Photo depicting the co-owners of Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen hugging each other.

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and Uplifting Latino Businesses

by Caroline Guzman


Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 marks Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S. To celebrate, the Emerald spoke to Latino community members in Seattle about highlighting Latino businesses, what it means to be Latino in the U.S., and a little about their own journeys. Some of the words they used to describe Latino people were “hardworking,” “passionate,” and “go-getters.”

Mireya Cartaya is the co-owner of Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen. This family-owned restaurant opened six years ago. Cartaya, her husband, and two daughters decided to leave Venezuela when the country’s economic and political situation became too difficult to endure. They traveled to her husband’s friend and co-owner Felix Valderrama’s home in Seattle, aiming to start a business. 

“To come to the United States with two suitcases and restart your whole life is very difficult,” Cartaya said. “Even if you have help at the beginning, that will always be temporary. We left our mothers behind, our siblings, life friends, and it gets emotional when you miss their birthdays, they grow up or pass away while you are far away from home. These are heartbreaking experiences, but we’ve got to stay strong because we decided to leave and come here for a better future. So, the hard part is to keep going.” 

To Cartaya, being Latino means being optimistic “dream chasers.” “Obstacles do not define us. We are not a passport, neither a visa. We are our family values, our Latino strength. Those are our heritage that surpasses a piece of paper because these add value to our essence.” 

Cartaya said her family feels thankful and fortunate that Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen has been able to stay open during the pandemic, but it has been hard to see other Latinos struggle.

“It is unfortunate to see fellow Latin businesses empty, people that had to leave their dream behind and go bankrupt while we keep our ship floating,” she said.

This is why supporting Latino businesses is so vital at this time, Cartaya said. “Especially after you open your business. There will be times nobody will show up at your store, or you won’t have any clients. You will question yourself and your talent and say, ‘Nobody bought an arepa, maybe we should have opened a hot dog stand instead,” she laughed. “You just got to trust your gut and know that with time the clients will arrive. Your product will sell.” 

Mireya advises Latinos who want to start businesses in Seattle: “The best way to enter any industry as a business owner is to learn and comply with the U.S law. … There are Americans and other Latin people who want to help Latinos to start their businesses. It takes time to learn. We have to be patient and let them help us. We have to invest in knowledge about how things work in this country.”

onni Tirelli and daughter Mariangela Tirelli working at Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen.
Ronni Tirelli and daughter Mariangela Tirelli working at Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen. “We Latinos value the concept of work. We are hardworking people,” says Mireya Cartaya. (Photo courtesy of Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen)

The Latino Community Fund (LCF) is an organization that empowers Latinos in building their businesses. “We want to bet on Latino leadership,” said Angela Soto, LCF Economic Empowerment Program coordinator. This program offers information about business licenses, taxes, legal assistance, and more at no cost. LCF gives this information through workshops and breakfast clubs and provides translators if needed. Soto said, “The more they know, the more they can progress.” 

Soto explained that Latinos are at a disadvantage because of the language barrier and because  U.S business laws are very structured and strict. It is why LCF fights for Latinos to have the same opportunities as Americans do. “I don’t ask for more, but I don’t ask to give us less. We just want to have the same chances as anybody else,” Soto said. 

LCF has tried to find financial investors that can help fund Latino businesses ideas. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t had a positive outcome,” Soto said. “However, to compensate for this, we do extensive research about grants available for our community to apply. We make it easy for them to access these resources.” The Latino business owner must be enrolled in LCF’s program to access these grants, which are always free. 

LCF also promotes their network of Latino businesses on the radio (Mradio Live). They do it through a raffle, and the winner has its business’s advertisement rotated for a month. LCF is working on expanding this strategic marketing on television. They are creating videos where Latino owners can talk about their origins, beginnings, and products to promote their businesses for free on a more significant network. 

Soto, originally from Peru, said to her, being Latino means being passionate and hardworking. “The word ‘hardworking’ in this country stands out in Latinos, and [others] can say many things, but no one can take away that about us.” 

Karla Melgarejo is the CEO of Latina Makers Club (LMC). This company equips businesses with the right tools and guidance to successfully grow and run diverse, inclusive, and unbiased marketing campaigns. For Karla, being a Latina means to “be able to raise my daughter in a time where the role for Latina women is changing, and we’re now taking the lead.” 

LMC indicates that Latino businesses are challenged due to an unrepresentative “marketing spectrum.” “We need more People of Color in marketing teams to truly close that representation gap in the media.”

Melgarejo said that to seek representation and equality, the community has to speak loudly and be unafraid. She asks other ethnic groups as well to support each other to make the marketing spectrum more inclusive. At this time, LMC is creating a space for Latina marketers to recommend them to different business owners, from small businesses to corporate, and create a network of experts. 

Photo depicting Karla Melgarejo speaking to fellow entrepreneurs.
Latina Makers Club CEO, Karla Melgarejo, coaching fellow Latina entrepreneurs. “We need to hire more People of Color in general to have that message of change, inclusion, and diversity be not just a tagline but a movement, the real deal,” says Melgarejo. (Photo courtesy of Latina Makers Club)

Latino businesses and workers include restaurants and construction but also so much more, said Josue Del Castillo, aka El Bronco, La Gran D’s radio host. “… we have lawyers, real-estate agents, accountants, and countless jobs …” Del Castillo works for Bustos Media, the top Spanish-speaking company in the U.S. with the most significant expansion, boasting 25 radio stations across the country. 

Radio has been part of the Latino community for decades. Del Castillo feels radio has three unique and important features: It is free, information is immediate, and the radio host is part of your day to day. The host is someone who knows what is happening in your neighborhood, on your streets, somebody that relates to you. 

“I’ve spent 30 years reinventing the radio, even when for years I’ve heard ‘the radio is dead.’ First was television, then the internet, then mp3, iTunes, now streaming services. I take each time as an opportunity to reconnect with the audience. I’ve learned that none of the previously mentioned are concerned about knowing the community’s needs, and that’s what helps me to keep radio alive,” said Del Castillo. 

Originally from Mexico, Amador Bustos and Del Castillo utilize several radio stations to incentivize Latinos to vote, collect funds for natural disaster reliefs, and support nonprofit organizations such as St. Jude’s Hospital. Additionally, they give space for Hispanic businesses to promote their services. 

“Latinos have a unique spirit. Our families are ‘asfixiantemente unidos.’ Every time I talk to my mother, she asks me the same questions. How have you been? Have you eaten? Are you sure you OK? It started to get cold. Are you using a ‘chamarra’? The funny part is that I’m already a full grown-up adult, but that’s how our Latino mothers are,” shares Del Castillo.

Del Castillo also recognizes that it is difficult for Latinos to start businesses in the U.S. “It costs us double the effort,” he said, as Latinos have to learn to adapt to American business laws and “learn how to coexist with the English language.” Nevertheless, to Del Castillo, being Latino means being a “go-getter” who comes from warmth and community. 

“I’m proud to be Hispanic,” he says.

Note: All interviews were conducted in Spanish and have been translated by the author.


Caroline Guzman is an animal and wildlife photojournalist based in Seattle, WA. She covers stories involving animal abuse, animal law, wildlife conservation, and more. Follow her on Instagram @imcarolineguzman and on Twitter @carolineguzman, or contact her via email at imcarolineguzman@gmail.com.

📸 Featured Image: Co-owners of Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen (from left to right): Felix Valderama, Ronni Tirelli, Mireya Cartaya, and Kami Valderrama. “The main satisfaction of our business [Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen] is to bring a small piece of Venezuela and offer it to the world,” says Cartaya. (Photo courtesy of Arepa Venezuela)

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