of J’s 503 Barbershop, at 5109 NW 39th Ave. suite d.
He said his favorite part of the job is meeting people from different countries and learning about their cultures. Mujica moved with his family to the U.S. from Puerto Rico for a better life when he was 16 years old. During Hispanic Heritage Month, he plays Spanish music and serves food from Mi Apá at the barbershop to show Latin pride and to celebrate the dream he fulfilled in his new home.
“It’s awesome to be a business owner here in Gainesville and to help a lot of people,” he said.
He’s loved supporting his former employees who have gone on to run their own shops. Since J’s 503 Barbershop’s inception in 2014, Mujica has also given discounts on haircuts during back-to-school season for low-income families.
Joshua Joseph is the Haitian American executive chef and owner of Chef JJ Creations, which offers private dinners, meal prep and catering services according to its website.
The company describes the food as a Caribbean fusion and has served meals such as Rasta pasta, jerk lamb chops, barbecue jerk nachos and seafood boils with crab and jumbo shrimp.
Chef JJ Creations has also held pop-up events around town at places like The Heart of Gainesville Thrift Store, Blackadder Brewing Co. and the Jonesville Persimmon and Fruit Tree Nursery.
In March, the company collaborated with the local nonprofit Working Food to provide meals for Gainesville families battling food insecurity.
Although Marta Antron, 49, owned businesses in Puerto Rico, she never wanted to be part of the food industry.
But when she moved to Gainesville, she craved the authentic food from her culture. Thus, the Old San Juan Gastronomia was created and has been operating for about three years with Puerto Rican dishes such as Puerto Rican beef stew, empanadas and double-fried plantains.
Thanks to the restaurant’s success, which is currently accepting delivery orders only, Antron said the Old San Juan Gastronomia plans to open a location at The Oaks Mall food court in November.
“I just wanted to thank the Gainesville community for their support, for taking our food to their table and letting us be part of their family,” she said.
Wyatt’s Coffee, located at 5109 NW 39th Ave. suite d. in downtown Gainesville, sells espressos, brews, teas and pastries. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the coffee shop is only taking to-go orders and offers contactless pickup.
Wyatt’s opened in 2018 and is currently owned by Gabriel and Aleena Chavez.
A product of the pandemic, Cintrón, located at 2441 NW 43rd St., is a new restaurant that promises a Floribbean flavor. It draws from Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Haitian cuisines to provide a twist on American contemporary food.
Owner Hector Cintrón, 40, worked in south Florida restaurants for more than 18 years when he lost his job due to COVID-19. Restaurants weren’t hiring, so his family drummed up the support he needed to start his own business in Gainesville.
Cintrón said it couldn’t have been possible without their help. His sister, Wanda, is the co-owner, and other family members have chipped in on tasks to make the restaurant a reality.
“As Puerto Ricans, we love to eat, we love to cook, and we want to bring that same culture,” he said. “We want to give everything out and make people feel comfortable.”
Third House Books is a Latinx-owned independent bookstore, located at 400 NW 10th Ave., stocked with a small selection of indie reads that highlight marginalized voices.
Although the physical location is currently closed to visitors, the bookstore is still selling books online.
In the past, the bookstore has hosted “Meet the Author” events and an in-house book club.
Third House Books is led by Heather Halak, a UF English and linguistics alumna.
Elio Piedra said he’s more than just a DJ — he’s an entertainer. The Cuban singer, dancer and percussionist strives to bring a fiesta to every gathering he’s invited to, from corporate and social events to weddings. He has traveled to 20 states with his Latin music.
To Piedra, the Hispanic and Latinx community is made of fighters and dream chasers, working hard to accomplish goals for a brighter future. They are passionate about family, love and being welcoming, and Piedra said he’s grateful for the welcoming community he’s found in Gainesville.
“I see it as an everyday thing to keep celebrating our culture and our pride, our music, our food, to keep celebrating the fact that we have the opportunity to be here and enjoy a better life in the United States,” he said.