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Overhead view of a Colombian arepa with shredded meat and mini fried empanadas with a dipping sauce
Árepa colombiana (carne desmechada) and empanaditas parroquiales at Tertulias Cafe.
Rachel Leah Blumenthal/Eater

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In East Boston, Traditional Colombian Food Perseveres

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, local Colombian business owners fight to keep their culture alive, one piece of pan de bono at a time

Gildardo Preciado owns a Colombian restaurant in East Boston called Tertulias Cafe. At the beginning of the pandemic, he cooked and managed the entire operation by himself. Without the ability to ask employees for help due to COVID requirements during the initial shutdown, he took on every job in the restaurant, from cooking to cleaning to managing delivery orders. Even now, with the lack of customers due to the continuing effects of the pandemic, it’s difficult to bring in revenue.

In Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries, a tertulia is a small place to gather with family and friends, not just serving food but providing a third place for community building. “And that’s what we strive to keep doing,” says Preciado.

Business hasn’t been steady since the onset of the pandemic. Overhead costs like food, rent, and utilities, along with exorbitant third-party delivery fees, have stressed the coffers of every restaurant in the city.

Currently, Preciado works with two other people — one server in the morning and a cook at night. However, if his workers call in sick, he has to work on his own. “I got nobody to help me out. That’s why I’m crazy, running around. I have to cook, I have to prepare, and I have to buy this stuff,” says Preciado.

The operations reflect the pressure on Preciado’s business. While Tertulias used to close at 2 a.m., the restaurant now closes at 11 p.m. during the week since it is harder for him to work more than 12 hours every day by himself. Despite the precarious financial situation, Preciado says the importance of culture and tradition inspires him to continue investing in the business.

He keeps these ideas in mind when preparing ingredients for churrasco con salsa chimichurri or árepas filled with shredded meat and cheese — the store’s most requested items. When he was younger growing up in Bogotá, he cooked traditional Colombian foods with his family, and he promised himself to never lose those traditions after moving to the U.S. This idea of tradition runs through the family, as Preciado’s brother runs a Colombian restaurant in Lynn, and his other two siblings run restaurants and a bakery in Colombia.

“We changed a lot since we are in a different country but we cannot change [tradition],” he says. “If I change my traditions, I’m going to lose my life. When I go back to my country, what am I going to show my niece and my nephews? I’ve got to keep it the same.”

East Boston is known as “Little Colombia,” and Colombians make up the second-largest immigrant group in the neighborhood, behind Salvadorans. Prior to the 1960s, the area was largely home to immigrants from Europe. This was due, in part, to the Immigration Act of 1924, which claimed to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity” by restricting the entry of immigrants into the U.S. from non-Eastern and Southern European countries. The act restricted the entry of immigrants — specifically non-Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and ultimately anyone “who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship” — from entering the country by imposing literacy tests and taxes.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 loosened restrictions and allowed immigrants to flow into America, which ultimately led to East Boston’s diverse immigrant population. From the 1980s, Latin Americans — and specifically Colombians — began to flee their home countries due to drug trafficking-related violence and social issues. Latinos endured pushback and hostility from East Boston’s majority Italian population early on. A 2018 report about the migrant experience of Hispanics in East Boston stated that older migrants, often from the Italian community, would rent their spaces to Central Americans and Colombians and use their authority as a means to raise rents and “find things to discriminate” against renters for, according to one Salvadoran East Boston resident’s account.

However, as the new arrivals began to settle in, East Boston became a hub for Latinos, leading to the neighborhood’s Latino population growing from just 1 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 2015.

Bo Enceladus, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican-Dominican healer, shops locally to support her community — and to get her plataño fix. Whenever she goes to small bodegas, she talks with workers about their day. “Everyone that came from [Hispanic roots] came over [to East Boston],” she says. “It’s really hard to keep my roots, so I try to shop local.”

As a small business owner, Enceladus believes it’s especially important during COVID to keep the money within the community. “All these businesses are going down, you know, and these are our people. They are Hispanics from our area — why are we not supporting our people? Like, where else am I going to get plataños?” she says.

For many, migrating to the United States means leaving behind a community filled with culture and traditions — along with families and friends — in exchange for better opportunities. In 2017, the Boston Planning & Development Agency research division found that 76 percent of East Boston residents are foreign-born and that 61 percent of the city’s Colombians live in the neighborhood. The Colombian diaspora in East Boston has come together to ensure these traditions remain strong in the community, and that’s especially true of its restaurants.

East Boston’s Maverick Square is a cultural quilt, home to a variety of Latino cultures including Colombians, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans. Near the MBTA’s Blue Line Maverick stop, there is a corner store called Bella’s Market that sells Latino snacks such as tostones chips and dulce de leche squares. Inside, there is a large table in the center, on which locals scratch lottery tickets together. Across from the market, there is a bakery called La Sultana. La Sultana is a traditional Colombian bakery, though it makes all manner of Latino pastries and small bites.

Amelia Sanchez, the owner of the 29-year-old bakery, is a pillar of the East Boston community. Sanchez gives back to her community by donating baked goods and ingredients, such as cassava, to schools and YMCAs, and helping the Latino community with making pastries such as flan, empanadas, pan de bono, and chicharrones for various communal and government-based events. Sanchez says that the restaurants in the neighborhood stay connected through East Boston’s commerce association, East Boston Main Streets, where restaurants support each other’s growth while also providing members of the community with food and house supplies.

La Sultana has assisted with initiatives such as East Boston Main Streets’ food boxes for families and the Boston Police Department’s Coffee With a Cop event. In fact, Sanchez says that the pandemic has actually helped her business because of the number of community members that come by after their reopening.

Abe Sierra, a 33-year-old of Puerto Rican descent who’s been living in East Boston for five years, is a regular at La Sultana. He goes for its crunchy chicharrones and fried, breaded sticks of cheese, better known as palitos de queso. Sierra says being in a predominantly Latino area reminds him of how important culture is, and how the Latino diaspora perseveres.

“I believe these places where traditional Colombian foods are made and sold are extremely important to the community, for various reasons,” he says. “One reason is that food helps keep an important aspect of the culture alive in the diaspora: tradition. Another reason is many of the people who work in these places are immigrants. It allows them to make a living while at the same time sharing a part of their culture with other folks in the community who might not be familiar with Colombian traditional foods.”

Sierra typically eats out at restaurants off of the MBTA’s Maverick Station, such as Mi Rancho, La Sultana, and Tertulias Cafe.

Outside of La Sultana, someone shouts, “Qué quieres saber?” — what do you want to know? It’s Ricardo, who declines to provide his last name. He’s a Colombian who lives in Hyde Park, which can be an hour drive from East Boston, depending on traffic. He stands outside the bakery holding a small paper bag filled with beef empanadas, poised to open a bottle of the Colombian soft drink Pony Malta with a can opener attached to his keychain. “Traditional food is culture,” he says. “I’m coming all the way here from Hyde Park for that, no? So, that’s how important it is.”

He continues: “The thing about this area, especially with the Colombian products, you can find the products in those little stores that you don’t find in any other bigger stores.”

During the pandemic, Ricardo says buying around East Boston and other local Latino neighborhoods is mandatory. Shopping locally allows this community to stay strong in East Boston. Whether it’s through stopping by the local Latino-owned bodega to try their passionfruit nectar or buying a $10 traditional Colombian plate with meat, queso de mano, and plataños, it makes an impact in the community and reinforces their culture’s perseverance.

Mi Rancho

45 Meridian Street, East Boston, MA 02128 (617) 561-0205 Visit Website

La Sultana Bakery

40 Maverick Square, East Boston, MA 02128 (617) 568-9999 Visit Website

Tertulias Cafe

26-28 Porter St., Boston, MA 02128 (617) 561-0707 Visit Website
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