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Through food and unity, the Hispanic Restaurant Association celebrates Latin American culture
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Salem Mares, a pastry chef, said that the Hispanic Restaurant Association helped her “push her limits” when it comes to making food.

DENVER — Breaking into the restaurant industry can be competitive, confusing and discouraging, especially for Hispanic American chefs and workers. That is where the Hispanic Restaurant Association (HRA) comes in.

The Denver-based nonprofit was founded in February 2021 as a way to help Hispanic individuals navigate and advance through the complexities of the restaurant industry, as well as educate the public about Hispanic culture and food. The organization recruits and connects new chefs with experienced culinary personnel, guides restaurateurs through byzantine processes like the food and beverage licensing system, and ultimately builds leadership skills in the restaurant community.

“You don’t really see a Hispanic chef; you always see Hispanics working in the dish pit or doing prep, so [the Hispanic Restaurant Association] kind of gives us the opportunity to allow people to take steps up in the culinary industry in Colorado,” said Salem Mares.

Mares is the pastry chef at Nomad Taqueria + Beer Garden, located inside Origin Hotel Red Rocks. She said that the HRA helped her “push her limits” when it comes to making food. Marez also explained that the restaurant industry can be very competitive and people often have little to no support. But she said that that’s not the case with the HRA.

“No one is ever [like], ‘I’m above you,’” she explained. “It’s always, ‘We’re all equal individuals, we all learn from each other, we all gain from one another.’” 

Colorado Voices

Hispanic Restaurant Association helps cooks become chefs

John Jaramillo and Selene Nestor co-founded the HRA during the pandemic. Nestor said she and Jaramillo saw a huge need for an organization to help support Hispanic-owned businesses. “Because as you know, the pandemic affected everybody but, especially minority-owned businesses,” Nestor explained. “And us being Hispanic, that’s where it hits home.”

Hispanic Americans experienced tremendous personal and financial loss during the pandemic. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Latino adults knew a family member or close friend who was hospitalized or died from COVID-19. Additionally, the survey found that 49% of respondents or someone in their household either lost a job or took a pay cut during the pandemic.

Additionally, a study by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies found that Latino-owned businesses were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and that “Latino business owners were more likely to seek, but less likely to receive, funding from non-governmental sources than were white business owners.”

Nestor sees the future of the HRA as the main Hispanic serving institution that helps not only Hispanic people but all people. “We want to educate and elevate our community about what Hispanic cuisine actually is,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than just tacos.”

The breadth of Hispanic cuisine is on display at Mares’ restaurant. The head chef, Pablo Aya, is passionate about infusing local Colorado food with traditional Mexican dishes.

“I have a really big passion for cooking,” Mares said. “I love messing with different flavors. I love messing with different food. I love putting smiles on people’s faces.”

Mario Martinez, a chef who works alongside Mares and Aya, explained that elk, venison and locally grown produce like microgreens are included in dishes. But Martinez’ favorite dish on the menu is one that reminds him of Mexican heritage: the cricket taco.

Martinez recalled visiting his grandmother’s house and how the first thing she always asked him was, “Mijo, did you already [eat] something?”

“So, in my heart right now … what talks to me is the food,” Martinez explained. “That, you know, you just want to welcome someone with something that you create with love.”

That personal touch is something Mares relates to: “I love giving people food that they’ve never tried before and different flavors that they’ve never tasted, and they can go home and say, ‘Hey, I got to have this today,’” where you touch someone with your food is what boosts my passion for food.”

As a way to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, the HRA is launching Hispanic Restaurant Week, which begins Thursday, Sept. 22. Governor Jared Polis even signed a statewide proclamation recognizing the celebratory week. Day one of the festivities includes a Food Truck Festival at 6200 S. Syracuse Way in Greenwood Village. More information is available on the HRA website


Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at lindseyford@rmpbs.org.

Alexis Kikoen is a senior producer with Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at alexiskikoen@rmpbs.org.  

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