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As the Melting Pot Bubbles

Juan romero moved from mexico to bonita Springs because he considered it a smart place to raise his family. It was safe. The schools were good.

The soccer came later.

When it did, it took off faster than a David Beckham free kick. What began as a way to help his children play the sport has swelled into a soccer frenzy worthy of your best vuvuzela blowing. Bonita Springs currently has about 30 adult men’s teams and numerous leagues; games are held on as many as seven area soccer fields on Friday nights, Saturday nights and all day Sunday. Romero is in the process of organizing a women’s league and is also working with the City of Bonita Springs to create more places to play.

The leagues draw an assortment of players—Brazilians, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, a sampling of the various nationalities who live in the Bonita Springs area. But it’s not just Hispanics who play. There are Polish and Irish players, too. Essentially, Romero explains, it’s anyone who loves what is considered the world’s most popular sport, regardless of country of origin.

And that’s an excellent indicator of just how big Southwest Florida’s melting pot has become.


Food and thought

Throughout Southwest Florida, different ethnic groups and nationalities are playing an increasingly important role in how we work, live and play. United States 2009 Census figures show that in Collier County, an estimated 26.2 percent of the total 318,537 population is of Hispanic origin. In Lee County, an estimated 17.4 percent of the total 586,908 population is of Hispanic origin.

Within the Hispanic community, the major nationalities are Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban, although Guatemalan, Colombian, Peruvian, Salvadoran and Honduran are also significant groups.

The ancestral origins Southwest Florida residents claim is also worth noting. In Collier and Lee, it might not be surprising if your neighbor identifies as German, Irish or English, the three largest ancestral percentages. But if they profess to love pirogues or crepes, don’t be stunned, either. Polish and French are strongly represented, as are Italian, Scottish and even West Indian.

For David Bukhari, owner of the Camilla European Grocery in Naples, that means a chance to provide shoppers with all sorts of tasty, hard-to-find treats. An estimated 99 percent of the items in the shop are imported, Bukhari says, and reflect the influence of 32 countries, including Turkey, Russia and Bulgaria.

The shelves of his store are stocked with authentic beverages that include Lithuanian and Latvian beers and Georgian wines in handmade clay bottles. He carries baked goods, dairy and a wide range of specialty items such as Kombucha, a Siberian mushroom tea that’s popular with yoga practitioners.

Things were different when he moved to Naples in 1999. A former translator for the Uzbekistani president, Bukhari was born in the former Soviet Union and speaks eight languages. When he came to the United States seeking additional education, he landed in New York City. His plans didn’t materialize as he wished, and he followed friends to Naples where, much to his dismay, he worked odd jobs.

Worst of all, there was nothing to eat. Nothing he liked, anyway. Nothing familiar, not like what now lines the aisles and refrigerator cases of Camilla, such as delicious cheeses from France, Greece and Denmark. Although he opened his shop in December 2008 to help reflect and encourage the dietary traditions of his youth, he believes it’s the Southwest Florida community that has profited. 

“We have all people of all walks of life,” Bukhari says of customers at his shop, which he runs with his wife, Madina Khilalova. “We have everyday Americans who are seeking healthy food, untouched food. We have ethnic people. We have former Soviet Union people, the old generation. We have Latinos. Latinos come a lot because they are open to new foods.”

His business is so strong with Hispanic customers that Bukhari is considering opening a second shop in Golden Gate—an unexpected twist, since he initially expected to be serving primarily American-born customers and European immigrants. But in a melting pot such as Southwest Florida, it’s never certain what your entrepreneurship will yield.

That’s something that Cori Craciun understands, too.

Her North Naples restaurant, Daniela’s, opened in September 2009 and specializes in Romanian, Hungarian and northern Italian food. Craciun and her sister, the restaurant’s eponymous Daniela, hail from the Transylvania region of Romania near the Hungarian border. After visiting Naples for a wedding, Craciun decided to stay. She also began working on enticing her sister, who was living and working as a cook in Italy, to move to Southwest Florida.

The menu at Daniela’s is a blend of traditional Romanian and Hungarian foods, such as mititei (a Romanian specialty of grilled, hand-rolled sausages), ciorba de burta (Romanian tripe soup) and paprikas (a Hungarian chicken stew).

Craciun is certain that some guests who patronize her restaurant do so because they are curious about the food, which is interesting and new to Southwest Florida. Or, perhaps, in some cases, they are there to sip the wine, much of which is imported from Romania and isn’t shy to shout its heritage, boasting such names as Dracula’s Blood.

“It’s actually all the Americans,” Craciun says. “They pretty much are our biggest customers.”

Others who come through the doors at Daniela’s know exactly what they’re in for, she says. It’s not unusual for customers to take a bite of their dinner and inform Craciun it’s the first time they’ve eaten such fare in 30 years, not since their Romanian or Hungarian grandmother died. Sometimes, they also want to practice the language they haven’t spoken since that same time.


Tasty additions

In addition to restaurants, Southwest Florida brims with numerous ethnic food fests. Naples’ St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church and the Cape Coral Oktoberfest are two of the area’s most established, while Naples’ St. Demetrius Orthodox Church’s Ethnic Food Fest and Our Savior Lutheran Church’s German Fest are more recent entries to the festival field.

Jeff Roozen is a coordinator for the Our Savior Lutheran Church German Fest, which is approaching its fourth year and is held to coincide with Super Bowl weekend.

Roozen says the festival was inspired by the wildly successful Cape Coral Oktoberfest—an event that draws thousands over two weekends—and intended as church outreach and a fundraiser for Avow Hospice. But Our Savior’s event has become a bigger crowd-pleaser than the little church ever imagined. Its congregation has about 125 members while its festival draws about 1,500 attendees.

Is it more evidence of Southwest Florida’s diversity?

Does sauerkraut belong on a bratwurst?

“There are people who probably have never had the food before, and that was the main focus of the festival, to expose people to Our Savior and authentic German food,” Roozen says. “And it seems to be growing every year.”

If you plan instead to feast upon the arts, Southwest Florida’s ethnic groups won’t disappoint, either. The Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts possesses one of the most celebrated collections of 20th century Mexican art in the United States. The Pollak Collection boasts notable names such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and more. Also, the museum is continually adding more Latin American works.

The Phil isn’t only interested in the visual arts; for the past three years, it has held a Latin Festival. Local Hispanic restaurants provide authentic foods while acclaimed Latin musicians, such as Grammy-winning salsa singer Willie Chirino, perform. The event is proving to be popular, too, selling out each year.

It also draws an entirely different audience to the arts center.

“I think we have a growing Latin community,” says Myra Janco Daniels, the Phil’s founder, chairman and CEO. “They love music, they love art, and we need to open our arms.”

This season, The von Liebig Art Center in Naples will be another place to explore the Hispanic influence in Southwest Florida. For the first time, the center is holding an exhibition of Cuban art. About 10 artists will be shown, and curator Jack O’Brien traveled to Cuba to help select some of the exhibitors.

“The Cuban exhibit will appeal to a very broad audience because of our history with Cuba,” O’Brien says.

Latin American art has found a connection with the art center before, O’Brien explains. It’s not unusual to attend a downtown Naples art festival and find Latin American art among the booths, or even encounter a reporter from one of the local Latin American television affiliates interviewing a vendor. That reporter may even be Jackie Figueroa.


Times are changing

Figueroa hosts Acción Hispana, a 30-minute news program on Univision that airs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, she first started coming to Southwest Florida two decades ago. When she went in a store or restaurant, she never heard people speaking Spanish, she notes, but now she hears it regularly. From a journalistic perspective, it’s a dream come true.

If, 20 years ago, Southwest Florida contained few Spanish speakers, there certainly were no Spanish television stations. Today, there are three: Univision, Telemundo and Azteca America.

Judy Wright, a director of the not-for-profit Naples Asian Professional Association, first visited Southwest Florida around the same time as Figueroa and, although Wright is of Chinese descent, her experience was similar. She seldom saw anyone who was Asian and never overheard anyone chatting in Mandarin or Cantonese.

She marvels at how much the Southwest Florida Asian experience has changed.

Not only are there more Asians living in the area, there is also a greater interest in Asian culture. The latter is something that Wright partially credits to the increase in American adoptions of Asian children. As those parents work to expose their youngsters to the culture of their birth country, they have started to seek information that will help them do so. Events such as Asia Fest, an annual festival held in connection with the Chinese New Year and organized by NAPA, gives attendees a chance to learn more about various Asian countries by sampling authentic foods and watching musical and dance performances.

Then, of course, there is the extraordinary environment that is Southwest Florida, a quaint-but-cosmopolitan destination that fosters the climate and conditions right for a bubbling and rewarding melting pot. Wright was in a Naples Asian market three years ago when a customer hurried in, searching for a specific ingredient.

The customer turned out to be the assistant to a television chef; he and his famous boss were in town for the Naples Winter Wine Festival, Wright recalls.

“I think Southwest Florida is hungry for culture and diversity, and people are very open to it,” Wright says. “And I think it’s a wonderful way to enrich Southwest Florida.”

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