For more than 40 years, not much changed inside the tiny market at 3224 N Armenia Ave. in West Tampa. Sure, the meats and food all stayed fresh. And the kids who came in for candy or a homemade sugar cookie with their grandparents eventually became the parents visiting with their own children. La Loma Market did get new shelves in 1981.
But otherwise, José and Hortensia Alvarez mostly stuck with what worked at their bodega.
“There’s a big community of people that call Tampa home,” said Annie Gonzalez, a family friend who grew up helping behind the register at La Loma. “Tampa really wasn’t home, but they were Cubans, and a lot of them were very successful. They were hardworking, they really had a driven mentality and they stayed focused.”
Tampa wasn’t home for José Alvarez. But he made it one.
He died Feb. 17 at 87 due to multiple health issues.
A ticket out
Born in Camagüey, Cuba, Alvarez grew up working on his parents’ small sugar cane farm. When he was a young man, the owner of a bus company befriended Alvarez and gave him a pass to get to the city for college, where he studied and became an accountant. At 24, he met his future wife, Hortensia, when the bus stopped outside her home.
The two married and had their son, José, but things were getting tougher in Cuba under Fidel Castro. The government seized the Alvarez family’s farm. Alvarez spent years in a work camp. The couple applied for the lottery system to get visas to come to the United States. Finally, after 10 years, their names were drawn.
In 1970, the family came to Tampa, where friends, the daughters of that bus driver in Camagüey, had settled with their families. Soon, Alvarez was working as a butcher at Annie’s Meat Market during the day and a variety of jobs at night, including cleaning a bank.
In 1977, after years of saving, the couple took over La Loma Market. For most of the next 42 years, they stayed open seven days a week and only closed for Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July. After the couple’s grandchildren were born, they started closing on Sundays.
For Alvarez, La Loma “was like his third child,” said daughter Carmen Alvarez, who was born after her parents came to the U.S. “It was something he very much dedicated himself to.”
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That was because he loved the work, took pride in his butchering skills, savored sitting down to sharpen his knives, but also cherished his customers.
Gonzalez — whose grandparents ran Annie’s Meat Market, which she was named after — grew up in her family’s bodega and at La Loma. Those markets were the hearts of their neighborhoods, with music, familiar faces and small pieces of the places people came from, like seasonings, Spanish magazines and paperback books.
“It was a place that generations of people went,” said Carmen Alvarez, who refused to work there and followed her dad’s first career path to become an accountant.
Alvarez knew when a local family was having a tough time, said son José Alvarez, who started working at the market when he was 9.
“He would just say, ‘Come in, make sure your family’s fed.’”
“El que mas coma mas vive”
Directly translated, Alvarez’s favorite saying “el que mas coma mas vive” means “the one who eats the most lives.” But it’s really about eating well and living to the fullest, Carmen Alvarez said.
And her dad did both.
Alvarez loved his wife’s flan and was so well-known for his sweet tooth that, on his birthdays, he always had multiple cakes to enjoy.
He cheered for the Tampa Bay Rays from their first season on, his children said, did a bit of traveling around the world, enjoyed gambling and visiting Las Vegas and most likely cheated at dominos, though they could never prove it.
“He was a family man, but also, he lived the American dream, like truly,” his daughter said, “and relished it.”
Alvarez knew what it was like to lose and leave a home, so if someone complained about life in the U.S., his son said, Alvarez would ask, “‘Is it better than what you came from?’ Because it certainly was for him.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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