Jolie Gonzalez's husband had a running joke about getting people to dress up like Cuban sandwiches. But after a meeting with a client to brainstorm events, they thought maybe they were on to something. • The joke became an idea that turned into the Cuban Sandwich Festival, drawing thousands to Ybor City last May. • "It feels good because not only do we have a successful festival but we were also able to support the Ybor area," said Gonzalez, who is president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay and president and chief executive officer of Latin Times Media. They produce Latin Times magazine, distributed statewide. • The 2nd Annual Cuban Sandwich Festival is set for March 30 from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Centennial Park in Ybor City, at 1800 E Eighth Ave. • Gonzalez has made a career of supporting local businesses. Latin Times magazine often profiles new and rising local business owners. She helped merge the Tampa Latin Chamber of Commerce with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay, after a rift a few years ago. • "The only way that this would be able to be worth it is if we can unite the chambers," she remembered saying when she became president of the Latin chamber, "because really we're both trying to do the same thing, yet we're not doing a good job, either one of us, because we're split." • The chambers officially merged late last year and held an installation luncheon at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City last month. • "When the chamber was intact, they used to host their luncheons at the Columbia and they were always so well attended," she said. "It was almost like coming home, to be right back at the Columbia with a packed room." • Gonzalez recently spoke with Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan about this year's Cuban Sandwich Festival, how Latin Times has evolved since its first issue 12 years ago, and the growth of the Hispanic business community.
This is the second year for the Cuban Sandwich Festival. What are your goals for the festival this year?
Last year we put the festival together in a period of about three months. It was probably the worst day you could think of because it was Memorial Day weekend, so it was the hottest day in the world and everybody was away. But regardless, we had such a wonderful turnout that it opened the door to future events. This is our way of not only promoting our culture and the sandwich, but also giving the restaurants the opportunity to shine.
What does the Cuban sandwich mean to the community?
I think it's a way of bringing us all together, because even though it's named the Cuban sandwich, it's not just a sandwich for Cubans, it's not just a sandwich for Hispanics, it's something that was put together by different cultures. Every ingredient was brought forth by a different culture, and it ties us together. It's truly a cultural asset for Tampa, but I think it's bigger than that. I think it's a cultural asset for all of Florida because if you look at the restaurants throughout Florida, there's very rarely going to be a time when you go into a restaurant and don't see some kind of rendition of the Cuban sandwich on that menu.
How did you start Latin Times magazine?
I moved down here in 1999. I came from Chicago. I had family in Kissimmee, but Tampa's always really reminded me a little bit of Chicago. I started the magazine probably within six months of moving here. I really just didn't want to work for anybody else. I've always been entrepreneurial in spirit and I saw the need. Tampa's always had a rich Hispanic or Latino history and roots and culture, but at that time it seemed to be growing really quickly. I've always enjoyed people and writing so I just put that all together and the magazine was born.
How has the magazine evolved over the years?
When I first started the magazine, it was a little digest-sized publication and on one side it was for Tampa and when you flipped it, it was for Orlando. A lot of it had to do with entertainment, restaurants and clubs. At that point, I practically lived in my car. I had to do my own distribution, I had to do my own sales, my own design. That was probably the first year and a half or so. Then it grew to a full-sized magazine. I decided at that point I was going to focus on Tampa because that was truly where I felt home to be. The magazine deals a lot more now with people's businesses, with culture, with the sharing of inspirational and empowering stories of how people started their own business and the steps they took to get to where they are. I want to use that as our way of empowering people, to let them know that if they have a dream, they have to go after it and not to be afraid of hard work.
What inspires your involvement in the community?
I'm a very spiritual person. I believe that God gave me a passion for words, for people and for our community. That's what inspires me, that I know I shouldn't be afraid to tackle new projects, that I shouldn't be afraid to try something different. I've always had a passion for business. I started my first business when I was 19, so I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit and I'm a stubborn person. So maybe somebody would have given up a long time ago and maybe they would have started a different business that would have been more successful, but when I commit, I commit. When you're an entrepreneur that's what it's all about — taking chances, going through the rough times and then seeing the fruits at the end.
How have you seen the power of the Hispanic business community grow?
I think that it has grown a lot in the last few years, especially because we've had a lot of people relocate here from different parts of the world, and many of the people that have moved here have started their own business instead of going to work for someone else. In the Tampa Bay area in particular, we can tell by even the increase recently in our membership that these are new businesses that have opened up in the last couple of years, and that's exciting because they're all different types of businesses. There seems to be an increase in not only Tampa but all of Florida for sure, because this is a state that has a lot of migration from Hispanics.
What about Tampa makes it feel like home for you?
Tampa reminds me a little of Chicago, and that's why I always felt at home here. Tampa has a lot of deep history and roots. There are families here that have been here forever and memories that you can almost hear when you walk down an Ybor City street.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.