IN THE EARLY 2000s, there was a special place in Boston that made me feel at home, miles away from my homeland of Mexico. A recently arrived immigrant, I was still finding my way in my new city when I found Sophia’s.
Sophia’s was a multilevel restaurant and a nightclub, yet it was so much more. There was the food — tapas and sangria — as well as salsa and Latin jazz nights.
But it was the second and third floors, a nightclub and a rooftop commanded by DJs, that made Sophia’s truly special. My three roommates and I would go to the storied building on Boylston Street near Fenway Park to unwind after a long week. We were working as nannies during the weekdays, and going to school on weeknights. But on Friday or Saturday nights, we were simply four Latina immigrants dancing to Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever,” Juan Luis Guerra’s “El Niágara en Bicicleta,” and La Factoría’s “Todavía.”
Sophia’s was one of the few places in Boston where I didn’t feel like an outsider, a foreigner. It wasn’t just the music — it was the eclectic and broad mix of customers who made the establishment, run by the Lyons Group, feel authentically Latino. Through the years, I’ve realized that, as the Hispanic community has grown exponentially in Boston, the nature of spaces and places where Latinos convene — important cultural markers that create a sense of belonging and identity — has evolved in a curious and unexpected way.
SADLY, SOPHIA’s closed in the mid-2000s. That part of Boylston Street is now the site of — wait for it — a brand-new, 15-story tower of luxury apartments. But during its run, it became part of the origin story of Latinx power couple Héctor and Nivia Piña-Medina, well-known restaurateurs who own four vibrant eateries in Boston: Merengue, Vejigantes, Doña Habana, and the newly opened Cilantro.
Héctor and Nivia first saw each other at a New Year’s Eve celebration at Sophia’s in 1999. “That’s why our daughter is named Sophia,” Héctor told me recently. Back then, while welcoming Y2K at the club, Héctor realized he and Nivia had a friend in common and wrangled an introduction. Héctor had opened Merengue in 1994 to offer Dominican food in Roxbury, and as he recalls: “After I saw Nivia in Sophia’s, my friend brought her to Merengue. I told him then and there, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ And he replied, ‘Tú ‘tas loco’ — ‘You’re crazy.’ And look at us now, 23 years later.”
Sophia’s was so special that Héctor and Nivia had always wanted to re-create it. It’s why they partnered with Dennis Benzan, a former vice mayor of Cambridge, to open La Fábrica Central in Cambridge’s Central Square in 2017. “It was Sophia’s 2.0,” Héctor says. The Piñas exited the partnership two years later, but La Fábrica is still open. Other entrepreneurs tried to fill the market gap Sophia’s closing left. In 2005, Jody Mendoza and Eric Liriano opened the now-defunct Mojitos nightclub in downtown Boston.
Regardless, Héctor, a Dominican immigrant, and Nivia, from Puerto Rico, understood the assignment. Besides delicious food, each of their restaurants offers locals a singular slice of home and then some. They form an integral part of Boston’s Latino social and cultural landscapes.
Merengue slowly but surely became a powerful symbol of Dominican life in a city where Dominicans are now the largest Latino subgroup (at roughly 39,000 people), followed closely by Puerto Ricans (35,000), according to the 2021 American Community Survey five-year estimates from the US Census Bureau. Through the years, Merengue’s mangú has attracted Dominican politicians, local and from the homeland, and Major League Baseball players. Photos displayed on the walls include a few of David Ortiz, who first visited Héctor’s establishment in search of Dominican rice, beans, and plantains before becoming Big Papi and a Red Sox legend.
The couple’s second venture, Vejigantes, sits at the heart of a historic Puerto Rican place: Villa Victoria, an affordable housing community that low-income Boricua residents fought to keep and develop in Boston’s South End. Named after the traditional masks that symbolize Puerto Rican culture, Vejigantes, established in 2012, and Doña Habana, their third restaurant, often serve as destinations for local Latino political candidates to host fund-raisers.
Decorated with colorful murals depicting Cuban life, Doña Habana opened in 2016 and is located on Massachusetts Avenue near Boston Medical Center. “We traveled to Puerto Rico and Cuba to study their cuisines,” Héctor says. “One of the ingredients of our success, I think, has been that we always try to design dishes that feel homemade and authentic.”
THE CHALLENGE OF a growing demographic such as Latinos in Boston was perfectly articulated by a longtime friend who used to be my journalism professor. She recently complained to me that there is no Hispanic community here; instead, there is a Dominican community, a Puerto Rican community, a Salvadoran community, and on and on. She nailed it.
“National origin matters. There is no single [Latino] identity,” Ines Miyares tells me in an interview. She’s a professor at Hunter College whose research areas include the geographies of immigration and Latinos in the United States. “The language is shared. And some of the Colonial history is shared.” But as the population grows more diverse, it also becomes more segmented.
For example, in richly diverse communities where Miyares has done research, such as New York City’s Jackson Heights, there are decidedly Latino streetscapes — blocks where the neighborhood’s Latino economy is evident. But, she continues, “It’s like each business [in Jackson Heights] is trying to say, ‘We may be all Latino but I’m Colombian or I’m Ecuadorian,’” she tells me. In general, Latino businesses in this type of highly diverse area use cultural markers, such as an awning with their country’s flag or a name that’s specific to their homeland.
Take a walk near Maverick Square in East Boston and that’s what you see now — a Latino streetscape with micro-businesses adorned with the Colombian flag colors and distinctively Latino restaurants such as Rincon Limeño, one of the best Peruvian eateries you’ll find in the region. The neighborhood with the highest share of Latinos in the city, at roughly 50 percent, East Boston is home to Salvadorans and Colombians, for the most part.
Historically, the nucleus of Boston Latino life was in Jamaica Plain. In 1990, it was the neighborhood with the highest share of Hispanic residents, at 28 percent. It’s why an area within Jamaica Plain — Hyde/Jackson Square — was designated by the Mass Cultural Council as the Latin Quarter Cultural District in 2018, the fourth cultural designation in Boston. The district runs along Centre Street between the Jackson Square MBTA station and Boylston Street, where roughly half of the 104 businesses were Latinx-owned or managed in 2019, according to the cultural district’s planning document.
“Barbershops and beauty salons are centers of activity, bodegas provide a welcoming space for Latinx youth and the restaurants are destinations where visitors enjoy Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican food,” reads the plan. “The display of the official honorific ‘Avenida de las Americas’ bestowed in 2011 to Centre Street in the district further highlights this identity.”
Changing street names or statues to honor a key figure, whether from contemporary Latino life or from times long ago — icons such as José Martí, the Cuban poet and intellectual — are other forms of cultural markers, Miyares tells me. Sadly, right at the edge of Jamaica Plain’s Latin Quarter Cultural District sits a legendary Hispanic place, one that is key to the district’s identity, that may or may not be about to become a relic: El Oriental de Cuba.
NOBEL GARCIA, the owner of El Oriental, died nearly two years ago. An online obituary somehow falls short of conveying his stature as a pioneering entrepreneur in Boston’s Latino community. The son of Cuban immigrants, he arrived in Boston in 1957. Along with his father, Garcia opened a grocery store in Hyde Park, according to the obit. In 1976, they expanded the business and moved it to Centre Street in Jamaica Plain.
A 1993 Globe article about ethnic foods describes in mouthwatering detail the Cuban ham sandwich served at El Oriental, established by Nobel’s uncle the year prior. Nobel started working with him soon after and, in the late 1990s, he took over the business.
The Piñas’ Merengue and El Oriental are perhaps the two most iconic Latino establishments in Boston, given their permanence. They were both cooking authentic Latin food before Latin food was a major trend in Boston. Since Garcia’s death, El Oriental de Cuba has been run by Garcia’s two daughters. In a sign of how small Boston can be, it is managed by Héctor’s niece.
A 2008 food review in the Globe noted that there’s a place like El Oriental on every corner in Miami. But in Boston, anyone can tell you that El Oriental was the city’s Latino Cheers. “It’s where everybody knows your name,” says Jeffrey Sánchez, a former state representative from Jamaica Plain who is now a senior adviser at Rasky Partners.
It was also where you wanted to be during the two most important Cuban events in recent history: the Obama administration’s major shift in US foreign policy toward Cuba in 2014, when it launched the process of normalizing relations with the island; and the death of Fidel Castro in 2016.
I rushed there on my way to work when President Obama made the monumental announcement nine years ago. The place was packed with the morning cafecito crowd. Nobel Garcia was his usual self, funny and exuberant, while also expressing pain and conflicted feelings when talking about his homeland, all of which I wrote about in an opinion piece. Two years later, when Castro died, Garcia told local reporters that he finally was able to open a bottle of sparkling cider with a label that read, “solo abrir cuando muera Fidel” — open only when Fidel dies.
El Oriental survived an arson attempt in the summer of 2005, rebuilding and reopening 14 months later. Through the years, its staying power has inspired local chefs who grew up going to the classic Cuban eatery. It has offered a common ground, a taste of Latinidad, to generations of Latino residents in Massachusetts — for what is a Cuban sandwich but a quintessential Hispanic staple, much like the taco? Food can definitely be a shared language among Latinos, whether you’re from Guatemala or Argentina.
El Oriental seems to be in a state of limbo — apparently, it closed unexpectedly on August 16. Rumors abound about its fate: Will it reopen? A handwritten sign on the door read: “Closed until Labor Day.” Right away I called Lissette Garcia, one of Nobel’s daughters, who denied that the place had shut down. “If anything changes, I have your number,” she told me. But El Oriental didn’t reopen on Labor Day. And new signs appeared the first week of September: “Closed for vacation.”
As of press time, I’ve been unable to reach the sisters to confirm their plans for the restaurant. Sánchez, for his part, has heard speculation about grass-roots efforts to buy the restaurant. “The Hispanic community is wondering what’s going to happen to it,” he says, noting that El Oriental has been pivotal for Latinos, even if people don’t realize it. “The amount of political activity that has happened there through the years — official and unofficial meetings, strategic sessions, etcetera — that helped us shape the future of Jamaica Plain” is immeasurable, he says.
El Oriental consistently makes it to annual Best of Boston lists. It was also recently recognized with the city’s 2023 inaugural Business Legacy award. The recognition “not only acknowledges the restaurant itself, but the incredible community of Jamaica Plain that has kept this restaurant alive during and after the pandemic,” Yvonne Torres, Nobel’s other daughter, told the Jamaica Plain News in May. According to the city’s website, the award is supposed to “ensure that these legacy businesses can avoid displacement and grow their influence.” So much for that.
What would it mean to Latinos to lose a place like El Oriental? It ultimately is evidence of what Miyares, the geography professor, told me about fragmentation within Hispanic communities. Much like when Sophia’s shut down, it may be that the loss of legacy landmarks is a natural outcome — a feature and not a bug — of a growing population getting more diverse but also increasingly segmented. Maybe it’s geographical; maybe it’s a result of gentrification. All the same, some important cohesion has been lost.
They say that symbols are what we make of them; that they’re not static constructions but dynamic concepts shaped by individual and collective perceptions. And yet, it’s undeniable that El Oriental holds an important part of Boston’s Latino institutional and cultural memory, much like Sophia’s once did. It feels like something should be done to preserve those legacy places.
Read more from the My Boston History issue:
- Ahead of Central American Independence Day in Boston, I went searching for a taste of home
- A lighting designer shines a spotlight on the lack of diversity backstage
- My night at Havana Club, the heart of salsa and bachata dancing in Cambridge
- Perspective: When will we make sure the people who work our farms and cook our food are well fed?
- My life was in danger trying to help children in Guatemala. I had to choose exile.
- Honoring 100 change-making leaders across Massachusetts