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Café, coffee and art give new life to bodega of late champion of Cleveland’s Hispanic community

August 4, 2018

Café, coffee and art give new life to bodega of late champion of Cleveland’s Hispanic community

CLEVELAND, Ohio - When Julio Cesar “Cesi” Castro died last year at 81, the city mourned the loss of a champion of the Hispanic community. For more than five decades, he was the familiar face that greeted customers at his beloved Cesi’s Caribe Grocery at 2886 West 25 St. at the corner of Seymour Ave.

The Puerto Rican native became a staple not just of his neighborhood, but to the countless family and friends he touched with his generosity. Castro allowed shoppers to pay for their groceries on credit. He lent them money when they were short on rent. He helped them finance homes when no banks would offer loans.

He was so cherished that he was nicknamed “The Mayor of West 25th Street.”

A little more than a year after his passing, Caribe is taking on a new life – one that carries on Castro’s legacy of bolstering Latino entrepreneurs.

In the coming weeks, three new businesses will occupy the shared space: Pura Cepa, a Puerto Rican breakfast and lunch café; Cafe Social Latinoamericano coffee shop and bakery; and Ortiz Art Drafts Designs, which specializes in graphic design and marketing, nestled in the back.

It’s all part of the Las Tienditas del Mercado initiative by the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development. The incubator program was launched to grow Latino-owned businesses so that they can eventually become part of El Mercado de La Villa Hispana, a forthcoming permanent, year-round market in Clark-Fulton. 

Castro’s daughter, Trudy Ramos, is a member of the center’s chamber of commerce.

Selina Pagan, the center’s program and chamber coordinator, sees Las Tienditas del Mercado as a stepping stone for the homegrown businesses showcased at their annual open-air market, La Placita.

“Cesi was one of the first Puerto Rican entrepreneurs in the area and helped many other Latinos get their businesses started and put food on the table,” Pagan says. “It’s an amazing story. This speaks to the movement of the Latino community. I’m really proud of the work this community is putting in to make beautiful changes through creative place-making. We need the community to rally around this momentum we have.”

Step inside and you’ll be greeted by Café Social Latinoamericano. Lalo Rodriguez’s coffee bar and bakery offers traditional drinks crafted with beans sourced from Latin countries. Rotating pastries, from scones to mini Mexican cheesecakes, fill the glass cases.

Where there were once shelves full of groceries lining the bodega, tables and couches now fill the room. There’s seating for around 20, with room for more along the bar.

Haguit Marrero’s Pura Cepa occupies the corner. The breakfast and lunch counter serves Puerto Rican fare that Marrero learned to prepare from her mother and grandmother. As a Puerto Rican native who moved to Cleveland two years ago, she brought along her family recipes. 

“The Latin community needs this,” she says of the gathering place. “I want this to be like a home for people. Comfortable, where you can rest.”

Her menu is a testing ground for her aspirations to one day expand. Expect to see specials like a Tripleta, the Puerto Rican standard built with three meats. On any given week, the menu may have highlights like jibarito sandwiches, yuca fries and plantains. Burritos and quesadillas make for traditional favorites.

The soups here are a specialty. Just don’t ask Marrero to give away all her generation-spanning techniques. Especially not for “Grandmother Bean Soup.”

“My grandmother and mother made this soup in Puerto Rico for the family,” Marrero explains. “My grandmother taught me the secret to it. For me, it’s a memory of her. And that’s my favorite thing.”

That’s why this corner steeped in history is a special place, where the past inspires the present. When Marrero speaks about her new life as a business owner, you can almost hear the echo of Castro’s voice.

And it’s hard not to imagine he’d be proud.

“I want to make a change in the Latino and Puerto Rican community,” Marrero says. “It’s a lot of work. But at the end of the day, I can see my goal. My dream.”

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