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Local Latin American Cuisine and University Events Spice Up Hispanic Heritage Month

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

The back view of Mayan Kitchen's dining area. (Photo contributed by Benjamin and Jacob Lemus)

Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15, marked the first day of an annual 30-day long recognition and celebration of the extensive history, unique culture, and vital contributions of the American Latinx community.

“Hispanic Heritage Month is a true celebration on the legacy, history, and contributions of the Hispanic and Latin American cultures,” said Christopher Stokes, Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. “The month's importance is evident as we discover contributions regarding the cultural impact and influence into our global community.”

The month is jammed pack with independence anniversaries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua celebrating on Sept. 15. Mexico and Chile observe their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.

Mayan Kitchen front. (Photo contributted by Benjamin and Jacob Lemus)

A long-standing tradition since its inception in 1968, it began as a commemorative week, but eventually expanded into a month. The observation lasts until Oct. 15, so there is still plenty of time for UTC students to participate both off and on campus.

Off campus, students who desire to not just learn about Hispanic culture, but to taste it, should consider taking an eleven-minute walk—or five-minute drive—to Chattanooga’s own Mayan Kitchen. 

The restaurant, founded by Benjamin and Jacob Lemus with the help of Lee Epstein, offers a diverse blend of authentic Latin American foods, an atmosphere crafted by the owner’s own hands, and an ever-so-attentive staff for a truly eye-opening experience. 

Upon entering, guests are welcomed by hosts. Mayan Kitchen has a unique decorating style that sets them apart. Wednesday, September 22, 2021 (Photo by Dayna Blackburn)

The custom-built tequila bar, vase-shaped water fountain, and dazzling light fixtures all captivate the eye. Even the leather-bound menus showcase a surprising level of attention to detail.

 Overall, the aesthetic differs from other Hispanic restaurants, with screens depicting landscape portraits of the Latin American countryside; although, it’s individuality is just beginning there.

“Mexican restaurants typically are very colorful,” said Ricardo Leveron—the general manager since August 2019. “Everything here is earthy, white and brown, or is an earthy related objects, like the cacti and pottery.” 

The Lemus brothers immigrated to Chattanooga from Guatemala in the 1990s, and the design reflects their heritage. 

“Benjamin [Lemus] spared no expense translating the atmosphere that he wanted,” Leveron said. “The whole architecture of Mayan Kitchen is his own design, and his own hands helped to build the tequila bar, light fixtures, the fountain in the middle, and the menu too.”

Leveron added that Chattanooga is majority Guatemalan and Central American. He said it is easier to run a business where other Guatemalans are because they are going to know the distinct culture and food.

Speaking of cuisine, Mayan Kitchen serves a variety of Latin American foods, featuring Cuban, Colombian, Nicaraguan, and Guatemalan.

Leveron offered some of his own suggestions. 

“You will probably not find some of our signature dishes anywhere else,” Leveron said. “Pollo en Crema is Benjamin’s original recipe, and we just recently launched some Baleadas—that’s a Honduran dish.”

As far as the dish to order, Leveron suggested the Parillada Chapina.

“It’s like a big fajita plate for two, with different types of meat like longaniza (Guatemalan white sausage) or chorizo (traditional Latin American sausage),” Leveron described in mouth-watering detail.

If you are not a fan of meat, the menu also has a multitude of vegan and vegetarian options.

The food is only part of the business’s impact on the community, as several students work there.

“[Mayan Kitchen] has a lot of employees who are UTC students,” Leveron said. “[We are] focused on a teamwork—everybody gets along here, and we are flexible with balancing working hours with class time.”

Leveron will even schedule his employee’s shifts out in the restaurant floor, ready to jump in and help his employees or customers if need be.

Some students may not wish to leave campus, but that does not have to stop them from interacting with Hispanic Heritage Month.

UTC's Office of Multicultural Affairs is hosting Fiesta Fridays from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. throughout the entire month, meaning students could attend an event until Oct. 15. Their website described it as an informal meet and greet with music and small souvenir treat bags. 

The library also is participating in the celebrations, featuring their National Hispanic Heritage Month Themed Collection. Students can read books—available in electronic form—based on their cultural significance here, and they can also view relevant videos here.

No matter how a student chooses to involve themselves in Hispanic Heritage Month, the possibilities are near endless. Although, they should not forget the core principles behind the festivities—to pay homage and respect to a culture that has contributed so much to its neighborhoods, communities and nation.

For more information, visit the Mayan Kitchen’s website or Instagram—just be prepared to develop an appetite!

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