Venezuelans and Colombians who fled socioeconomic problems in their heartlands are bringing new customs and boosting the local economy at the same time.
By Robert Valencia
A chilly Saturday night seemed to be a perfect time to enjoy a hot dog at “Que Perros,” a Colombian restaurant in Hollywood. Maria Fernanda Guilarte, a 15-year-old Venezuelan girl, and Camilo Moreno, 20, just got out of the movie theater and decided to eat some food. That night, Moreno invited his female friend to enjoy a new hot dog style from Cali, Colombia.
-“Let me have a Hawaiian hot dog, and a ‘Scooby Doo’ hot dog for her, please,” said Moreno.
-“Scooby Doo hot dog? What in the world is that?” said Guilarte.
-“Oh, it’s a hot dog with pieces of bacon, mushrooms and mashed beans.”
-“Are you kidding me? Do you want to kill my stomach?” said Guilarte. “I’d rather have a Hawaiian hot dog.”
-“How much Pineapple jelly and cheese do you want on top of your hot dog?” said the store’s owner.
-“Oh, no, please don’t prepare it. I think I go to ‘Don Pan’ and have an arepa with ham and cheese,” she told Camilo as she was stepping out.
-“Wait! Don’t you want to try a ‘cholado’?” Moreno said.
-“What is it?”
-“It’s a kind of smoothie, but it has pieces of different kinds of fruits, condensed milk, and pieces of ice with granulated chocolate on top.”
-“No, thanks,” said she, “I want a warm Venezuelan arepa tonight.”
The same night, approximately 25 miles south from Hollywood, two places at 58th street had a fierce dispute about who makes the best arepas in Doral, a city where most Colombians and Venezuelans live. The first hotspot, “El Arepazo,” brings a number of clientele on weekends, mostly Venezuelans. “A lot of people came here to enjoy a good arepa while watching Venezuelan TV shows live,” said Jose, an “arepazo” employee while he was manipulating a cheese ball. “I can’t truly say who makes the best arepas, but maybe you can tell for the number of people here,” he added.
Three blocks away on the same street, a considerable number of people visit an Exxon gas station at the corner of 58th street N.W and 107th Avenue, where a small hot dog car is located. People from all nationalities grabbed a bite on a creamy, hot arepa filled with butter and cheese while exhibiting their luxurious BMW and other flashy, exotic cars. Even though this small hot dog car does not represent a serious threat to his neighbor “El Arepazo,” is getting new clients because of its “homemade style arepa,” as his owner explained.
“Isn’t it great to eat a delicious, grilled arepa accompanied by a Colombian soda in the midst of this chilly night?” said one client. “But not only that, it reminds of my homeland,” he added.
Even though Colombians and Venezuelans have these types of cultural clashes , they share many things. Colombia and Venezuela still have some affinities today, such as their devotion for beauty pageants, soap operas, gastronomy and joropo, a popular music genre in the Colombian and Venezuelan llanos.
Destiny gave both groups more things to share. Thousands of them emigrate from their respective countries to have a better life in the United States, specifically to Miami-Dade and Broward. Secondly, they have to share one of the most representative dishes of both nations : Arepa, or “corn cake.”
Where did exactly arepa come from? Some historians agreed that all maize products (including its cousin 'tortilla') appeared in Mesoamerica, where corn was cropped almost 2,000 years ago. It was a sacred good for Aztecs and Maya natives, but it was rejected by the Spaniard conquistadores because they associate maize with the wild characteristics attributed to Native Mesoamericans. Other historians pointed out that the word “arepa” comes from the indigenous word “erepa” from the Carib tribes. Other versions indicate that “arepa” may come from the word “aripo” which is a type of flat pan that is barely curved, and it was used to prepare the corn flour.
There are a number of arepa types in both countries. In the Venezuelan Andes, people prepare a very thin type of arepa, called “telita” or “little fabric.” In the central and eastern part of the country, they prepare a thick, well-cooked arepa, whereas the western part of the nation, arepas are cooked in grills. The most popular Venezuelan arepa is called "Reina Pepeada," or "Bombshell queen," a corn cake filled with avocado, chicken and mayonnaise.
On the other hand, in the northern part of Colombia, residents prepare “arepa con huevo” or “corn cake with fried egg.” Other regions in the country prepare arepas with sweet corn and cheese –called “arepa de choclo"- and plain arepa used as a side dish for other gastronomic specialties in the Antioquia-Eje Cafetero region.
Now the question is: Does arepa belong to Colombia or Venezuela? Some historians can’t tell with accuracy; consequently, it has ingnited a debate in which Venezuelans and Colombians claim arepa as their own. However, Arepa experts from both countries stopped having verbal discussions about who makes the best arepas. Today, the battlefield is the kitchen, and their traditional recipes to enhance arepa flavor are their defense system.
Arepas are becoming a profitable business in large and small scale. Don Pan, one of the largest bakery chains in South Florida, brought Venezuelan bakery style and arepas ten years ago. Since then, their clientele has grown so much they have experienced an accelerate growth in the last five years. Indeed, arepas have a great demand in Don Pan, and they even created ten different types of arepas. Gabriel Ordoñez, a Don Pan employee, says that “there is more in our arepas filled with ham and cheese. We have a well-kept secret recipe to make them delicious.”
“I dare to say we prepare the best arepas in town,” he added.
Don Pan arepas are not the only ones that keep culinary secrets. Denise Caicedo, a 45-year-old woman from Cali, Colombia, owns “Denise Arepas” a small family business. She and her family get their hands on corn and other ingredients to make, what she considers, the best arepas with the most original flavor in Miami. After attending a service at “Church on the Rock” a Christian congregation in Miami Lakes, Denisse packs her SUV with more than 50 packets, and each packet contains eight arepas that cost $10. She sold all packets in just half hour to her selected clients, and the total revenue was $250. In total, Caicedo has earned almost $1,000 this month.
"I can tell you how I prepare my arepas, but I won't tell you what I add to them," she said.
She owes her arepa success to the divine providence. “God gave me the talent and the vision to make better arepas every day. I put dedication on what I’ve done so far, and he has given me a hand,” she said.
Her prayers and God's "guidance" help her create an effective marketing strategy. Caicedo gives away arepas to her clients and friends, who at the same time share arepas with somebody else. By the end of the week, she receives different calls from people she never knew before. "I have received calls from people from Kendall and Miramar, even West Palm Beach. I have even received a call from an American couple, though they take care of themselves when it comes to their diet, so they order few arepas," she said.
Arepas are a new source of income for her family. After she arrives from her housekeeping job in Aventura, Denise, her husband, and her three daughters get busy every Monday from 7:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. Before they proceed to make arepas, she takes out a 20-lb pile of white corn, already cooked and washed. Then, she boils the corn for almost one hour until it dries, and she grinds it in a matter of minutes.
In spite of her tiredness after work, she keeps shaping arepas. “I have clients from Argentina, Colombia and Cuba. They like my arepas, and they always wait every Sunday or any weekday to taste them. This encourages me to continue doing my business,” she explains.
Caicedo has taken this business very seriously. She goes to supermarkets and restaurants to check other people’s arepa production. She makes every single analysis of different arepa packages. She smells them, touches them and finally makes an evaluation. “When I see those arepas, there is no real comparison with mine. They are just plain arepas with neither flavor nor salt. If God allows me to continue working on this, I will definitively win more clients,” she adds.
Her corn cakes have acquired incredible success. Miami's Colombian popular restaurants like "Patacón" and are looking forward to creating a joint venture. "It will be helpful, because it will expand my horizons," she says.
Jose Hernandez, editor-in-chief of “El Venezolano” the largest Venezuelan newspaper in South Florida, believes that the idea of whether Colombian or Venezuelan arepas are better is a subjective one.
“I usually hear that arepas from both countries are really good, but you would never hear a Colombian say that Venezuelan arepas are better and vice versa. This has become an issue of nationalism and pride for each country, because arepas have made both countries famous gastronomically speaking,” he says.
Hernandez’s opinion clearly supports his position because he considers Venezuelan arepa one of a kind. “I am married to a Colombian woman and she prepares very interesting arepas with weird mixes. I like my country’s arepas, and nobody can disagree,” he says.
The existence of chains like Don Pan and other large Venezuelan restaurants have facilitated the introduction of their arepas into the market. Nevertheless, Colombian arepa brands are taking over supermarket’s shelves. Trademarks such as “Arepas El Paisa,” “Colanta,” “La Fe,” and “La Antioqueña,” have literally invaded Publix, Winn Dixie and Sedano’s. According to supermarket managers in areas like Kendall, Weston (dubbed Westonzuela) Doral and other cities in Miami understood the great demand arepas have between these two communities. Although there is no exact number on sales and profits for each brand company, supermarkets estimate that arepa sales have increased last year.
Who makes the best arepas? It’s something that nobody can tell, but one thing can be proved: it's the favorite snack of many mouth-watered customers in the area.
Simon Bolivar, the “Libertador” once said that “I was born in Caracas but Cartagena [Colombia] gave me glory.” Behind his quote, there is a whole history that unites both nations, regardless of their differences and similarities. Today, thousands of workers filled job positions created by Venezuelan and Colombian corporations which generate millions of dollars. In effect, both groups are no longer a group of tourists who invaded malls and stores, but they play a significant part of Miami’s economy and culture.
“What is recognizable is that Miami’s demography has changed dramatically over the years, and both communities have given proof that they have found a better way to live in this land of sun, sand and the Everglades,” Hernandez said.