Taking after her grandmother, Leonarda Bermejo Aguilar comes from a family of Mexican bakers and dreamed of owning a bakery when she came to the United States. Her daughter, Andrea Aguilar, vividly remembers accompanying her mother to different locations across the country as she worked to set up her business.
In 1980, Bermejo Aguilar helped establish one of the first Mexican bakeries in Brooklyn, New York. In 2015, more than two decades later, she opened La Artesa Bakery in Providence, located at 216 Academy Ave. “It wasn’t until we came to Rhode Island” that Bermejo Aguilar was able to truly make her dreams a reality, Aguilar said.
Today, the mother-daughter duo runs La Artesa Bakery together, primarily selling pan dulce, a Mexican bread “covered with sweet and crunchy toppings,” according to Aguilar.
“The first two years were very hard,” Aguilar said, citing the business’s poor visibility from the street and competition from more established bakeries in the area. “A lot of people didn’t know about us and we were trying to outsource to different businesses.”
“We would only sell 10 dollars a day, and sometimes we wouldn’t sell at all,” she added. But over the years La Artesa’s clientele and menu expanded, and “now people come from Connecticut, Boston and sometimes even New York.”
Capitol Hill Taqueria’s owner, Juan Molina, also saw his business grow over the course of many years. Molina’s restaurant is located on 353 Smith St. and features an extensive menu of specialties ranging from Mexican dishes to American breakfast foods.
When Molina first opened the restaurant in 2019, he was only serving an American breakfast menu, but when he noticed that “people were looking for nice Mexican food” in the area, Molina decided to expand.
Molina comes from a family of chefs in Mexico City. “All my (extended) family is in Mexico and make Mexican food there,” he said. “When we came to the United States, we opened our first Mexican restaurant, (Capitol Hill Taqueria), here.”
Today, Molina has expanded to three restaurants across Providence with the help of his brother, allowing him to form a strong community with other Hispanic restaurant owners in the city. “We have many friends on Chalkstone Avenue and Academy Avenue like (La Poblanita) and Casa Mexico,” he said.
Kelly Ann and Jake Rojas, owners of Tallulah’s Taqueria in Fox Point, have been part of Providence’s Hispanic-owned restaurant community for years. The couple opened their first restaurant — the now closed Tallulah’s on Thames in Newport — 10 years ago. In 2014, they opened their first Tallulah’s Taqueria location on 146 Ives St. and have since opened locations on Sims Avenue and in Jamestown.
“(Rojas) comes from Texas and has a strong Mexican background. All of that culture and background is infused in the food here,” said Alana Marquardt, assistant manager at the Ives Street location.
Tallulah’s Taqueria offers an extensive menu boasting Mexican classics such as tacos, burritos, tostadas and quesadillas, complete with homemade margaritas, aguas frescas and churros.
“We like to say this is a Chicano-style restaurant, which means Mexican-American,” Marquardt added. “It’s like a blending of cultures.”
During the pandemic, Tallulah’s Taqueria had to change its infrastructure to adapt to the shifting needs of its clientele, according to Marquardt.
Initially, “we had a long table, and it was community-style seating” inside the restaurant, Marquardt said. Once the pandemic struck, “we opened up the walls to create windows … (and) offer takeout … through the online ordering systems that we put in place.”
The restaurant also expanded its patio to provide outdoor seating. “That was the top priority,” Marquardt added. “To find out how to serve people and how to keep ourselves safe.”
Other businesses echoed the challenges of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic was tough,” Molina said. “But when it passed, we opened slowly … (first) one table, then two tables, and now we’re completely open.”
As eateries return to full capacity operations, all three businesses expressed hopes for expansion. Bermejo Aguilar would like to see her bakery open new locations across the Ocean State.
“I would love for everyone to support local” businesses, Marquardt said. “Support minority and Black-owned businesses and Hispanic and Latinx-owned businesses … because it's really important to support those who have a troubled past, troubled present and possibly a troubled future in America.”