When Marliz Arteaga bakes her South American treats, she anticipates the nostalgia it will bring her customers.
Whether it be traveling miles out to search for authentic Brazilian coconut or gathering the specific ingredients to prepare a homemade dulce de leche, she spends generous time crafting her specialty.
Arteaga, 40, and her husband Leandro Soria, 41, are the owners of Dulce Manjar Bakery, an artisanal bakery specialized in South American treats. Dulce Manjar’s selection has previously included products like sweet bread and upside down pineapple cake.
Her staple product, however, is “alfajor de maicena,” a vanilla cookie filled with “manjar,” which is similar to dulce de leche, topped off with grated coconut.
The couple, who came to Gainesville from Bolivia, carefully craft this classic South American pastry that immediately reminds people of Bolivia's nostalgic ambiance. They’re proud to showcase its culinary delight with the Gainesville community, while sharing the bakery’s prosperity with vulnerable communities in Bolivia.
“We don't just sell ‘alfajores,’” Arteaga said. “We sell the experience.”
After leaving their home in the Bolivian Amazon and arriving in the U.S. in 2010, the couple vowed to familiarize themselves with Gainesville. In 2017, they started baking bread for their church’s events and socials.
Arteaga and Soria tried to maintain a “panadería,” or a bread bakery, earlier in their entrepreneurial career. But the couple wanted to develop further.
“I thought to myself that we needed to find a unique product,” Arteaga said. “And I remembered the ‘alfajores de maicena,’ which I’ve always loved.”
And after experimenting with names, like “Panadería Artesanal,” and learning the likes and dislikes of customers, the couple could finally start the business that currently serves customers the authentic, sweet South American treats.
“Because the base of the ‘alfajor’ is dulce de leche, we finally named it Dulce Manjar,” Arteaga said. “In some parts of South America, they call dulce de leche a ‘manjar,’ which means food for the mind or spiritual substance.”
The couple tries to maintain a balance between the business with Arteaga managing the bureaucratic part and Soria the baking process. The couple’s two sons are also involved in the business.
“I spend around five hours a week baking, but it all depends on the amount of orders.” Soria said. “We try to help each other out as much as we can.”
Lizet Navarrete, a 56-year-old Gainesville resident, has been a customer of Dulce Manjar for about two years. Since then, she has witnessed how much effort the couple puts into the business, she said.
“Marliz places quality and effort into her orders,” Navarrete said. “She is great at communicating with customers.”
Arteaga’s always willing to try new recipes to satisfy her customers, Navarrete said. But the contributions of Dulce Manjar are seen beyond Gainesville residents: 10% of Dulce Manjar’s profit goes back to South America to a family project called Missionary Backpacks for the Amazon.
Soria’s upbringing in rural Bolivia and the lack of resources available led him to realize his duty as a business owner.
The couple’s church was working with Operation Christmas Child to send out necessities, with Bolivia qualifying as a nation in need. Yet, Soria knew the project didn’t reach the communities alongside the river.
“If that organization is reaching out to Bolivia but not targeting those communities, I don't think any other organization is reaching them either,” Soria said.
Through support from Iglesia Hispana Gainesville or Hispanic Church of Gainesville, located at 3508 NW 19th St., churches in the Bolivian Amazon and coordinated groups of volunteers, Arteaga and Soria were able to start Missionary Backpacks for the Amazon.
The project’s objective is delivering backpacks filled with school supplies, hygiene items, clothing, toys and biblical material to children ages 4 to 12 living alongside the Bolivian Amazon. The backpacks are usually delivered during the month of April for Bolivian Children’s Day, but this past year, they were also handed out during Christmas time.
Lindy Rivera, 53, the pastor’s wife at Hispanic Church of Gainesville, said the program started five years ago.
“Marliz and her family proposed the idea to our church, and we began promoting it,” Rivera said.
Arteaga and her family have been very involved in the church’s community. Arteaga participates as a leader for the student and women ministry, and Soria volunteers, Rivera said.
The Hispanic Church of Gainesville holds fundraising events for the project. The church also started up a cafe that opens every last Sunday of the month. All of the cafe’s profits go to the backpack project as well as other church ministries.
And support for Arteaga and Soria’s vision also goes beyond borders.
Edilson Texeria, 51, and Cintia Texeria, 46, are Brazilian missionaries living in Cobija, Bolivia, and they’re longtime friends of Arteaga and Soria. The couple handles the purchase of products and the backpacks’ delivery — a feat that sometimes lasts seven to 10 days.
Since 2010, the Texerias have traveled through the Amazonian Manuripi river to evangelize different communities.
“We travel using the missionary boat. It’s a very big boat,” Cintia said.
After combining Dulce Manjar’s profits and Hispanic Church of Gainesville's fundraising, Arteaga and Soria send the money to the Texerias to build the backpacks. Then, in Bolivia, the backpacks are created and packaged with the necessary goods, said Cintia.
With the money raised, Cintia said they have been able to pack about 300 backpacks.
The Texerias make note to acknowledge Soria, Arteaga and the church’s support.
“When we give children their backpacks, we explain to them where they come from and who contributed,” Cintia said.
Advertisements for the project are already starting up as the month of April approaches.
Arteaga and Soria’s project is a reflection of their personal ambitions to create a more ecologically friendly and abundant environment.
Arteaga has a masters degree in sustainable development from UF, and she is currently finishing a doctorate in ecology at UF.
When she isn’t taking care of Dulce Manjar, Arteaga works with development projects and transdisciplinary research in the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon in communities affected by large infrastructure.
She’s part of several research networks in Bolivia, such as Tu Beca Bolivia, a mentoring institution for young professionals that helps with scholarship applications. Additionally, Arteaga is also responsible for monitoring and evaluating the Women Chef Entrepreneurs program, which supports women in Bolivia to start their own bakery.
Soria is currently a stay-at-home father, but he actively volunteers at church. He has a farm of chickens, of which their eggs are used for baking, and he also cultivates a garden that provides onions, avocados, bananas, chile, carrots and tomatoes.
These sustainability ambitions are fundamental to Dulce Manjar.
“We don't care about the quantity of our products, we care about the quality,” Arteaga said.
Arteaga and Soria hope to grow Missionary Backpacks for the Amazon, aiming to give out a greater amount of bags this upcoming April.
“Sharing what we have is most important,” she said. “We set an example for our kids that there is more joy in giving than receiving.”
Contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nicolebeltg.
Nicole Beltrán is a second-year journalism and economics major, reporting for the university and caimán desk. In her free time, she enjoys reading, journaling, and watching musicals.