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In praise of strong women

Restaurateur Angelica Diaz still kicks herself a bit for ignoring her mother's cooking lessons when she was a child.

"I didn't pay as much attention as I should have," says Diaz, 53. "I did learn some, but I was just there to make her happy."

But basic cooking lessons sufficed.

Diaz's restaurant, Viva La Frida Cafe y Galeria, has become an Old Seminole Heights landmark, attracting people from across Tampa for its cuisine and design honoring Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, whose portraits blanket the walls.

Diaz credits her husband and co-owner, John Ames, for the fine food, such as the beef chimichangas topped with chipotle cream and Monterey Jack cheese (her mother's recipe).

"I taught him the basics, and he went a step further," she said.

Bright pink and yellow, Viva La Frida sparkles on a dingy stretch of used car lots on Florida Avenue, earning Diaz the title of one of the neighborhood's best-known residents.

The restaurant recently hosted Michael Moore's controversial film slap at President Bush, Fahrenheit 9/11, and a John Kerry fundraiser with palm readers, pinatas and dancing.

"I've always considered myself to be apolitical," Diaz says. She is a registered independent who supports Kerry because Bush is "frightening."

"I don't like politics. But for some reason I always end up," she says, reaching for the words, "becoming involved."

Diaz grew up one of six children of a homemaker and a railroad worker in the tiny town of Nogales, on the Arizona-Mexico border. She read like a fiend but hated school. "The teachers were very, very boring," she says.

At 13, she rebelled against her parents by refusing to attend Catholic church. It made her uncomfortable. Still does. Diaz calls herself a reborn pagan and attends a metaphysical church.

Around that time her artistic, independent tendencies surfaced. Her family got their first television and she stayed up late to watch the filmmaker who had her whole town in a titter for his "pornography," Federico Fellini, now her favorite. The movie was the cult classic La Dolce Vita.

Diaz took a few business classes but left home at 21. After two weeks of California, she joined her older sister, an artist, in Tallahassee.

In 1979 she made her way to Tampa, where a friend lived. She attended a masquerade ball in Ybor City and fell in love with the historic district. She gravitated to the bohemian artists living in Ybor at the time.

Through a friend she met Ames, a builder. He became the family chef almost in retaliation for being raised by a mother who hated to cook.

The couple had two children, and Diaz worked as a secretary for Anchor Glass. But her creative desire stirred.

So the couple opened Angelica's Mexican Cafe in Ybor in 1993. It did well for the first two years and became known for its home-cooked meals and its $2.99 starving artist specials Tuesday nights.

But bars soon supplanted the artists, rent rose and customers stopped coming. The restaurant closed after three years.

Diaz and Ames set their sights on Old Seminole Heights because of its cheap real estate and proximity to their children's school. They bought a 1936 bungalow and a former car lot to transform into their second restaurant.

Viva La Frida, which serves gourmet Mexican fused with Asian and Indian accents, attracts holiday parties, special events and, recently, frequent gatherings of political activists, such as retired teacher Flo Felicione.

"Their food is just delicious," said Felicione, 63, who hosted the Kerry fundraiser that raised $2,000. "My husband once remarked he didn't like Mexican food. After we ate there, he was like, "Oh, my God.' "

Bill Duvall, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, applauded Diaz for showing people the area's potential. The only complaints he has heard come from some residents behind the restaurant who say the music and customers are too loud.

Viva La Frida pays tribute to Kahlo, an idol of Diaz's. The restaurant resembles Kahlo's house and was named after her last piece, a still life of watermelons called Viva La Vida. An altar to Kahlo sits at one end of the restaurant.

Diaz admires Kahlo because of her strength through years of suffering.

"She enjoyed life to the fullest," Diaz says. "She never gave up. She had a very strong spirit."

Any similarities between them?

"I don't have," Diaz says, pausing, "I'm not as strong as she is."

But her strength has helped the restaurant achieve her vision. Combining art, music and film with food, Viva La Frida hosts poetry readings, plays and jazz bands. All the artwork on the walls is for sale.

Diaz hopes the neighborhood turns into an arts district that attracts more businesses like Viva La Frida.

"Why can't we have a real neighborhood . . . where people can walk to restaurants, can walk to retail places, where we have a fresh market?" she asks. "I see so much potential."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.

Angelica Diaz

AGE: 53

OCCUPATION: Co-owner of Viva La Frida Cafe y Galeria, 5901 N Florida Ave.

FAMILY: Husband John Ames, son Lukas, 16, daughter Allegre, 14

HOME: Old Seminole Heights

DEFINING EXPERIENCE: Birth of her two children

HOBBIES: Reading, movies and gardening

FAVORITE BOOK: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

FAVORITE FILMMAKER: Federico Fellini

FAVORITE MENU ITEM: Beef chimichangas.

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