Cover Story

Nicole Caridad Beyond Off the Eaten Path

Nicole Caridad

Beyond Off the Eaten Path

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- >Nicole Caridad Más allá de su Instagram Off the Eaten Path

Nicole Caridad Ralston is fashionable, creative, and charming. That’s what you can easily tell from looking at her successful Instagram account, Off the Eaten Path NOLA, a profile dedicated to showcasing the most amazing food New Orleans has to offer. Her aesthetically appealing feed has acquired more than 15,000 followers and has gotten the attention of New Orleans tourism agency New Orleans and Co., which named Ralston as one of New Orleans’ Top Ten Hispanics to know in 2018.

Nicole Caridad takes part in the most exciting food-related events in town and she gets hired for marketing/influencer campaigns by many local restaurants to promote their menus.

It is hard to believe the food blog isn’t her full-time job. Behind the foodie extraordinaire is a very committed Higher Education Administration professional. Dr. Nicole Caridad Ralston is an educator in leadership, intercultural development, equity, inclusion, and social justice. Those who know Nicole personally describe her as “the real deal.”

In a world so dazzled by the superficial, finding out about someone like Nicole Caridad is a breath of fresh air. Sure, she looks like she is always Instagram-ready with stylish clothes, perfectly done manicures, and flawless make-up, but her style goes beyond the superficial. Nicole Caridad is highly educated. She cherishes her doctorate degree because she was the first person in her family to go to college straight out of high school. She says higher education was a powerful experience for her, an experience she feels many people should be able to attain.

Nicole deliberately moved to New Orleans in 2012 after completing her master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from NC State University. Enticed by the rich history of the Crescent City, the cultural traditions, the food scene, and the similarities to the Caribbean, New Orleans became Ralston’s clear choice for relocating with her then-boyfriend, now-husband. “I really deep down felt called to New Orleans... I really could not imagine life anywhere else. The food is amazing, the culture is amazing, everything about it I just love, and I feel very honored to live and be in this place and to call it home.”

Her father, an American of Irish descent, met her Cuban immigrant mother in Los Angeles, where Ralston was born. The family moved to South Florida when Nicole was a child. That’s where Nicole grew up, surrounded by her Cuban family and enjoying weekends at a farm in Homestead where she learned to love her roots. “I have beautiful memories about being on the farm and picking food and eating fresh meat that grew in the farm... Rabbits, chickens, goats, pigs… Being in the kitchen with my abuelo and mom, cooking.”

Her bicultural upbringing has given Nicole a high awareness of the social inequities people experience. Growing up having to navigate two very different cultures, languages, food, and customs instilled in Nicole a sense of empathy and a deep understanding of cross-cultural communication, finding validity in how individuals from other cultures value different things.

Her higher education journey was also one of finding herself and understanding who she really was. In many moments of her life, having different cultural influences made her feel as if she did not fully belong anywhere. “As a mixed-race woman, coming from Cuban refugee immigrants on one side of the family, and the other side being a white, working-class family, I was a free/reduced-lunch kid. A lot of my marginalized identities, as well as privileged identities of [passing as] white, having lighter skin than other members of the Cuban side of my family, all these experiences kind of blend together and have given me a lot of empathy into what folks are experiencing.”

All these experiences and the knowledge acquired during her professional development have been put to great use in Nicole’s work. As the Associate Director of Education & Programming at Beloved Community, a non-profit consulting firm focused on implementing regional, sustainable solutions for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Dr. Ralston, as she is known professionally, finds it important to evaluate organizations through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. She believes it is essential to push people to think deeply about racial equity, which permeates the education system, businesses and everything in this country. Guiding organizations through the process of understanding who they serve, who they hire, how they involve the community, and what inclusion looks like in their organization, contributes to an intentional economic development. “I want to leave a society where folks feel included, where policies and practices are equitable across identity markets like race, gender, class, etcetera, and [I want] us to treat each other better and get back to centering humanity and who [we] are as people. [I] want us to collectively work together to uplift each other.”

Whether it is through her food blog at influencer events, or at professional speaking conferences, Nicole Caridad strives to live her values. She keeps busy with promoting restaurants in the city, serving on the board of the ACLU, being a publicity co-chair of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s annual Azúcar Ball, consulting for organizations, and even dancing in some of the city’s parades with the Latinx dance group, Ritmeaux Krewe.

Nicole Caridad Ralston is certainly an inspiring individual, a proud Latina, and a passionate New Orleanian who consciously contributes to the betterment of our community and our society. She uses her platforms to promote and uplift businesses in New Orleans, discuss issues people are afraid to talk about, and to promote the politics and values she believes in. Nicole embraces her bicultural roots, is a declared feminist, and couldn’t do without her food blogging or her consulting work. Through both identities she has found the perfect balance to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. She stays connected to her community, simply by doing what she loves and sharing it with those around her.


Photography: CBass Studios

The New Louisiana Children’s Museum

The New Louisiana Children’s Museum

By Luis Rodrigalvarez and Marcella Escarfuller

Click aqui para español- >El Nuevo Museo de los Niños

When the phone rang and the Louisiana Children’s Museum number was displayed, I thought it would be about the renewal of my membership. However, on the other end was Allison Stouse, the project manager for the new museum, asking me to translate the signs in the new exhibits to Spanish. So, it was then that I began to witness first-hand the final steps of the museum’s transformation from a brick building downtown to the new facilities in New Orleans’ City Park.

For almost a year and a half, I received snippets of information about the new museum and its revitalized exhibits. They all had a taste of Louisiana and the colors of New Orleans.


Shortly after the grand opening, Julia Bland, CEO of the Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM), sat down with me and VIVA NOLA Magazine to talk about the newly minted museum. Bland’s corner office, wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows, is perched just above the outdoor patio overlooking the lagoon and herb garden. Bland, who has served as LCM’s CEO for over twenty years, reveals that the museum’s revitalization has been in the works for over thirteen years.

“After Katrina, everyone had great ideas and wanted to change the previously established education system, health system, the neighborhoods, the water resource management. We also decided to think differently and turn the museum into something beautiful that would help children develop from their earliest stage. We now collaborate with other organizations that are dedicated to the well-being of young children. For example, Tulane Pediatrics, Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health, Children’s Hospital, and the Policy Institute for Children that shares this space with us.”

The museum is very different from the place it used to be on Julia Street. There are entirely new exhibits to look forward to, of course, but there are some updated classics to look forward to, as well. “Everyone loves the sand table and the water, the kinetic ball machine, the recording studio, and of course, the grocery store and the bubbles that were also very popular in the previous location. What’s really new is being able to offer outdoor activities. We have a large area with sand for the little ones, the orchard to grow and teach, to be able to take walks to explore the surrounding nature and even a floating classroom to teach lessons in the middle of the lagoon.”

Bland’s vision for the museum is not simply to educate and entertain, but to create a lasting impact in the greater community. “If we invest differently in our young people, then we will have very different results in our community. And after the new facilities are opened, that’s when our real work begins.”

LCM is committed not only to early childhood education, but also to the environment and sustainability. The building is LEED Silver Certified (a certification in sustainable construction), houses a basin for rainwater collection, and home to Café Acorn, a restaurant that uses all organic waste for composting.

With the opening of its new facility, the museum has named four main areas of focus for its educational programs: emphasis on early literacy, sustainability and environmental impact, health and wellness, and arts and culture.

LCM’s exhibits and programs highlight the importance of the first years of childhood development, literacy being paramount to that development. LCM also chose to focus on the city’s location on the Mississippi River Delta, between swamps and wetlands, to teach children and the community about the importance of our environment and the need to preserve and protect it, highlighting the importance of sustainability of ecosystems through water management. Also, part of its mission, the museum has implemented programs that educate on the importance of nutrition and the benefits of a local and sustainable diet. And finally, in keeping with New Orleans culture, the museum celebrates the great cultural heritage we hold in New Orleans and Louisiana, and with great musical and culinary richness.

By providing signage in an additional language (in this case, Spanish) the museum demonstrates its intention to include diverse families, and to make it possible for parents and educators to fully explore each activity it offers in an alternative language. It is important for the Louisiana Children’s Museum to educate and support the whole family. The museum goes beyond being an experience only for the little ones. Adults also enjoy participating with the children, exploring and learning together.

The museum’s new facility and renewed mission have undeniably revitalized the organization as a whole. Since opening its doors on August 31st, 2019, the Louisiana Children’s Museum receives an average of 900 visits per day, each visit lasting an average of four hours. Memberships have tripled since the new facility’s inauguration, a true testament to the value of LCM’s educational programs and family-integrated learning.

Visit www.lcm.org to find information on the many programs and activities LCM offers.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. General admission is $14 per person for adults and children 12 months and older.

Cristy Cali

Cristy Cali

Written by Marcella Escarfuller

Click aqui para español- >Cristy Cali

There’s purple everywhere. That’s the first thing you’ll notice when you walk into the new Cristy Cali store on Magazine street. The second thing you’ll notice is that you feel instantly at ease. Karen, the store manager, will always greet you with a welcoming smile and a friendly face. On occasion, you will even be greeted by the store’s unofficial mascot, Mocha. Even the store itself seems to welcome you. There are notes of jasmine and lavender in the air, and a steady stream of alternative music filters gently through the speakers. You are made to feel at home, which is exactly how the owner intended it.

“I want people to feel special when they come into my store,” says Cali. The tableau at the front of the store was made with just that – and social media – in mind: a curtain of artificial greenery graces a section of wall, adorned with giant white roses splattered with purple paint; a large black leather throne sits atop a plush purple rug. The sign overhead reads “we’re all mad here” in neon lights. “I’m a huge Alice in Wonderland fan,” she says of the scene’s inspiration. “The song ‘Painting the Roses Red’ is why we splattered purple on the roses, to paint the roses purple.”

Why so much purple, you ask? Purple is the brand’s official color, a decision Cali made very consciously. “Purple is a high-vibe, high-energy color,” she says. “It’s also known as the color for forgiveness, so it’s a very healing color.”

“The choice of the phrase “We’re all mad here” was deliberate as well. “I want everyone to feel welcome in my shop,” says Cali. “I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated or like they can’t afford [the jewelry]. Inclusivity is very important to me.” Every customer is made to feel welcome. “That’s why I got the throne chair instead of a loveseat. I want every single person to feel like they’re someone special.” Every detail of the store was lovingly curated by Cali. The pride that shines through in her voice and her face is evident as she takes me on a mini tour.

But a storefront was not in her plans when she started her company on October 1, 2012. She had already decided then that she would never open a physical shop. “Growing up in the retail industry, I felt that it wasn’t for me, because I had a certain impression of it based on my family’s history. And because of that impression, I developed this belief that having a brick-and-mortar store and being in retail was not what I wanted.

Instead, Cali built her brand online and only offered certain pieces through third-party retailers. It wasn’t until late last year that she felt a shift in her point of view. “Around August or September of 2018, I was starting to feel burnt out,” says Cali. “I was working so hard and I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted… I was feeling isolated from the world and I really missed the personal engagement, being able to meet my customers. And I was getting complaints about the customer service at some of my retailers, which frustrated me because there was nothing I could do about it. So, I started to ask myself, ‘What can I do?  What is within my control?’… I decided to give it a try so that I could live my life and look back and say that I really did do my best to try to take this business as far as it could go.”

Born in Guatemala, Cali was raised between Central America and New Orleans because of her parents’ exporting business, based out of the French Quarter. They ran a stand selling handcrafted Guatemalan goods at the French Market for 15 years before finally opening a store in the French Quarter. It wasn’t until her mother began traveling to Mexico that they started to sell jewelry in earnest, before transitioning to jewelry entirely.

Jewelry quickly became a subject of contention for a young Cali, who struggled with the frequent travel that was a necessity to sustain the business. “I grew up not wanting to be involved at all with my family’s business,” muses Cali. “I resented the business because they were gone so much, and I didn’t want to be involved in something that took them away from me.”

It wasn’t until hurricane Katrina that things began to shift for Cali. The business, like many others in the city, suffered significant losses. Cali’s parents had sent her away to live with close friends while they attempted to rebuild.

“I was 15 at the time,” remembers Cali. “I was so unhappy being so far away from them, I wanted to help with the rebuilding process after Katrina. I essentially begged them to let me come back. I would do anything to help. So, they let me come back and they put me to work.”

She started working at the store by sweeping and doing entry-level tasks. Then her mother started teaching her to make jewelry. “It was at that point that I realized the creative aspect of the business. [Working at the store] went from being an obligation to appreciating and understanding how I could contribute creatively to the business.”

Cali still remembers her first experience watching one of her designs come to life. “When I was in high school, I entered an art competition and created a design of a fleur de lis with a heart in the middle held together by two hands, one black and one white. After Katrina, I really felt a sense of community, and this piece represented that for me… My parents had it made into jewelry and I didn’t know until I walked into the store one day and saw it.” Cali shares that the piece will be added to her own collection in the store this December, in honor of the store opening.

Seeing people buy that piece and watching their reaction to something she created made a lasting impression on Cali. “That just completely changed my whole life.” Cali developed a vision of what she could do with jewelry made from her own designs, a vision that her parents did not agree with for their business. She branched out on her own shortly thereafter.

Today, the very thing she resented as a child has become one of the things she is most passionate about. “When you’re wearing a piece of jewelry, I want it to remind you of why you’re wearing it,” she says. “I don’t see it as an accessory, I see it as an expression of who you are or something that means something to you.” Cali doesn’t limit herself to jewelry, though. She’s constantly looking for ways to grow the brand, whether through community partnerships like her breast cancer awareness campaign with Casting For Recovery, or through new product development. “I’m starting to explore other areas outside of jewelry. I have a new line of voodoo dolls and I want to start making handbags, wallets, jewelry cases, and some other things.”

“I’m just in a really good place whenever I make jewelry. You have to be, because I believe in energy healing. Someone is going to be wearing this, so I need to be in a good place [spiritually] when I’m making it.”

Her passion for community won’t take a back seat, either. “[One day, I would like to] start offering entrepreneurship classes to women in villages in Latin America to help them learn to use social media to sell their goods and help grow their business. I want to educate and empower.”

Emotional and spiritual healing are priorities for Cali, especially when it came to building her store. She credits much of the project’s success to the help she received from her parents. “Them helping me with all of this really made up for all of the baggage that I felt occurred as a result of them not understanding my vision. All of those nights crying because I felt so misunderstood by my parents. This project literally helped my family heal. Business is what created the clash, but this business also helped us heal.”

Her favorite piece in the store? She couldn’t possibly choose one. She points to a necklace she made herself with watermelon tourmaline stones and her Queen of Hearts pendant. --A one of a kind piece, something she’s never going to make again--. She says these are the pieces she treasures the most. “I go in my studio. I have my music on. I do my meditation before I start. I have my diffuser on, and I have the dogs next to me, by my feet. And I’m just in a really good place whenever I make jewelry. You have to be, because I believe in energy healing. Someone is going to be wearing this, so I need to be in a good place [spiritually] when I’m making it.”

As she hugs me goodbye, I realize that she doesn’t give herself enough credit. She takes the same approach in life as much as in jewelry.

Photography by José García

Connecting in Colombia

Connecting in Colombia

An International Business Exchange by Greater New Orleans, Inc.

By AnaMaría Bech

Click aqui para español- >Conexiones en Colombia

Exploring new economic opportunities for Louisiana’s stakeholders and learning other ways of conducting business and dealing with social, economic and political issues are some of the ways in which Greater New Orleans, Inc. fulfill their strategic missions of business development and business environment.

In the past, GNO, Inc. has explored economic opportunities with recent missions to England and Panama. This year’s mission was to Colombia – perhaps an unexpected destination to most, but a relevant one, due to its renaissance in different fields after the many years of conflict and inflation after the drug wars that the country has suffered.

There were some reservations among the group of 75-plus business executives and government officials that were part of the delegation that visited the capital city of Bogotá. But the excitement of discovering Colombia’s current economic climate first-hand was greater than the safety concerns that may have arisen with recent news of the FARC abandonment of the peace treaty with the government.

During the 5-day visit to Bogotá, the delegation of New Orleanians was able to understand the economic climate of diverse industries that included tech, tourism, culture, gaming, education, trade, transportation and social reform, among others.

Innovation in these fields was what caught most of the attendees’ attention, including New Orleans Councilmember Cindy Nguyen. The engagement of at-risk communities within different initiatives in Bogotá was of particular interest to Nguyen. “Seeing the community engagement and opportunity is what I’m taking back to New Orleans. We can create a space for everyone to be at the table for impactful projects in the city of New Orleans.”

One of the most memorable experiences of the excursion was learning about TransMiCable, a mobility and urban development initiative that is improving the quality of life of the residents of Ciudad Bolivar. The delegation learned about the multimillion-dollar investment and its operation and got to ride through 3 of its 4 stations. Ciudad Bolivar, a neighborhood to the south of Bogota, has been perceived as a source of violence and, in some ways, had been forgotten by the city’s government. The area had become a squatter’s neighborhood and was isolated for many years. Getting in and out of Ciudad Bolivar was an hourlong ordeal for residents traveling via bus. It was an even longer trip for those who had to travel by foot because they lacked access to transportation. Added to the hectic traffic of Bogotá, average daily commutes could easily take over 3 hours, which further limited opportunity for better employment and upward social mobility.

With TransMiCable, which takes residents down to the Tunal Transmilenio bus station from the highest station in 13 minutes during rush hour, quality of life saw an immediate improvement. The fact that the government invested in the district also impacted residents’ sense of self-worth and sense of belonging.

The economic impact of this investment is evident, but the social impact goes well beyond the tangible. This forgotten neighborhood is now being visited by residents of other parts of the city that would have never dared the venture. At the same time, the new transportation system is attracting tourism to the area. Social development and communications agent Jeffrey Gómez explains that as a social initiative, TransMiCable has offered many educational programs, as well as job training programs. “We have tried to include residents as workers, which not only creates access to jobs, but also creates a sense of belonging in the community members and ensures that users develop a love for the system and take care of it.”

The mission’s immersion into community revitalization, global competitiveness, entrepreneurship, software development, crime and social reforms, and free trade zones, offered numerous insights for the participants, which represented diverse business fields. Michael Hetch, President and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., thought Bogotá was a good example to follow in New Orleans. “From managing to transform itself, bringing everyone along from infrastructure, transportation education…You can see an entire population of millions of people working together to create a better future, so it’s very inspiring.” Of course, the trip included some leisure opportunities that began with the welcome reception provided by Copa Airlines, a visit to Andres DC – one of Bogota’s most famous restaurants – and a reception at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador. These events gave the delegation the opportunity to get a taste of the local food and culture, and to network and enjoy a wonderful experience.

“Connecting in Colombia,” as the international business exchange was named, offered great perspective for economic development in New Orleans. Rachel Shields, who worked tirelessly on all logistics of the trip, offered her final remarks: “Colombia is a country that has done in the last decade what other regions have taken over 30 years to do, so it’s really fascinating for us from New Orleans and Louisiana to see some of the progress, touch it, feel it, for ourselves. We have a lot to learn from our Colombian friends and we are going to take all this back home and to use it in our own economic development strategies as we move forward ourselves.”

Margarita Bergen, Social Butterfly

Margarita Bergen, Social Butterfly

By Anamaria Bech

Click aqui para español- >Margarita Bergen, Social Butterfly

It is hard to prove there was a party if Margarita Bergen was not there. Her life and personality have turned her people-loving skills into an occupation with an exquisite title – Social Butterfly.

The title is only too apropos. Like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, the ever-colorful Margarita flits around the city attending the most lavish parties and social soirées, always with one of her signature hats gracing the crown of her head. And at every single event, her presence is known. “People tell me the party doesn’t start until I show up,” she proudly proclaims.

Margarita has met every mover and shaker in town since the 80’s. One is easily impressed by the display of pictures on her shelves: her smiling face alongside King Phillip of Spain, George Rodrigue, Pete Fountain, Celia Cruz, Tony Bennett, Sean Payton, Hillary Clinton, and Irma Thomas, to name a few. She never tires of telling the stories of her encounters with world-renowned celebrities like Andy Warhol, Rita Moreno, and Derek Hough. Every encounter has a picture, and every picture has its own story, but her most cherished one is having met artist and designer Erté.

The camera changed her life, and not just because it captured unforgettable moments with notable people from around the world. Although she is known for her impeccable style and whimsical hats, her most prized accessory is her camera. “I love taking pictures of people at the events. People are so happy to pose for my camera. They know those pictures will instantly be shared online as I check-in [to the event], so they just love it!” Those same photos are also featured in her social editing work for local magazines and her “A Toast to New Orleans” blog.

Born in the Dominican Republic to a Cuban father of Norwegian heritage (hence her decidedly European surname) and a Dominican mother, Margarita was praised from a young age for her beautiful mixed complexion. Her mother sparked Margarita’s eye for fashion and loved to dress her in the latest trends. Inspired by Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy, she also made sure Margarita was the center of attention with the iconic Shirley Temple look. Her love for the arts was also instilled in her at a young age. “I remember sitting on my daddy’s lap on Sundays in La Romana in the Dominican Republic and listening to the opera on the Cuban radio station.”

Margarita moved to New York City in the seventies. She worked in bilingual education and government, while regularly attending the opera, the theatre, the ballet, and the symphony. She then began meeting numerous celebrities, politicians and artists who passed through the Big Apple. “I was the token minority. There wasn’t a party I wasn’t invited to. I had to leave my jobs in education and government because my co-workers were jealous that I was the one who got the invitations.”

After breaking up with her then-boyfriend, she decided to leave New York and move down to New Orleans. She helped her brother, artist Lorenzo Bergen, open a fine art gallery in the French Quarter. They built up Bergen Galleries and worked together until she became the sole proprietor in the early 80’s. Owning the gallery was the key to fully becoming the socialite she was meant to be. “People often came to ask for art donations from the gallery for their fundraisers and they gave me tickets to the most fabulous parties in town!”

Her mother’s fashion influence lead Margarita to develop her own style and add her signature flair. Her collection of dresses, costumes, and wigs is extensive, but her collection of hats takes the cake. Over three hundred hats and fascinators make for a dazzling display that gets the spotlight at every event. In fact, each outfit begins with the selection of a hat and ends with her essential accessories: her camera and her dog, Lolita (preceded by the famous Chiquita), who is also dressed for the occasion.

As a cultural advocate, Margarita has participated in several delegations, boards and committees. During the administration of Mayor Barthelemy in New Orleans, she partook in cultural missions and traveled to 17 countries, including Mexico, Japan, and Brazil. She was also appointed to the boards of the French Market Corporation and the French Quarter Festival.

A philanthropist at heart, Margarita participates in many local fundraisers to benefit multiple causes, including cancer awareness, Catholic Charities and the arts. Margarita’s love of causes and people lead to the founding of her famous Roundtable events 14 years ago. These luncheons, held at the Bourbon Orleans, attract all the who’s who in Louisiana, giving attendees a perfect opportunity to mingle, network and make important connections. Margarita’s buoyant style makes these luncheons the events that they are, with a fabulous 3-course meal, live entertainment, and of course champagne.

Margarita shines especially bright during the city’s favorite time of year – Mardi Gras. She dedicates an entire section of her closet specifically for her Mardi Gras costumes, and has been named queen of many krewes in past years, including the Krewe of Cork and the Mystic Krewe of Shangri-LA. Even Lolita became Grand Marshall of Barkus last year. The social editor reveals she will be queen again next year, though she won’t reveal of which krewe just yet.

Margarita’s love for New Orleans drives her to attend as many events as possible, though she is a bit more selective nowadays.  “I’m so lucky to know that when my name is mentioned, people immediately smile. Maybe it’s because of my bubbliness.” Her final farewell is already planned and, of course, includes a champagne-themed party. “I want people to say, ‘that lady knew how to live, shared everything she had, and above everything, she loved the arts.’” No one who has ever met the fabulous and darling Margarita Bergen could ever doubt that.

Oscar Chimal El Jefe of Fat City

Oscar Chimal El Jefe of Fat City

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- > Oscar Chimal El Jefe de Fat City

Oscar Chimal is a hardworking 27-year-old and el jefe (the owner) of Los Jefes Authentic Mexican Cuisine in Metairie. After working in the service industry, he took on the challenge of opening his own venue in Fat City in Metairie. Today, Los Jefes is attracting people from all over town.

Fat City has not been a hip place for a while, but the popularity of Taco Tuesdays at Los Jefes has really changed the perception of the area and has made this authentic Mexican food venue one of the hippest destinations in the once upon a time nightlife area of Metairie.

We spoke to Oscar Chimal about his life and business to find out how he’s made Los Jefes so successful.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Mexico and moved to Kenner in 2002 when I was 11 years old.

How did you get started in the restaurant business?

I had to make a living for myself. There wasn’t a career that I loved. I started in the restaurant business when I was 15 bussing tables at Andrea’s Restaurant, and then at 17 went to work in the French Quarter. I worked at Oceana Grill and moved into management two years later. I helped open Bobby Hebert’s place and started on my own when I was 24.

How did you start Los Jefes?

My friend Terry had the building here. We worked together to get it ready, but he never got to open his Po Boy shop due to personal circumstances. Seeing all the work I had put into the business he hinted I should take over the lease. I wasn’t looking to be on my own, or wasn’t in the position financially, but I still called the landlord and I got a decent deal, so I took the chance. I had to borrow money from my parents and friends. I had a partner who ended up going elsewhere soon after. After he did, we really gave it our all. My brother and my sister got behind the business and they really helped me get it going strong.

Why did you take the risk to start a business with little money?

I always liked to gamble with businesses. Even before the restaurant work, I bought and sold cars on my own. Sometimes I made money, but many times I lost. I liked to try different avenues, got involved with MLM companies and invested money in those. I failed at so many different things, in so many ways, but it did not faze me because my will was a lot stronger than the failures I faced.

So even after your ‘failures’ people still backed you financially?

People trusted me with their money and supported my vision. I had my parents lend their savings, a former boss also gave me some cash, my siblings added up. They believed in me because they saw my drive. Within the first month they saw that I was going to be able to make the money to pay back and to make something out of the business.

Where did you get that all or nothing attitude?

When we came from Mexico, my family did not have proper documentation. Throughout high school, I knew what was happening. My classmates were studying hard to get a career or training hard to get a sports scholarship, but those were not options for me at the time. I knew my parents had gone through so much for us. I couldn’t live with the thought of my parents having to sacrifice their entire life to have us here, so that I wouldn’t do anything with myself. I wanted to make something of myself for them, and to be an example for my siblings.

How did you decide on a Mexican restaurant?

My mom always cooked at home and I grew up eating homemade meals. A lot of the Mexican restaurants around here are Tex Mex food, but I knew if we introduced something authentic, made from scratch every day, it would work. The food is delicious, it’s made with love, and that’s what the people pay for when they come here.

What’s your competitive advantage?

Besides the quality of food, I really learned about customer service. My siblings also had worked with me wherever I worked and knew how we like to treat customers. We teach our staff how to treat everybody with respect. We are big on paying attention to the small details, that’s what gets us further and separates us from everyone else.

How did you thrive in Fat City?

Tommy Cvitanovich from Drago’s started coming around and wanted to know how I was making it work in this location after he couldn’t make his burger joint succeed. I opened with a very affordable menu and big portions, I passed out flyer’s in the apartment complexes and businesses around. In the beginning there was no profit, but then I started gaining volume and it got the word out in Fat City. With the little money we made, I started advertising out of Fat City and we got people from everywhere. The same dish I was selling at $10 in the beginning is worth way more now. It took hard work to build the reputation and to build value in the place and the business.

How are you helping the area improve?

Just like Tommy, we are investing in the area. We have acquired leases for six properties around the restaurant, offices and parking spaces, and now we have the corner building with the new dining area. We are investing in the area and raising its value.

With being so young and with so much going on, how do you keep focused?

My brother is always my brake. I’m always trying to do too many things and he questions me. Last year, I invested in a restaurant in New Orleans and a bar. I ended up selling them because it was too much. My brother brought me back and reminded me that I needed to focus on Los Jefes and fill the new dining room. I always want to do too many things and have so many ideas, but my brother and sister keep me grounded. I may have become the face of Los Jefes, but the credit of what we have accomplished is because of my family and my mentors. I’m here because of the employees and because of my brother and my sister.

What does it take to succeed?

I have been burnt so many times, but it is worth it to make all those mistakes. You are always learning. To succeed it takes seeing what nobody else sees, which is faith. Having a vision where there is no vision. I’d always see myself being successful. Because I believed in this vision of success, I strived for it every day. I put a lot of pressure on myself, my circumstances put a lot of pressure on me, but my vision was always very clear to me only. It takes believing in yourself.

What was that vision?

To be somebody that my parents were proud of and to be in a position in which I could support them financially. The restaurant has been my platform to get there, I felt comfortable stepping in this industry, it’s what I knew, and I felt confident I could be successful. But the restaurant was an avenue that allowed me to provide a future for my parents, and for my brother and sister.


Transplanting Hope

Transplanting Hope

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- >Trasplantando la esperanza

Did you know the leading liver transplant unit in the U.S. is located along the Mississippi River in the state of Louisiana?  More than 150 health professionals are dedicated every day to protecting the integrity and lives of patients who are hoping for a rebirth through an organ transplant, or who have already been fortunate enough to have received one at Ochsner. 

The Multi-Organ Transplant Institute at Ochsner is the busiest and most experienced center in the Gulf of Mexico region. Since its establishment in 1984, this unit has performed more than 7,000 liver, kidney, pancreas, heart and lung transplants, which have saved the lives of children and adults from 37 states and 10 different countries.Currently, Louisiana is receiving great recognition at the national level thanks to the positioning of the Institute.

The hospital does not decide the order of the transplants, and there are organ procurement organizations that set the parameters which are different for each organ. There are many variables in these guidelines, such as blood group, size, medical emergency, geographic location, and waiting times, primarily. The intention is to use the largest number of organs from a single donor, what is known as a multi-organ donor.

Within the exceptional team at the Institute, we highlight the participation of three Latin American professionals who have brought their experience and

passion to the project. Venezuelan doctor Ana Milena Hands and Colombian doctors Jorge Garcés and Humberto Bohórquez stand out in the team, where the camaraderie and trust between colleagues is key to exceptional performance.

Ana Milena Hands

Dr. Hands earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of Monterrey in Mexico and received her medical degree with honors from the University of Zulia in Venezuela. She then completed her training in Adult and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia. In 2009, Dr. Hands received the New Orleans City Business Health Care Hero award for her work on integrating Hispanic immigrants with optimal patient care in post-Katrina New Orleans. She serves as the Administrative Director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Institute and serves as vice-president of the International Department at Ochsner.

After practicing psychiatry for more than 20 years, Hands found a new mission in Ochsner that has fulfilled her life. Despite initially not knowing the process of transplants, Hands has developed a great passion for the subject, and has worked together with her colleague and Medical Director Dr. George Loss, to turn the institute of organ transplants into one of the leading transplant centers in the U.S. “For me, working in transplants has been a pleasant surprise; it is a fascinating world from many points of view.”

Something that fills her with pride is to have a very close team of professionals that feels like a great family. “From the professional point of view, in the capacity of each individual, they are exceptional,” says Hands, noting that these doctors are also quality human beings, judging from the way they connect with the families and patients. “Participating in various seminars and international conferences, I realize that we count with a superior level and knowledge in our exceptional team.”

Jorge Garcés

Doctor Garcés is one of the four nephrologists in the kidney transplant team. He studied medicine at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. He completed his internship and residency at Hahnemann University and Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital and completed his transplant fellowship at the Albert Einstein Medical Center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and then at the University of California at Los Angeles. With the support of his brother, he obtained an American residency, which made his process easier to achieve his goal of practicing in the United States. 

He arrived in New Orleans in 2002 to join the transplant team at Ochsner. His role is mainly a clinical role, where he takes care of patients from the moment they arrive to go through the eligibility evaluation for a transplant, through their illness, and during the recovery after receiving a kidney transplant. Ten years ago, he established an education component in the institute and directed the fellowship program for transplant nephrologists.

Garcés got interested in transplant work during his fellowship. “I had very good mentors at Einstein Medical Center. One of my mentors was instrumental in the creation of transplants in Philadelphia in the 60s and was someone who instilled a passion in the subject in me,” he says.

Garcés carries 80% of the process from the transplant referrals. The only thing he does not do is the surgery itself. He speaks with great pride in his work. “It is a job of great personal satisfaction because patients arrive in very bad shape with physical and emotional problems, and when they receive a transplant it is as if they go through a purifying filter and they get better physically and emotionally in an incredible way,” he says.

In the institution there are four transplant nephrologists in total, who integrate a highly educated and professional team, as well as multicultural, with members from the Dominican Republic, Chicago, and Iran. They are fortunate to be able to practice their profession and utilize great resources to do the best job possible.

Despite ethical debates, Dr. Garcés believes that everyone should consider being an organ donor.

Humberto Bohórquez

Dr. Bohórquez studied medicine at the Universidad Pontificia Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his studies in abdominal transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and completed his fellowship at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. He worked in liver and kidney transplants in Colombia 

before becoming part of the Ochsner Health System team in 2007. 

Dr. Bohórquez never intended to practice in the US. After leading the transplants in Colombia with the Hospital Fundación Cardioinfantil, an achievement he feels very proud of, the opportunity to practice at Ochsner was presented to him. After going through a difficult period of adaptation, he has found a family in his Ochsner colleagues.

As an abdominal transplant surgeon, Dr. Bohórquez is involved in all phases of the transplants. Even, sometimes he has to travel and be present in the extraction of the organ to implant. He also serves as the director of pancreatic surgery. In this role, he conducts research and mentors fellows, something else he is very passionate about.

Thanks to the combined experience of the professionals of the transplant institute team and the synchronization established in the team, Louisiana accepts a larger number of organs to be transplanted and has a shorter waiting time than other transplant units.

Bohórquez explains that the coordination around the transplant is impeccable. Once the availability of an organ is notified, different equipment is put into operation. The receiver’s surgery team is enrolled, and simultaneously, either locally, or remotely, the surgeons on duty come to review the organ and perform the extraction with the donor. This synchronization allows to shorten the time and protect the integrity of the organ that is being transplanted. “Most of the transplants we do are around five hours. Those three hours make the difference and that is why we can use organs that other people do not use, because the faster they are placed, the better the chance that these organs work,” Bohórquez states.

As Bohorquez points out, Ochsner is currently performing over two hundred liver transplants per year, which makes Ochsner the liver transplant leader in the nation.


One of the great downfalls in organ donation is the lack of awareness and education on what it takes to be an organ donor. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation, and some people imagine that if they declare themselves as donors, they would be left to die in case of a medical emergency. In addition, when people declare themselves donors, often times their relatives, who have the last word, do not know about the wishes of the person to donate their organs, and decide not to continue with the donation.

Doctors Hands, Bohórquez and Garcés advise that the people who decide to be donors should clearly express their intention to their families, so that, in case the situation arises, their relatives can grant the donor’s wish to offer a chance to live to those who are in the transplant waiting lists.

Fortunately, Louisiana has a high percentage of donors, but the biggest battle is to bring education at all levels, to destroy myths, and above all, to educate minority communities that typically have low percentages of donors.

These three health professionals have in common the passion with which they perform their work. Their goal of providing a quality of life to their patients is what inspires them to continue learning, and in the case of Dr. Bohórquez and Garcés, to share their knowledge with fellows who will follow in their footsteps.

The work performed by each one of them within the transplant process is essential, but they put aside their merits to shine the light on the brave ones who decide to become organ donors.

The biggest sacrifice comes from anonymous living donors who dare to undergo surgery and donate a kidney or a part of their liver to give a second chance to someone else and provide a second chance to life. It is also admirable that families, during a very difficult situation such as the loss of a loved one, allow to grant the wishes of an organ donor to save the lives of others.

“They, the donors, are the real heroes,” emphasizes Dr. Hands.

Amanda Shaw

Amanda Shaw

Story by Claudia Vallejo. Photography Thomas Hunt

Click aqui para español- > Amanda Shaw

If you are from Louisiana, you have listened to American singer Amanda Shaw playing her fiddle to the sounds and beats of Cajun music. Perhaps little is known that Amanda Christian Amaya-Shaw is of Hispanic descent. Her grandfather and grandmother are both from Guatemala. “My mom is from Guatemala as well.” 

Amanda’s childhood memories are filled by the sweet smell of her grandmother’s cooking, the different types of music blasting from the radio, the loudest screams of “goal” coming from the tv during a soccer world cup match, and a strong sense of family.

Amanda can easily talk about the French Acadian culture, but can also instinctively explain how to make a traditional dish from the Mayans’ land: “Steam the green beans, take some eggs, leave the yellow out, beat the white until it is nice and fluffy like a merengue, put some of the yellows back, and fry the green beans with the eggs’ mixture to form almost a patty.” Have you also heard “Chirmolito,” one of Amanda Shaw’s songs? She knows how to prepare the Guatemalan chirmol sauce too. “I grew up with a lot of the Latin-American food.  I am pretty sure that black beans were about 75% of my diet when I was a kid.  Black beans with rice, with tortillas, with eggs…lots of black beans, and I love it.” 

It is not hard to understand why Amanda was attracted to Cajun music since she was a little girl.  As she explains, “I identify with it because I grew up in a very Latina household. A lot of the songs in Cajun French music are about the Acadian people who came from Canada and settled in Louisiana.  They were the only people speaking their language, living their culture at that time, so they banded together to celebrate their culture.  They would work very hard during the week and on the weekends, the Cajun people would have their do-dos and dance, sing, laugh and enjoy their time together as a community. I identify with that growing up in Louisiana. I grew up in a house with a culture that also celebrates itself, the food, the music and who we are.”

Amanda is a 28-year-old musician with a long artistic career.  When she fell in love with the violin at 4 years old, her mom took her to get lessons at Southeastern Louisiana University. At age 7, she had a solo with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and made the front page of the paper in Hammond.  Her mom cut the newspaper out, mailed the clipping to the Rosie O’Donnell show, and within a year she was in New York City performing in this show.  “It was amazing to be able to live this dream that I had. It was very lucky for me that my career started because I began to play festivals locally and around the state.  Since then, I have been working on playing music.”

Amanda’s latest album, Please, Call Me Miss Shaw, was released in 2018.  Her discography includes four more albums and several EPs.  She also had a prominent role in the IMAX film “Hurricane on the Bayou,” and she has shared the stage with icons such as Carlos Santana and Steve Windwood. She tours nationally and internationally.  She is in the lineup of the French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and other festivals across Louisiana every year.

Wearing a sparkling costume, Amanda Shaw dances on high heels up and down the stage playing the strings and singing Cajun with a blend of country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.  “I love putting on my make-up.  I celebrate being a girl. I look at the positive things about being a young woman in the industry.” 

Where does she get inspiration to write her songs? “I just kind of write what I feel comes from my heart, things that make me feel good, happy, and make me laugh. I like silly ideas, too.  I have one song on my current record, “Dirty Blond,” that I wrote because I met this girl in the street, and I told her, ‘you have pretty blond hair.’  She said, ‘It is dirty blond.’ I thought, ‘OK, I can probably write a song about it.’  It is a little funny song; it is kind of a play on words.”

Who does Amanda look up to as an artist? Dolly Parton.  “She is wonderful and beautiful.  Her songs are so pretty.  She is great at always being herself and never sacrificing that, and yet she is well respected.  She came on at a time in the country music scene when there were not women doing what she was doing, trying to branch out and making it out. I relate to that as I was a young person coming up in the New Orleans music scene and trying to make my way.”

Catch one of Amanda’s shows with her band Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys, and you will see couples on the floor spinning around holding each other, kids dancing on top of their parents’ feet, and an entire community being held together by a fiddler and her band.

With her love for the French Acadian culture and a Hispanic heritage, Amanda brings a true flair of what it means to preserve one’s history and culture in an ever-changing world.

Family Friendly El Paso

Family Friendly El Paso

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- >El Paso Familiar

Jorge Oseguera and his family represent one of the many examples of perseverant immigrants, who, through their commitment to work, have managed to achieve their dreams.

After working for several years in the restaurant industry, Oseguera entered El Paso restaurant with the intention of becoming a partner. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, he moved to Florida, where he lived for several years and worked in various restaurants. He met his wife Maria from Venezuela while working at one of the restaurants and together they moved to their new home in Louisiana 11 years ago.

Both understood that Oseguera had a very clear dream of owning a business. That goal has been achieved with a partnership at El Paso, a chain of restaurants that has branches in six states in the U.S. “Everything in this life is like that. You put in your mind what you want, and you find what you need to accomplish it. In this case, what you need is to work hard, to save your money, so that you can offer money to invest as a partner in the business,” says Oseguera.

The El Paso Mandeville branch has a special meaning for Oseguera because his biggest investment is there - his family. His brother Jose and his sister-in-law Sugey run the restaurant, which opened its doors two years ago.

For many, working with the family may be difficult, but for Jorge, relying on their support is very helpful because he knows that they know what they are doing and because “they are good people.” The family philosophy works great at El Paso. “We respect the roles of each person, we support their decisions and autonomy as administrators,” comments Oseguera.

The other branches of El Paso do not have a brother in place to run it, but Oseguera prefers to treat all employees as if they were members of his own family. Despite being the boss, a word that he does not accept, Oseguera works long days and takes very few days off. His family understands that is sacrifice is for their own good, and although they try to spend time together, it is not something that happens every day. Maria works in the business and accompanies her husband on his long drives to branches throughout several states, which serves as a way to share some time together. “If we did not work together, I would barely see him,” Maria says.

El Paso Mandeville is growing quickly because the community has a very familiar atmosphere. The restaurant has a very loyal clientele, and some of the customers visit several times a week.

For Jose Oseguera, the brother who manages the restaurant, it is very special to get to know his customers. “We have generations of a family who come here together. You see the mom, the grandmother and the children. We have couples who meet religiously here on Friday afternoons and they already know their waiter. We love that people come here to celebrate their birthdays and we move our tables around to accommodate for large group celebrations,” Jose adds.

Supporting the communities surrounding the restaurants is very important for the owners of El Paso. They make donations to schools and support different community initiatives. “Just as we value the workers, we know that we cannot exist without the community,” reflects Oseguera.

The menu at El Paso offers a wide variety of Texmex dishes and typical dishes from various regions of Mexico, such as the Carne Asada and the seafood dishes. They have gained the Northshore’s clientele little by little, due to the quality of the food and their service. “Everything here is made from scratch. We have very good quality. All our meat, including our ground beef, is Black Angus and we use quality alcohol for our drinks,” adds Oseguera.

The meal recommended by the proud owner is the chilaquiles accompanied by a house organic margarita, but he makes sure to mention that they carry a great selection of red wines for the wine lovers. Daily specials such as Monday 2x1, Taco Tuesday and Happy Hour give you even more reasons to try the variety of the menu and the delicious Margaritas at El Paso, Mandeville.

Pedrito Martinez and The World's Music at Jazzfest

Pedrito Martinez and The World's Music at Jazzfest

By Jorge L. Fuentes

Click aqui para español- >Pedrito Martínez y la música mundial de Jazzfest

Cuban percussionist and vocalist Pedrito Martinez is returning to New Orleans this April for his fourth appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and acknowledges how significant it is to appear at an event that attracts thousands of people each year.

“You get exposure to an audience that maybe doesn’t know you yet and serves as a springboard to meet other musicians. A lot of promoters show up, more work comes your way, you sell a lot of CD’s, it’s always good,” he says.

Born in Havana, Pedrito has an incredible musical career: he was a founding member of the afrobeat band Yerba Buena and began his own band in 2005. His first album was nominated for a Grammy award, and he’s still performing tours all over the world. His show at the 2017 Jazz Fest was one of the most anticipated sets that year, and now he’s back as part of his tour with pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, in support of their record Dualogue.

The record includes originals and standards, and was produced by Quincy Jones, which he calls “a dream come true. Everything was flowing with great energy,” he said. “Also, Alfredo is an impeccable human being, he’s wholesome and noble. We started recognizing emotions and sharing our passion and respect for the music we were making,” he says.

“Afro-Cuban music is at the backbone of this record,” says Pedrito, “and it was a learning experience for me. We are musicians of the world. New Orleans is definitely the city that is closest in culture to the music of Cuba, that’s a proven fact. It reminds me a lot of Havana and Matanzas (another city in Cuba), and two of the best drummers I know, Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell, are from here,” he says.

He’s going to be in good company in this year’s festival - known to all as just Jazz Fest - which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Artists such as The Rolling Stones*, Herbie Hancock, Santana, Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, and Taj Mahal were booked to be part of the lineup, which also includes Katy Perry, Pitbull, Alanis Morissette, J Balvin, and many more. The music variety is really world-class, and the audience can enjoy different genres, not just jazz. You can hear rock, blues, African bands, as well as country, gospel, and ra.

The festival usually runs for seven days, always the last weekend of April and the first weekend in May, but an eighth day is being added this year to commemorate its anniversary. Ever since 1972, barely two years into its existence, the festival moved to the Fair Grounds Race Course in the Gentilly neighborhood, where it has taken place since then, bringing a sense of celebration to all neighbors and businesses in the area.

As far as Latin music is concerned, there are 20 local and international acts that will be performing during the eight days of this immense cultural and musical festivity. One of those acts in particular, Julio & Cesar, has performed almost without fail every year since they started. “I’m not sure if they began playing around 1972 or thereabouts,” says Andrew Herrera, Cesar’s son and the band’s bass player. “I started playing with them around 2001,” he remembers. “We just love it every time they call us, and they call us every year,” he says, “but I remember that I’ve been going since I was a kid.”

Last year’s attendance is estimated at 450 thousand people, and the festival attracts many more people to the city. Local radio station, WWOZ 90.7 FM, broadcasts live from the site every day, bringing the sounds and the music of the festival to all who stream it online.

Pedrito probably speaks for a lot of the artists that perform at Jazz Fest when he says, “This is a great opportunity, it’s one of the most important festivals in the world.”

*The Rolling Stones cancelled due to Mick Jagger undergoing heart surgery. They were subsequently replaced by Fleetwood Mac which also cancelled due to illness. The band Widespread Panic will headline the festival on the second Thursday.

Photo credit Danielle Moire, Richard Holstein

Top Taco & Agave Week

Top Taco & Agave Week

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- > Top Taco y la Semana del Agave

You don’t have to know Spanish, or cite the capital of Bolivia, or point to a Latin American country on the map. If you have eaten a taco, which you most certainly have, you have tasted the simplicity and the richness of Latin culture.

Tacos are a versatile food that can be enjoyed anywhere and everywhere. They are enjoyed in little towns for as low as 19 cents, and they get served at the most glamorous parties.

Tacos are an ancient food that traces back to the Olmecs, but they can be considered a progressive food because they are eco-friendly and a balanced type of nutritious meal. They can be made as a vegan guacamole stuffed tortilla or they can be prepped with fancy caviar. Tacos don’t discriminate.

The quintessential Mexican staple, tacos have conquered the food scene of the U.S. and the world. Just a taste of this simple, yet delicious, food can spark a quest for new flavors and create a need to find out more about the diverse traditions of Mexican culture.

New Orleans isn’t new to Latin influence or flavors, but after Hurricane Katrina, the influx of Latino immigrants working outdoors created the need to cater to their eating habits. Taco trucks came along and more New Orleanians began to recognize the great variety of ways in which tacos could be served.

Two years ago, a festival centered on the king of Latin food was created, and it was an instant success. The man behind it, Shane Finkelstein, is a self-proclaimed Mexican culture lover and is the owner of Nacho Mama’s restaurant in Elmwood. After recognizing a great event in Denver, Finkelstein knew New Orleans was lacking a major Latin food festival, and he knew a New Orleans version of the Denver Top Taco had the potential of becoming an instant success. “First of all, people love tacos. The Latin community has been growing tremendously, and I thought getting restaurants together to do an event like it was cool. I own Nacho Mama’s, so that was a good tie in…Getting the whole margarita and tequila component into it made it more special,” explains Finkelstein.

Top Taco quickly gained recognition as one of New Orleans’ top events. Even the more skeptical, such as Hugo Montero, owner of Casa Borrega in Central City, realized the positive impact Top Taco had on Latin American culture and Mexican and Latin restaurant owners in the city.

“Ironically, I did not participate in the first Top Taco, being snobbish about it,” recognized Montero. A big advocate for preserving Latin American culture, Montero felt there could be some issues of cultural appropriation with a Latin festival organized by non-Latino folks. It was his son Yves who was the first one to call Montero out on his choice not to participate. “My son has an American mind about business that I don’t have. I was very strong culturally about the event and decided not to do it, but when Chilango’s [restaurant] won Top Taco in the ‘Best traditional taco’ category, I understood what the event was doing for the community.”

Montero became a witness of what was taking place. He saw how Finkelstein was able to convince more than 30 restaurants, small and big, to participate the first year. The second year, Montero jumped on board and was surprised to see all the enthusiasm by the restaurants to participate, to bring their infrastructure out to the river, and to contribute for a great cause, while at the same time, getting the great PR of being voted by people and getting the title of restaurant with the Top Taco’s award for best traditional taco, best creative taco, best traditional margarita, and best creative tequila cocktail in town.

“I would have never thought 10 years ago that we could have an event in New Orleans like this. This is an event that is sponsoring and promoting the culture. As an event producer, I understand and praise the effort and the way the event has been put together by Finkelstein. He has his heart in the right place,” added Montero.

Now Montero works closely with Finkelstein and he has become a sort of cultural adviser for Top Taco. As Montero points out, the event has changed the mindset and has brought a solidarity among Latin places. “Instead of trying to kill the competition, we are working together and on the same page.”

Top Taco’s charitable component has been devoted to Foster Nola which continues the work started by One Heart NOLA, which grew from a $20,000 operating budget a year to $100,000 because of the contribution of Top Taco. Through their foundation Foster Nola, Top Taco has teamed up with local organizations who serve foster care youth. “We are passionate about the kids that age out of the foster system,” explains Finkelstein, adding that for them it is important to help youngsters who could end up in homelessness when they reach majority age. “The state of Louisiana cuts services for foster youth as soon as they reach age 18, which in most cases, leaves high school students out in the street.”

Top Taco has grown to more than 40 participating restaurants and over 40 spirit brands. The event has evolved in its third year and has expanded its program to include a four-day educational component from March 10th to March 14th. Top tequila and mezcal competitions, a whole day of mezcal seminars accompanied by a burlesque show, an El Tesoro Spice Bar activation, and lucha libre outdoors are some of the events that combine fun with information. Patron is sponsoring a CRT certification for around 200 local bartenders to become certified tequiliers.

“We are excited to have a lot more people to be knowledgeable about tequila in town,” added Finkelstein. These fun-filled events are open to the general public and will be held at the beautiful ACE Hotel preceding the final event, Top Taco, that will take place again this year at an expanded section of Woldenberg Park on March 14th with a VIP experience that begins at 6PM and general admission set for 7PM.

To purchase tickets for both, Agave Week and Top Taco, visit toptaconola.com. 

RISAS RIZOS A Natural Influencer

RISAS RIZOS A Natural Influencer

by AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- >RISAS RIZOS Una influenciadora natural

Rocio Mora is a bilingual vlogger and a master at teaching people how to take care of natural hair. With Risas Rizos, her YouTube channel that started in 2014, she has close to 150,000 subscribers. The channel, named as a Spanish wordplay for "laughs" and "curls," focuses mainly on the natural care of curly hair, and it also offers product reviews, make-up tutorials and general beauty tips.

Mora was born in Baltimore and moved to New Orleans as a toddler, where she grew up surrounded by her Honduran and Mexican families. This tall and lean Latina beauty models from time to time and has dabbled into TV hosting.

She started making video blogs to save time, instead of repeating the story over and over to relatives and friends about what she had done to revive her curls that were lost due to heat damage. Mora followed her cousin’s advice to make a video and she uploaded it to YouTube.

The natural hair movement was trending in the African American community, but Latinas were not into it yet. Risas Rizos vlogs targeted a niche market that was perfect for companies to extend their customer base to U.S. Latinas and to Spanish-speaking women in Latin America. Risas Rizos gained subscribers almost immediately and viewers were asking questions that prompted to more and more videos. Soon after, brands reached out and Mora’s side job was born.

In her “real” job, she worked as a pipeline drafter at an engineering firm. She was laid off during the oil industry recession that hit Louisiana in 2015, just a couple of days after returning from the “We All Grow Summit,” the first bloggers conference she ever attended. Mora found herself with virtually no options in her career and was forced to take a leap of faith and turn her YouTube hobby into her next career.

Her mother, Juana Mora, encouraged her to go to the Hispanicize conference taking place in Miami the week after Mora was laid off. Not knowing how long she would be without a job, Mora was hesitant to go, but her mother gave her Southwest Airlines points for her flight and encouraged her to go. “Attending this conference was a game-changer because I gained lots of information, made great connections, and was able to meet the Univision Connectors Network,” recalls Mora.

Upon return, she chose to stop the job hunt and devote all her time into growing her digital footprint and her Risas Rizos brand making videos day after day without knowing if she would get any return.

She had to keep a strong mindset to ignore friends and family who were advising her to go back to school and find other jobs. But she saw the potential, although she admits it was tough in the beginning. “The hardest part was not knowing what was going to happen next. I had never NOT worked for anyone else and was used to knowing what was coming ahead. Being an entrepreneur, you can hope, you can plan, but you just never know…”

 The first brand that reached out to Risas Rizos was DevaCurl. “They were thanking me for my honest review of their products and gifting me more products to potentially review,” said Mora. Then, the sponsorships started coming. The first brand that paid Mora for a post was Shea Moisture. Risas Rizos still works with them and since then, Mora has done campaigns for beauty brands such as Neutrogena, Proctor & Gamble’s various product lines, Ulta Beauty, and Dove, to name just a few.

Although the job of an influencer seems glamorous and easy, there is a lot that takes place to create sponsored posts. Mora spends her days creating the concepts and she records and edits her vlogs. She also books photographers and video crews from certain jobs, handles the administrative aspects of her company and goes back and forth with clients during the campaign approval process. A simple one-minute video can take hours to shoot and days to edit. “There are many sleepless editing nights and a lot of the time you have no one to help you,” Mora says.

Mora is very proud of having successfully pitched a campaign for a brand that had nothing to do with beauty. Last year, she went on a tour called Rizos On the Road Presented by Kia Motors, which was a series of events in Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The events celebrated being Latina and Afro-Latina in the natural hair space and community. “I presented the idea to Kia Motors of America and found an organic angle to create the tour and was able to bring additional hair brand sponsors that all believed in the message behind our project.”

To Mora, the fact that a national brand like Kia would help facilitate a dialogue and conversations about diversity and inclusion for Latinos and the struggles many Latinos had embracing their own history and roots, is a great accomplishment that goes beyond marketing and validates what being an influencer is really about.

Last September, Mora was chosen by the New Orleans Marketing and Tourism Corporation as the face of their biggest Hispanic Heritage Month marketing campaign. Mora was featured in blogs and videos on the GoNOLA website and told locals and tourists alike about Hispanic heritage in the city, where they could find all things Latin and gave an itinerary of her favorite things to do. “I’ve always had a love for my Latino community here and New Orleans has always been my favorite city in the world so to work on a campaign that had to do with both of my loves was an honor,” said Mora about working on her first local campaign.

The evolution of her brand and the expertise she has acquired during her years as a digital influencer have awakened a need for new goals. Mora would like to “act as a bridge of sorts to reconnect Latinos to the soul of New Orleans and to show the rest of the city the many contributions Latinos have made to amplify the beauty and culture of New Orleans.” Her local influence is growing, and she was recently working on her second local campaign for Mignon Faget.

Working long hours, believing in her vision, and finding her niche have taken Rocio Mora beyond what she could ever have imagined when she began making videos for fun.

Mora’s advice to any entrepreneur is to always make good connections. “You just never know where that introduction will lead you,’’ she firmly says. Rocio is focused on doing more local things that could transcend the digital realm, so stay tuned to see what this natural influencer will do soon.


Tribute to the Latin American Workers

Tribute to the Latin American Workers

By Memo Perez Lara

Click aqui para español- >Tributo a los trabajadores latinos

After Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans had to reinvent itself. The reconstruction seemed a titanic task, difficult and far away. And so, summoned by misfortune, the Latino workers began to arrive.

For the most part, it was Latino construction experts who came to rebuild this city and accelerated the process with their imagination and dedication. The current aspect of New Orleans cannot be explained without the labor of hundreds of Latinos who took double and triple shifts to recover the majesty of one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Many of them stayed. They joined a multicolored society and made it their own. They loved the city from the first moment, because they saw her being born again.

Thirteen years later, in the heart of Crescent Park near the entrance of Piety street, now stands a majestic 18-foot tall statue of bronze and marble, with the figures of Latin men and women repairing the roof of one of the thousands of houses that they rebuilt, and that made New Orleans flourish again. This statue is an act of love and gratitude; a recognition of all those anonymous workers who answered the call in the darkest moments of the city.

The Initiative

Everything started in a classroom with high school youth. Dr. Juan Jorge Gershanik ultimately the leader of the initiative and the making and placement of the statue, says that young Latinos felt a bit of shame when talking about the occupation of their parents, who worked mostly in the construction and cleanup after Katrina.

Dr. Gershanik says he felt the need to appreciate those students and their families. "They need to be proud...Their parents, their family, they gave us back this city!" he exclaimed.

The Process

Gershanik returned home with the idea fixed in his mind, and after discussing the new project with his wife Ana, they immediately got to work. Many of their artist friends wanted to get involved in the project and began to give Gershanik their ideas and sketches, but these were very abstract and far from the main objective of presenting a work of art that children and generations to come could identify with.

Italian American artist Franco Alessandrini was selected to be the creator of the piece. His original sketches were changed about 25 times. At the beginning, the monument did not include the woman, but thanks to Ana's insistence, the contribution of the Latina women in the reconstruction of New Orleans is now depicted in this homage. The very European features of the men’s faces were changed, as well as the first model of the lady, which was the typical Sophia Loren look. The project took shape and became a true representation of the workers. ‘

The Big Day

After years of hard work, and logistical setbacks for the installation and transport of the monument made in Alessandrini’s studio in Italy, came at last the cool afternoon of Saturday, November 10, 2018. In front of a large group of people, the statue was unveiled.

Dr. Gershanik, proud of his Latin roots, saw his dream and his task fulfilled, and saw his materialized gift to the city of New Orleans: "What the monument symbolizes is the great contribution that Latinos made through their labor in the reconstruction," he stated. Latinos helped bring New Orleans back, and perhaps one of the things that was not appreciated then was the harsh conditions in which they performed this work. "They had an incredible work ethic. 10, 12, 14 hours...While there was light, it did not matter the sun was harsh in August or September, they continued to do their work," Gershanik recalls.

During the unveiling ceremony, Arnie Fielkow, former president of the City Council, commented "Thirteen years ago, we all know it was a very interesting time. It was a city that not only went under water, but it was a city that needed revitalization and new energy. We did not know what the city of New Orleans would be like. And we were planning what the city would be, and we did not know how the plan was going to be executed.” He continued, “And in 2005 and 2006, we saw our Latino workers come to our community and help us rebuild our homes, businesses and really give an uplift to our community. And the culture also changed in this community. You saw new and enhanced culture come into this community.”

Dr. Gershanik says that he was very happy to see the excitement of the Latino community regarding the project, based on the group of workers who helped with the installation of the monument. Ana Gershanik, tireless promoter of the project, commented, "I’m just so moved that we were able to do this...I just love our Latino community, they are hard-working people. I hope their children will be as proud as we are to have them in our community.

Many workers after Katrina have stayed and have become very productive in our community, and I hope we will all render tribute to them.”

Thank You, Dr, Gershanik

Dr. Gershanik is known for his altruistic work in favor of the city of New Orleans. In the middle of Katrina's emergency, he rescued premature babies from Baptist Hospital, which was flooded; He made helicopter trips to Baton Rouge while manually providing oxygen to babies in critical condition. This, along with other invaluable exploits through his career in medicine, have saved the lives of the most vulnerable.

The monument will be here as a legacy to honor the Latin American workers who helped in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, thanks to Dr. Gershanik’s recognition of the need to render tribute and give credit where credit is due.

Click here to see inaugural ceremony and picture gallery


DECO Martinez

DECO Martinez

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español- > DECO Martinez

Deco Martinez is creating reggaeton hits right in New Orleans. His talent has been nurtured from years, and with just about two years of residing in the Crescent City, Deco is starting to get the recognition he has dreamed of.

At age 12, Deco Martinez wrote his first song and continued to nurture his dream. In Havana, Cuba, the city where he grew up, he managed to get copies of his favorite artist Vico-C's and has been inspired by his style and to get into the urban genre. Almost three years ago he left Cuba to pursue a dream. "As every Latino comes to this country to look for a future he cannot find in the land they came from, I came with dreams and many things in mind," says Martinez.

Nueva cancion 2021

Deco is a songwriter above everything and is convinced with his writing skill he will provide artists of all genres with great lyrics. To make it here, he has worked in construction and as a barber, always giving the best of himself, but he has never lost sight of his objective of making it big in music.

He puts many hours into his music. Deco creates the basic chords on a guitar when composing and his lyrics and rhythm is then sent to his fellow Cuban and friend Jerry Edition, a music producer in Miami.

"When I'm in the studio, or doing something that has to do with music, I forget about everything else and at that moment I feel I'm alive," says Martinez. Local artists like Doba, Celso, Urban and High Level have lent a helping hand to introduce him to the scene and to help him get noticed.

Deco's single Pa Que Bailen, has been playing in local radio station Latino Mix 97.5. Receiving the support of people like Eduardo Courtade, the director of Latino Mix, has been a boost for his music and the recognition of his talent in town.

Deco plans to continue making music and knocking on doors of venues that will allow him to perform. He has taken an interest in the New Orleans genre of bounce and plans to incorporate it in future work.

At the past edition of Calle Ocho Festival in Miami, Deco performed in front of a crowd that was quickly captivated by his performance. Deco knows he can entertain a crowd and wishes promoters in town gave more opportunities to local talent like himself to perform in festivals and venues.


Deco Martinez has the talent, the drive, and the spirit of an artist, that combined with his attire, his demeanor, and his hair style, draw the attention of everyone around him. Some curious ones dare to ask who he is as they guess he could be a famous artist.

This is just the beginning for the artist who values the message that music can carry. For now, his message to those who want to pursue a passion is to not give up. "Nothing big, no success comes easy. One must overcome all the challenges that life brings. Do not give up," advises Martinez.

You can find Deco's music by searching Deco Martinez on Apple Music. He has currently 10 singles on his iTunes album, and continues to work hard to create more music and to spread it around everywhere he can. You can support him by following on social media and attending his performances around town.


Thelma Ceballos-Meyers: Challenge Completed

Thelma Ceballos-Meyers: Challenge Completed

By AnaMaria Bech 

Click aqui para español- > Reto superado. Thelma Ceballos-Meyers

Thelma Ceballos-Meyers is the number one State Farm Agent in Louisiana, a great accomplishment for any insurance agent. It’s an even greater accomplishment for a Latina who beat the odds after becoming a teenage mother.

Chances are that you have driven by one of the many billboards with her name and face on display, but what you don’t know is that to get all this recognition and achieve success, there have been great sacrifices.

Ceballos-Meyers “did everything backwards,” she claims, when referring to the fact that she had a baby at 16, finished high school two years after, and got married years later. “I did not become a statistic,” is what she prides herself on when reflecting on her accomplishments and analyzing the outcome of many other teenage mothers.

 Ceballos-Meyers is a very energetic person with a great smile all the time. She is a hands-on type of boss who will greet you in the office, serve you water, answer the phones, and close shop. Even after a steady business and a good financial position, she gets in early and stays up late if necessary. When business is slow, she joins her team to hand out flyers from door to door. Ceballos-Meyers does not sit still.

She met her husband Craig Meyers when she worked at the Sheriff’s Department. After working there for a while, she wondered what else she could do to end the paycheck to paycheck financial cycle. She attempted to be a medical assistant, but cleaning wounds was not for her. She really wanted to be a court stenographer, but classes got canceled because enrollment was low. She then moved on to work as a secretary at a State Farm Agency. Always the hardest working person in the room, Ceballos-Meyers kept looking for a way to bring more money home.

 “When I tell you, I couldn’t buy a pack of gum, that is an understatement.” As a single parent, Ceballos-Meyers had to work hard to provide for her daughter Jessica. For many years, they had just enough. “People live a lifestyle that they cannot afford, but they miss what’s more important,” and for Ceballos-Meyers, providing a good education for her daughter was priority. She chose to pay for private school and forgo nice things for herself like a better car or an expensive handbag.

Being a young mother grounded her. Going out was not an option because even though she found a great support system in her parents and grandmother to help with her child, they would only take care of Jessica for work and school-related activities.

While working at State Farm, Ceballos-Meyers began realizing that agents could earn good salaries. In her former boss she found a mentor and a voice of encouragement who kept reminding her that she had all the capabilities to become a successful agent. State Farm paid for her school, so she attended Tulane University, where she got an associates degree in Business Administration and Marketing. 2007 was the year she graduated, and the year she became a State Farm Agent.

Ceballos-Meyers had a lot of encouragement and support from her former boss, but she also heard negative reasons from other agents as to why she should not attempt her own agency. “There are no clients, they used to tell me. I said, let me figure that out.”

Ceballos-Meyers had noticed that in her area there was no one tapping into the Hispanic market. After Hurricane Katrina there were so many questions about insurance. People, including herself, were so confused with coverages, and she noticed people in the Hispanic community were totally lost. She was ready to fill a need while also carrying out her mission to educate her community.

“State Farm gave me the opportunity, and I was willing to out-work anybody else that they were going to give it to.” On December 1, 2007, just a few months after becoming an agent, she opened the doors to Thelma Ceballos-Meyers State Farm Agency, along with three full-time employees and her daughter, who worked part-time.

“There was no Latina State Farm Agent. I’m the first, and still the only one after 10 years. From day one our goal was to educate our clients about their policies and the financial services.” She knew her grandmother and mother were known in the community, so she dragged them to all her events, and that’s how Ceballos-Meyers began to market herself.

Ceballos-Meyers believes in brand recognition and early-on she advertised in various media while sponsoring several community events. After just three years in business, she opened the doors to her new beautiful facility on 501 Whitney Avenue, where the agency has operated for the last seven years.

Her team now consists of seven full-time employees who can help customers in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Besides the auto, home, property, business, life and health insurance policies, the Thelma Ceballos-Meyers State Farm Agency also offers financial services.

Ceballos-Meyers remembers the first agency years of 12 to 14-hour long days. She jokes about getting to work at seven in the morning and having moments where she would cry and pray that things were going to go right that day before getting out of her car. Having a supportive husband was key to her success and she makes sure to give credit to her husband Craig. “He knew I did not eat sometimes because I was so busy, so he would bring me lunch.” Together, they would clean the office every Sunday, and if something needed fixing, “Craig was my fix-it guy.” She is also grateful about having assembled a great team. “Team is everything. I cannot do this by myself,” she says and reassures that if anyone was to attempt their own agency, she would be happy to share her knowledge, but “the most important thing is to remember is that it takes a lot of work.”

 Positivity and high energy are evident traits in Ceballos-Meyers. To relieve the mental stress from the job and to stay fit and healthy, she makes sure to work out every day. She started running in her 40’s. Now that her team is established, and business is steady, Ceballos-Meyers devotes some time to training and competing in triathlons, a passion she began at 44. “When you hang out with people who work out, they are so much more positive than people who don’t. Their outlook in life is so much different and I admired that, so I wanted to be like them, and I began to do triathlons.”

Ceballos-Meyers did not know how to swim well then, so she asked a lady at her gym to give her some tips. She ventured into her first triathlon where she had to swim 300 yards in a pool. “I was exhausted,” she laughs, while adding she still had to bike and run. But like with any other challenge in her life, she overcame and now competes all over the region.

Always learning new things and challenging herself is the way Ceballos-Meyers achieves things in life. In looking for ways to help her clients, she discovered AARP discounts. When she realized there were no Spanish AARP volunteer instructors in the state of Louisiana, she took charge, spent the time in training, and became one. She volunteers her limited off hours to provide free classes to adults aged 55 and over, who get a 3-year discount just by attending the class. “Which agent takes the time to tell you if you take the class you can save money?” Ceballos-Meyers asks while adding that the experience has helped her know clients better and people see her willingness to help.

Ceballos-Meyers gives back to the community in many ways. She has served on the boards of multiple organizations, including the Jefferson Workforce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the AARP Diversity Council, among others. She also supports many charitable community initiatives.

Ceballos-Meyers is in a happy place. After all the sacrificing during her youth to provide for her daughter, she can now devote time to her hobbies. She is an atypical grandmother of three, who enjoys spending time with her family. The New Orleanian, who is the second child of a Guatemalan father and a Nicaraguan mother, enjoys traveling and going to festivals. She loves to dance, even though she does not get the chance to do it that often. She eats healthy food, but can’t resist a Guatemalan breakfast with chirmol, black beans and hand-made tortillas.

Her goal is to keep her company going strong and to invest intelligently, so she can secure a decent retirement. She emphasizes the importance of planning for retirement and is happy to guide people in that respect. “Thelma actually cares,” Ceballos-Meyers says when asked about what people should know about her. She knows the importance of receiving the right advice and getting a helping hand. “I honestly want to help. If I can help within reason, I will.”


Romi Gonzalez, An Ambassador of Latin American Culture.

Romi Gonzalez, An Ambassador of Latin American Culture

By AnaMaría Bech

Click aqui para español->Romi González, el embajador de la cultura latina

Romualdo "Romi" Gonzalez has achieved great success as a lawyer, but in his heart there has always been a priority to advocate for the Latin American community in the United States, to highlight the best of this culture and to motivate Latinos living in the country to become active members in their communities. School Years. A step away from the war. The law was the path he chose to follow the advice of his father, Reverend Romualdo Gonzales, Bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Cuba, who told him that it did not matter what profession he chose as long as he could help others. After having obtained his English diploma at the University of the South in Tennessee, and having completed a diploma in Spanish Culture at the University of Madrid, he applied to Law School at Tulane University. It was possible that his duty with military service could interrupt his first semester. Gonzalez became part of the army reserve at Tulane's ROTC in 1972, and on December 1st, his birthday, the fear of going to war dissipated when he found out his lottery ticket would allow him to stay in the country and continue his education. Gonzalez obtained his Juris Doctor degree from Tulane University. It was only until he participated in the law clinics required as service hours to obtain his diploma when Gonzalez got to know people in the Latin American community in the city and reconnected with his cultural heritage. That's how he became known among Latino immigrants. He enjoyed working with his community and becoming a resource of help in various ways beyond legal issues.

 45 years of law, a lifetime of cases

In his 45 years as a lawyer, he has undertaken hundreds of cases, locally and internationally. One of the most significant in his career was when he represented the families of 14 victims of Pan American World Airlines flight 759 which collapsed on a residential area of the city of Kenner, in 1982. He still has contact with one of his clients, Erica Velázquez Aust, the only employee who survived the tragic New Year's Eve fire in the Casino of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico in 1989. That day, nearly 100 people lost their lives. Gonzalez achieved the highest amount of all the cases from that event and assisted the family during their stay in New Orleans during medical procedures for her client. The success of these and many other cases has allowed him to dedicate his efforts and time to causes that he is passionate about. "Being part of these causes has been very important for me, but nothing causes me more pleasure than being able to help our people," Says Gonzalez, adding that "this is why I have had the desire to start things that have been good for our community, despite our community."

 Pioneer of cultural, economic and civic causes

"Romi" Gonzalez has been the pioneer of countless cultural, economic and civic causes in the city. "The primary goal in my life has been to 'Americanize' our community and expose the best of our culture to the rest of our city, state and country,' and he has achieved it because his profession has allowed him to open some doors. The list in his curriculum of the organizations in which he has participated is extensive. He has been the founder of organizations such as Carnaval Latino, Latin American Chamber of Commerce, The International Cuba Society, The New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation and Jupiter Hispanic Leadership Conference, among others. Some of these organizations continue, some have new names, and some have evolved. Gonzalez has been a member of numerous boards, conferences and commissions such as HISPAC, World Trade Center, NOMA, Mayor Moon Landrieu's Latin American Advisory Committee, National Commission of Hispanic Ministers of the National Episcopal Church, Canal Street Development Corporation, City Building Corporation, and New Orleans Tricentennial Commission, to name a few.

Jupiter Leadership Conference

Gonzalez proudly remembers the Jupiter Leadership Conference, where a group of city leaders went on retreat to discuss, plan and find solutions to the most critical problems for the Latino community. The conferences had the presence of expert speakers recognized at the national level who guided important initiatives, such as The New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

The origins of the Chamber of Commerce

Along with professors Ricardo Arellano, a marketing professor at the University of New Orleans, and Ruben Armiñana, former vice president of Tulane University, Gonzalez formed the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, a division of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. The idea of forming the Latin American Chamber of Commerce emerged as an initiative for political leaders to include Latino businessmen and bilingual leaders, who could help reclaim New Orleans' position as the main connection to Latin America. For many years, New Orleans had become without much effort the "gateway of the Americas," but when the city lost its largest trading partner with the embargo of Cuba, New Orleans lost its hegemony as such. Gonzalez believes that city leaders had a hard time accepting that they did not have the vision to promote trade with Latin America by strengthening relations with Latin American residents, while Miami welcomed thousands of Cubans who were knowledgeable in the trade business and desperate to make a living. The Latin American Chamber of Commerce got authorities to recognize the importance of a Latino business force in New Orleans.

Episcopal Church Task Force

Being a member of a Task Force convened by the Episcopal Church to do a three year study on the request by the Episcopal Dioceses of Cuba for readmission to the Episcopal church of the United States of America,was very special for Gonzalez. "This was very important to me, as my father was the last Bishop of Cuba before the Cuban Dioceses had to be separated in 1966 from the US church, due to the political fray between the two countries". This reunification is a significant step towards Romi Gonzalez's hope that the relations between the two neighbors would one day normalize.

The party begins! Carnaval Latino

Carnaval Latino (Latin Carnival) has been one of the many causes that Romi Gonzalez has nursed through the years as a flagship of his efforts to promote Latin culture. Carnaval Latino was conceived in 1989 with the idea of offering a platform to showcase local and international musicians and businesses in the City of New Orleans, and to promote the Latino culture to society in general through a professional production free to the audience. The golden years of the Carnaval Latino were between 1989 and 1996, when Canal Street was filled with spectators from what is now Harrah's Casino all the way to the river. At that time, they presented internationally recognized folk groups, and masters of ceremony who would introduce great artists such as Rita Moreno, Celia Cruz, Johny Pacheco, Willy Chirino, Rey Ruiz, Las Chicas del Can and Wilfrido Vargas, among others.

Union and disunion

The success of these initiatives has caused the desire of many people to carry out similar projects. "The saddest thing I have suffered in my whole life is to see the inability of our community to work together. This happened to Carnaval Latino...suddenly there were similar initiatives that wanted to imitate it, we asked them to stay with us, and we asked to work together...," recalls Gonzalez, pointing out the division of efforts and resources as the main reason for the interruption of the Carnival for several years. The division has been a big obstacle for good initiatives to be strengthened. At some point around five Latino-oriented Chambers of Commerce existed in the city, destined for the same purpose. One of the achievements of the second Jupiter Conference in 1995 was an agreement to merge all chambers into one to provide greater benefits for the members, and to represent the business community in a more unified, strong way. The result of Jupiter II was the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, which is a very solid institution today. Carnaval Latino was revived in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, October 13th, Carnaval celebrates its nineteenth edition. During this celebration, everyone will be able to enjoy dance performances and cultural events for free at Washington Park in the Marigny and they will also observe the traditional Parade of the Americas. The celebration will close with live music performances at the iconic House of Blues, during their regular Bamboleo! party! This exhibition of Latino culture will feature activities for all tastes of music and typical foods.

A book, his next step

Romi Gonzalez works constantly to expose the best of our culture in our society. The lawyer confesses that he is preparing a book to collect all the stories he has been involved with. Gonzalez is practically a living encyclopedia and is a chronicler when it comes to the history of our city, its connections to our community, and he knows very well the ties between New Orleans and his native Cuba. Speaking of the legal needs for the immigrant community, Gonzalez believes that "it is important to seek stability for the people who are already here and to show the rest of the community that an undocumented person is not a criminal." For the attorney, the term "undocumented" was sufficient when referring to those who are getting their documentation in order. Gonzalez rejects the term "illegal” and smiles when he mentions that he does not like the term 'alien', adding that "we must teach the rest of the community that we are part of them and not 'aliens'...we did not just fall from the moon."

Family first

Of his greatest pride, Romi Gonzalez does not say much. His eagerness becomes obvious when he meets his sons, Romi and Pablo, in his office on the twelfth floor of the Whitney building just in time for a family portrait. At some point during the conversation about Latin American culture, he mentioned that his late wife Sally Ann Howell, the mother of his children, was an American native of Monroe, Louisiana who greatly enjoyed traveling through various Latin American countries and learning about their different traditions. Gonzalez re-married and currently shares his life with his wife, Sara Lapene Puglia, a successful commercial manager, originally from Guatemala. For a brief moment, the respected lawyer, the entrepreneur and the executive, ceases to be all of this to become simply a father. Between the laughter and jokes with his children who pose for a photo, it is evident that Gonzalez has truly achieved a successful life.


Colmex Construction

The Power Couple Behind Colmex Construction

By Claudia Vallejo

Click aqui para español->Colmex Construction

Angelica and Roman sounds like two names in a love story from Greek mythology, just as Helen and Paris, or Andromeda and Perseus. But this 21st century love story is built -hammer and nails in hand- here in New Orleans.

Angelica is methodical. Roman is creative. She takes care of the numbers. He handles ideas. She likes administration and finances. He prefers the hands-on, technical part. She begins the sentences, he finishes them. Angelica, wife, is the president and Roman, husband, the vice president.

Parents of four children, Angelica and Roman are the Yin and the Yang. Angelica Rivera and Roman Lopez are the co-owners and founders of Colmex Construction, a construction company for commercial, residential and multi-family buildings that has membership in more than seven organizations and has been recognized with awards from Entergy and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana.

The company has received multiple certifications, including the 10,000 Small Businesses of Goldman Sachs and one from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 2018, Colmex Construction celebrates ten years of being founded on June 2nd, to be exact. It was born with three workers and has grown to have 25 employees and 30 subcontractors. From a room as an office in the home of Angelica and Roman, today the company is located in a commercial building of 10 thousand square feet on 4334 Earhart Boulevard in New Orleans.

Originally from Cajicá, a town in Colombia, Roman was Angelica's first boyfriend when she was 13 years old. At 16, she emigrated to Florida: she finished high school, she started working in several companies, she continued her life in the United States... "but she remembered that she had left something good in Colombia!", Roman whispers, and both laugh.

Roman arrives later to Florida. Using his manual skills, he offers maintenance services and then home inspections. The housing crisis, the scourge of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and the invitation of a group of Mexican friends encourage Roman to move to New Orleans to work on the wooden structures of the houses.

He was not as fast as his friends, so he was advised to look for clients... and customers started arriving. "I almost panicked when I learned how they kept their accounts. That's when we decided to organize ourselves," says Angelica. That is how Colmex was born, a name whose first three and last letters are dedicated to Colombia and Mexico.

"There came a time when we understood that we could offer the complete construction service, from building the foundation to adding the final touches to the home," explains Angelica. They obtained the operating licenses, the appropriate permits and contacted non-profit organizations. Angelica says that "continuing education has been the key for growth. It is important that people educate themselves on how to grow their business and on the new techniques that exist within the industry."

Colmex Construction is a family-owned and family-oriented company, which instills a strong sense of belonging and creates spaces of motivation for its workers. Meetings are held every Friday, with lunch included. Recreational activities, such as games Olympiads, are also planned with employees. The company organizes and pays annual holidays with all employees and their families. Employees and family members will spend three days on the beach during the Labor Day weekend. "There are 57 people. We pay for the rooms. We've been doing it for five years now. It is a space in which we share with the children and the husbands and wives of all our employees."

Colmex Construction continues to grow every year, "but our goal is not to cover ourselves with money. Our goal is to continue managing this beautiful team we have," explains Angelica while Roman finishes the thought by adding that "the idea is to continue growing with the working group that we have formed. Many people have been working with us for 10 years. They are still here! It's about that, about valuing them and receiving that human warmth they provide.”

There is no need to look between the lines for a happy ending to this story. Upon hearing them, Angelica and Roman show the value of work, build the concept of family in the workplace, and are an example of a couple that advances in business and gives others the possibility to grow. They inspire love, understanding and a tenacious drive.

Tribu Baharú. Shared Roots

Tribu Baharú. Shared Roots

By Jorge Fuentes

Click aqui para español-> Tribu Baharú. Raíces Compartidas

A recent visit by a Colombian band focused the spotlight on the continuous close relationship between New Orleans and Latin America. Preservation Hall, considered the mecca of our city’s native music, served as the host for Tribu Baharú during a recent residence where the two musical genres found their shared common roots. As far as New Orleans traditional jazz is concerned, Preservation Hall has no equal: a live music venue with performances throughout the week, it boasts its own band, which tours constantly, and is supported by a non-profit foundation that promotes all its activities.

As part of their international music residence program -- which seeks to bring together the city’s musicians with artists from countries whose rhythms influence the music of New Orleans -- Preservation Hall invites different bands to share the stage with their house band. That is how the “champeta champions” from Bogotá were featured on a recent Tuesday night during three sold-out sets.

Champeta music originated from the “sound system” culture in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, where mobile discos were essential in spreading their mix of rhythms and influences, such as Colombian folklore, Congolese soukous, Haitian kompa and calypso, among others. “We are working hard to grow this music genre and to make it known to the world,” explains Oscar "Moniki", the band’s percussionist. “When music comes together, it touches the audience in their heart,” says Boricua, the founder and guitarist of Tribu Baharú.

As part of the residence program, guest artists also spend time working on outreach activities. In this case, Tribu Baharú, was able to bring their musical style to the radar of youngsters at a juvenile detention center. Pocho, the drummer of the band, explained that this experience was a great opportunity to showcase their genre to the youth of Louisiana, while at the same time, showing at-risk youngsters that there are different alternatives, such as art, when it comes to making choices in life. "It is a chance to show another way of life and to potentially change someone's life," he said.

 Tribu Baharú also got the experience of a lifetime when they recorded music with their local counterparts. Not everyone gets a chance to be part of a collaboration with a legendary New Orleans band, so their time in the land of jazz was even more special. “I would always ask what jazz was. I come from one of the islands in Colombia, and I was told that to really know jazz, one should visit the jazz capital of the world,” said Chindo, the bass player. “This is a dream come true for me.”

Preservation Hall invited Tribu Baharú next year to be part of Kanaval, their new Mardi Gras project. “We protect, preserve and perpetuate all forms of New Orleans culture,” said Preservation Hall Foundation's director of programs Ashley Shabankare. “We’re bridging the gap between jazz and other musical genres,” she said while explaining the mission of supporting music communities beyond New Orleans as part of Preservation Hall's international outreach efforts.

Giovanni Vargas, Making music his business

Giovanni Vargas, Making music his business

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español->Giovanni Vargas: La música, su empresa

New Orleans is well-known for its great musicians who have been the fruit of a culture that revolves around music. We recognize the artists’ names but fail to recognize all the work and production jobs that all these musicians create. We hear about the producers, composers, and obviously the artists, yet many behind-the-scenes individuals remain anonymous to music industry outsiders.

Giovanni Vargas is well known within the industry, but most people do not know about his accomplishments as a tour manager. This local “Guatemaltico” – a self-coined title reflecting his origin as the son of a Guatemalan mother and Costa Rican father – has worked as the road manager for renowned artists like Barbra Streissand and Fleetwood Mac, and the tour manager for national and international stars such as Lil’ Wayne, Solange, Usher, Nicki Minaj, and Outkast, among many others. Vargas is currently managing American rapper Playboi Carti’s tour, and just made the difficult decision of withdrawing from Shakira’s El Dorado World Tour.

Vargas’s mentor and legendary production manager of many famous music stars Marty Hom offered him a top production position on the tour. After giving this offer a lot of consideration, knowing that the offer was not for the tour manager position, Vargas decided it was better to withdraw from a position that wasn’t in line with his expertise and his goals.

 But how does a young Latino from New Orleans even get that type of offer from a legendary music production manager? Certainly not by chance. It happens with many hours of work and sacrifice paired with a very strong work-ethic and professionalism. And it also takes drive. Vargas got into music since his teenage years at Bonnabel High School. “I did some wrapping back in the day,” he admits timidly, adding “that turned into wanting to make money to buy more equipment”.

He focused on making a career out of his passion and found jobs in promotions and street marketing. He met Sergio Cabrera of MamboMundo.com, who ran a promotions gig for the Latin events in the city. He started promoting the Jorge Moreno, the Havana Nights' soundtrack musician, who was performing at TwiRoPa Mills, the best Latino-run music venue in New Orleans at the time.

Their Latin night, ‘Tumbao’, was always packed, and it wasn’t only Latinos who enjoyed the venue's events. After appreciating the quality of Vargas’s work, co-owner Angel Collazos and his assistant Eduardo Courtade, hired Vargas to handle promotions for the club. This position evolved into handling stage production as there were live performances on a regular basis. Collazos brought Latin acts as well as known bands from other genres, which gave Vargas the opportunity to get into live music production and work with acts such as the Marley Brothers, for example.

Vargas kept exploring the production world, moving on to work in music festivals. He attended Music Business Symposiums held at Loyola University since he was 16 years old, and finally he was able to be part of the action and he was finding a place within the industry.

Reginald Toussaint, son of legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint gave him the opportunity to work at Jazz Fest. Vargas admired Mr. Toussaint for being a New Orleans musician and composer who influenced the national music industry, for becoming relevant in R&B, and for gaining national and international recognition in the industry without having to leave New Orleans or without losing his kind and courteous demeanor. For Vargas, Toussaint and Trombone Shorty are the perfect examples of what he aspires to be: A New Orleans local music industry professionals who make an impact on the industry and who is recognized not only for his quality work, but also for his affinity with people, proving to be pleasant to work with.

Working at the Jazz & Heritage Festival and at Voodoo Fest gave Vargas visibility amongst tour managers of several performers. This also gave him the opportunity to make connections that would shape his career path. One of these connections was made over the phone. After reading a newspaper article his father had pointed out to him about Melissa Giles, Vargas knew he had to reach out to her.

Giles ran a successful women-only street promotion team in Miami when she was only 18 years old. “Reading about a Latina doing things in Miami with a street team was inspirational for me, so I reached out to her and she connected me with people.” Soon after his graduation from Tulane University with degrees in Sociology and Business Administration, Vargas’s work came to a halt because of Hurricane Katrina.

His friend, Pablo Quevedo, a connection acquired through Giles, offered him a job with the tours of Latin stars Don Omar and LDA. He rode the reggaeton wave and worked with many recognized artists of the genre. Once this wave started to phase down, Vargas came back to festival work. In 2009, Vargas booked Questlove for a DJ concert in New Orleans and met Tina Farris, the tour manager for The Roots.

Having become friends, Farris recommended Vargas to Lil Wayne, the world-renowned rap artist, who then hired Vargas as his tour manager. As a tour manager, Vargas is responsible for all the logistics of a tour. He makes all the necessary travel arrangements, books flights and tour buses, deals with immigration documentation, and advances the arrangements with the promoters of the venues where the shows take place. He ensures readiness, so that when his artists arrive to the city and venue of the performance, all needs are taken care of, and everything goes as smoothly as planned.

Vargas takes prides in his performance, considering every show to be a highlight because “there is something you get when you walk an artist on stage and there are 20,000 people screaming. They don’t know anything about me, they don’t know I exist, but I know I’m responsible for making it happen, and it is a great satisfaction.”

‘Gio’, as most people know him, is making his mark and getting the recognition he deserves as a successful tour manager from New Orleans. To Vargas, it is very important to represent New Orleans as well as possible, so that those in the industry may recognize that business talent also exists in the city. Vargas wants to change the perception of New Orleans which he learned during the Loyola symposiums he attended as a teenager, that there is great music in NOLA, but no great music business resources to service the talented musicians.

“My goal is always to be a catalyst in some way shape, or form, bringing the music business into New Orleans a bit more,” explains Vargas, who sets the bar high for professionalism when his company, Monopoli Projects, is hired to handle any event.

 Vargas hopes to spend more time in New Orleans to push for a music business culture change. He is working with a group of colleagues, including his friend PJ Morton, by meeting with the mayor to advocate for music business in the city. This group of music industry professionals believe New Orleans should have a NARAS Chapter to help foster music business, so Vargas is supporting Morton in that mission.

Vargas believes the music business community and the Latino community of New Orleans are similar because they are underrepresented and do not have a voice at the decision-making table. He understands his voice is needed and is committed to working to improve the conditions of both communities.

When asked about which artists’ tours he would like to manage he took his time and answered, “I am a huge fan of D’Angelo. I am a huge fan of Ruben Blades…those are probably two I’d like to do.” In that answer one can understand how his bicultural experiences have enriched his life. His mind is open to enjoying culture, traveling, relating and working with completely different personalities, working hard and representing who he is: A New Orleans-Latino-Music Industry Professional.

He wishes more people to expand their minds by experiencing other cultures, and would like to see a mesh between Americans and Latinos in New Orleans. “If you are American don’t be shy to walk into a Latin joint to eat. If you are Latino do not go only to the concert of ‘El Torito’. Go and try new things, experience other cultures because you may not like them…you may LOVE them.”

Mayra Pineda a Champion for Business

Mayra Pineda a Champion for Business

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español ->Mayra Pineda Campeona Empresarial

From the 10th floor of her Poydras office, Mayra Pineda directs all the efforts of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana and its Foundation. The Honduran native moved to the city in 1980 when her mother widowed and decided to try a future with her young children in New Orleans, where she was offered a position with the Consulate of Honduras.

Pineda is no stranger to hard work. Pineda held jobs in the service and tourism industries. She worked for a Honduran airline, the Hyatt and Double Tree Hotels, among others, and was herself an entrepreneur managing a franchise restaurant for 25 years.

Her poise, elegance and demeanor make a lot of sense when one finds out she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became the Consul General of Honduras. Pineda master the art of diplomacy, a relevant skill for her current endeavor where she must mingle with government officials, business leaders, and members of the Hispanic Chamber who come from diverse backgrounds.

Throughout her career she has been involved in the business community and served on the boards of various organizations. She volunteers her time with other organizations because through serving she also gets access to networking opportunities and to interesting insights that can be applied in her leadership position.

After serving on its board for many years, Pineda was named President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana and the Hispanic Chamber Foundation in 2014. She had a head start on this role because as the president of the board, she had a very clear idea of how the chamber needed to address the need of its members.

Pineda turned around the organization which is evident in the growth of membership, the sponsorship from corporations, the involvement of the National Hispanic Chamber with local events, the monthly seminars, conferences and trainings offered, and the recognition by government officials who are aware of the economic impact of Hispanic entrepreneurial efforts.

Last May, Pineda was named with the Minority Business Champion by the Louisiana Economic Development and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The award was given at a ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion. Pineda had to rush to it in a marathonic effort after leaving the very successful Annual Women’s Business Symposium that was taking place the same day.

Even though this isn’t the only award the she has received during her presidency, this one “touched my heart. It summarizes in three words what we are trying to do--be a champion for small businesses,” said Pineda.

In her day to day, Pineda attends several events. From business breakfasts to evening galas, she makes sure she attends and supports as many events of other organizations as possible. She understands how much work goes into creating these events and how important it is for people to attend. Hector Pineda is a great supporter of his wife. He copes well with the fact that sometimes the businesswoman gets home late at night just to sit at her computer to take care of pending items. He supports her and accompanies her when required and according to Pineda, he is happy to see her succeed. The fact that their son Hector Rodrigo Pineda is already married, makes it easier for Pineda to focus on her job and to put in the extra hours required to lead a successful chamber of commerce.

 One her short-term goals is to increase participation of members in the chamber’s events. Belonging to any chamber of commerce is essential for anyone wanting to run a business.  “The more businesspeople unite in this or other organizations, the bigger impact we create for others to take us into account”, says Pineda.  “I understand small business owners get absorbed with the day to day operations, but it is important to step outside and attend the events” explains Pineda.

Members get the most from the chamber when they make the effort to participate, when they make connections with other business people and when they find out about available resources. “Stepping out allows for the growth of their company and the chamber allows this opportunity,” she affirms.

Capacitation with the National Hispanic Chamber has been a great resource. Through this relation Pineda has been able to put Louisiana on the radar for big corporations that were not listening at the local level. Benchmarking with chambers from other cities has also fostered ideas and programs that have been successfully replicated in Louisiana. This becomes essential, especially as New Orleans celebrates 300 years and is in a great moment for economic development.

“Our geographic location and diverse culture makes New Orleans a gem” adds Pineda. The attraction of investments from technology companies, the relatively low cost of living, and the many events in the city are attracting young professionals and entrepreneurs. New Orleans is the place to be, according to Pineda: “We have the best food in the world, a unique lifestyle with diverse festivals, an unmatched geographical location. I love living and working here.”

Interacting with people, being up-to-date on what’s happening in the state regarding economic development and being able to pass that information to the chamber’s members provides great motivation for Pineda.  She is the happiest when she sees one of her members get the benefit of doing business and growing their company thanks to a connection that the chamber facilitated. One example is Juan Barreto from Promo Ad and Orleans Embroidery who met corporate representatives through the chamber’s events and is now fulfilling large contracts with Entergy and Blue Cross Blue Shield, to name a few.

“I’m satisfied personally and professionally. I have a lot of fuel to keep going and want the chamber to continue to grow” says Pineda. Just as the Chamber accomplished the goal of opening the Bilingual Workforce Training and Business Development Center, Pineda’s long-term goal is to create a Business Development Center for Women Entrepreneurs, and idea that is in the works and that came from the connections made at the National Hispanic Camber level.

Pineda would like all professionals and entrepreneurs to join the growing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and to participate in the events to take advantages of the opportunities and benefits that come with the membership.


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