A year after fleeing his homeland, Victor Suarez brought a taste of Venezuela to Gainesville.
Like 59-year-old Suarez, many Latinx business owners share pieces of the homelands they left behind with the Gainesville community. Latinx restaurants like Flaco’s Cuban Bakery, La Cocina de Abuela, Arepa Burger Food Truck and La Pasadita have become parts of the Gainesville community in the past 20 years.
Leaving Venezuela also meant leaving his culture, brothers, son and grandchildren, Suarez said. While it was painful to leave his country, he honors his identity through authentic food that he uses to showcase his culture in Gainesville through Venezuelan brands and toppings.
Before leaving Venezuela in 2018, Suarez was a fourth-generation farm owner and made his living from tending his farm and caring for cows and horses. However, his livelihood was later threatened by Venezuela’s Circulo Bolivariano, a social and political group tasked with enforcing the ideals of socialism.
Party members damaged Suarez’s truck with tubes, scratched his vehicle and threatened to kill and kidnap him, Suarez said.
Venezuela has been in a political crisis since the election of President Nicolas Maduro in 2013. After a decrease in oil prices, the country has dealt with the world’s highest hyperinflation, which decreased the value of Venezuelan currency and rendered basic goods unattainable.
It was after leaving Venezuela that the Arepa Burger Food Truck came to be.
With plans to turn the food truck into a restaurant, Suarez and his girlfriend cook burgers and arepas, a traditional Venezuelan dish made from corn flour filled with a protein, such as chicken, and a variety of toppings.
He said he uses Harina Pan, a Venezuelan brand to retain his culture within his dish. All food items are made using queso de mano, a soft, handmade Venezuelan cheese. The burgers are made in a Venezuelan style and are topped with cabbage and ketchup instead of lettuce, onion or tomato.
Like Suarez, Eli Irias left his home behind. He moved to Gainesville from Honduras when he was 16 because, he said, his country started to become controlled by drug cartels. Political parties split up the nation and an increase in crime followed.
Hungry for a taste of traditional Latin cuisine, he frequented La Pasadita, located at 4126 NW 6th St. The 22-year-old Santa Fe College general studies freshman has now been working at La Pasadita for about two years.
Irias, now the assistant manager, said La Pasadita began as a small store where local Latinx construction and agricultural workers would shop. Over time, other Gainesville residents became aware of the store, and the owners opened the dining room in 2016.
The restaurant has focused on traditional Mexican food, such as authentic Mexican tacos made with corn flour tortillas and Posoli, a Mexican stew with corn, chicken and pork.
To Irias, La Pasadita is a place where he can speak Spanish at work and learns about his coworkers’ culture. Because the majority of La Pasadita’s employees are Mexican, Irias said he has learned about Mexican culture and food.
Honduras sits below Mexico, and there are differences in dialect and music between the countries, Irias said. Through his work, he discovered that his coworkers’ dialects and dishes vary depending on what Mexican state they hail from.
“Working with the Latin people, it just gave me that little piece of home,” he said.
Sara Puyana, the co-owner of Flaco’s Cuban Bakery and La Cocina de Abuela, also tries to bring zest to Gainesville — in her case, Colombian.
Along with her employees, she partnered with UF’s Por Colombia, the Colombian student organization, to teach students traditional dances like Cumbia for UF’s 2019 Homecoming Parade after ordering 40 traditional dresses. This year, Puyana worked with UF’s Students Taking Action Against Racism, a Student Government agency, to tentatively create a Gainesville Latinx business owner group.
Puyana believes that as a member of the Latinx community, she has a responsibility to share her culture. She wants to take the best parts of Latin America and embrace them, which is why she had a Dia De Los Muertos mural painted on the side of Flaco’s.
“When I grew up here in the states, it was always like we’re a melting pot and we take the best things from each culture,” she said. “That melting pot is still with me.”
Even though Puyana is Colombian, she said she moved to Hialeah, a city in Miami-Dade County, at the age of 4. When she visited her neighbors’ homes, she said she would enjoy a cafecito, a strong cup of Cuban coffee.
For this reason, Flaco’s, located at 200 W. University Ave., specializes in Cuban food. The most famous dishes are Cuban sandwiches and ropa vieja, a dish made from pulled beef.
The restaurant also serves arepas, a traditional Colombian dish made from corn flour and stuffed with meat, and Mexican-style tacos.
Puyana opened another restaurant in 2017 named La Cocina de Abuela, which translates to grandma’s kitchen, after her mother who would cook at Flaco’s.
La Cocina de Abuela, located 125 NW 23rd Ave., opened as a larger area for families, Puyana said. Abuela’s includes a kids area with toys and activities and a Chipotle-style bar where customers order items as they walk down the line, she said.
The restaurant focuses more on Colombian dishes such as sancocho, a hearty soup with potatoes, chicken, beef and corn on the cob, and mondongo, a stew with vegetables and beef.
“Gainesville is a small town, and there aren’t many of us,” she said. “I want to represent something that’s welcoming and that anyone can feel comfortable coming and trying our food.”
Correction: This story has been updated that Hialeah is a city in Miami-Dade County. The Alligator originally reported differently.
A year after fleeing Venezuela, 59-year-old Victor Suarez opened Arepa Burger Food Truck because all he knew was food in his home country.