Laughter rings through Calle 77 as customers carry paper plates of fried pork and cachapas to tables shaded by canopy tents. Steam rises from the cornmeal pancakes, fresh from the kitchen’s griddle. The smell of the soft cheese filling, queso de mano, permeates the restaurant’s courtyard. Customers exchange jokes in rapid Spanish between bites of hot cachapas and refreshing sips of ice-cold, fizzy frescolitas.
It is this lively, energetic atmosphere coupled with the traditional Venezuelan cuisine that make Cachapas Don Luis feel like a piece of Venezuela dropped into the heart of Panama’s bustling capital—precisely what the owner intended.
Luis Hernandez founded the restaurant to fill a need within his growing community. Now, it is a cultural oasis where Venezuelan immigrants can escape their over-crowded tenement complexes, menial jobs, and frequent tension with locals. The first restaurant in Panama City to feature a solely Venezuelan menu, it is no accident the main dish appears in its name. Cachapas embody what Venezuelans love about their food.
“Traditional Venezuelan food is simple, but there is nothing more divine,” a customer said to me in Spanish as she waited for her order.
From the beginning, Hernandez modeled his restaurant after those in Venezuela. He wanted to surround his compatriots with the best parts of home as they grappled with their new and often isolated reality.
The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has made news headlines for months now. Millions have fled Venezuela in the past four years, resulting in one of the worst migrant crises Latin America has ever seen. Primarily, they leave because the devastated economy does not allow them to provide for their families.
“The bolívar is worthless. You simply cannot earn enough,” one woman declared in our interview. Due to the food shortage, she and her husband were forced to close their food stand. The ingredients were just too expensive. The lack of economic opportunity became even more personal when the couple discovered they were expecting a child. Fearing dangerously inadequate prenatal care, a biproduct of the medicinal shortage, the couple decided to emigrate.
Political instability is the decisive factor for others. One ex-police officer said he could not be party to the institutionalized corruption and violence manifesting itself under the present regime. A former teacher spoke of her shame when the school’s staff was ordered to participate in a pro-government march.
Countries like Panama offer a fresh start. The transition, however, is not easy.
Since many leave Venezuela as a last resort, their financial situation is often precarious. The meager sum they bring with them, usually a couple hundred dollars, runs out quickly in the country’s pricey capital. “Life in Panama is expensive because there is no infrastructure for cheap places to buy food or clothing,” one immigrant said. For most, their immediate goal is to make enough money to afford the bare essentials and send the rest back to their families—a risky process given that the money could be stolen en route.
Most of the jobs immigrants find are low-caliber, offering long hours but little pay. Many university degrees are non-transferable; go shopping, and you find grocery store clerks and retail workers with degrees in architecture, law, business, or psychology. Most are lucky to make twenty dollars a day. No one expected such harsh circumstances. “Everyone’s plan was the same. Stay three months, make some money, and return. I’m going on three years.”
Before emigrating, many cherished dreams of making enough money to return home. They planned to use their newfound funds to invest or start their own companies back in Venezuela. However, in Panama, most barely make enough to survive, and besides, Venezuela grows more unlivable by the day. How could they thrive in a country with month-long power outages and prolonged water shortages?
Food, and the traditions around it, is one of the things immigrants miss most. One woman’s voice broke when she remembered her first Christmas without her family: “I didn’t do anything. I turned my phone off at night after work and fell asleep. I wasn’t even able to make hallacas for Christmas.”
In founding Cachapas Don Luis, Hernandez was determined to create a place where immigrants could celebrate their culture instead of cutting it off.Venezuelans would feel a part of a community again.
Abandoning their homeland leaves immigrants feeling isolated, as if they have lost pieces of themselves along the way. Creating new roots poses a deeply personal challenge. “What touches you most is the loss of culture,” one man replied when asked about the transition. “We lost the environment where we grew up, that easy family environment. We did not know what we had,” he continued regretfully. The abrupt loss of family, community, and culture is a heavy burden made even worse by the knowledge that their country is dying.
“The Venezuela of before was stolen from us. The situation is ugly. There is no transportation, no cash, everything is broken, nothing works.”
Located in San Francisco, a busy, active sector of Panama City, Cachapas Don Luis is easily accessible to immigrants. A customer can get a quick, inexpensive meal, something that Hernandez kept in mind when conceptualizing the restaurant. Its layout and informal order process are deliberately simple. After placing your order at the counter, you wait with a pager at an empty table and pick up your food once it beeps. Not only is this system convenient for customers, but it contributes to the restaurant’s authenticity. “It is exactly like that in Maracaibo,” Hernandez said. The outdoor setting of Cachapas Don Luis also matches eateries back in Venezuela. As with most cachapas restaurants, the only indoor area is the kitchen.
From the food down to the logo—a yellow border representing the cachapa surrounds a caricature of a llanero (herdsman) dressed in a liqui liqui (national Venezuelan attire) and a traditional hat—everything about Cachapas Don Luis is openly Venezuelan. Since opening their doors on May 8, 2015, they have served hundreds of immigrants every day. Many hail the restaurant as one of the best providers of cachapas outside of Venezuela. It has grown so popular that Hernandez opened another location in 2018.
Although arepas—corn-based patties often stuffed with cheese, shredded meat, or avocado—are easier to find, cachapas also date to pre-Columbian times. Hernandez insisted on using traditional methods. His cooks use fresh corn for the pancakes, softened Venezuelan queso de mano for the filling, and generous dollops of butter to serve. Anything less would be in direct conflict with his vision for the restaurant.
Customers appreciate the authenticity. “There is nothing like the food of your country,” one woman commented, smiling as she ate. Many others feel the same: tasting the cachapas brings back memories. They recall eating cachapas with extended family on Sundays, a common reunion day in Venezuela, or stopping at cachapas stands during road trips. A 4.5-star rating and numerous positive reviews on the restaurant’s Facebook page set the seal on Cachapas Don Luis’success. Several reviews even include family recipes and suggestions for the menu. Hernandez was right: food has an inherent power to unite communities because it inspires shared memories.
The boisterous atmosphere is accompanied by loud, upbeat music playing at a bar next door. One faithful customer feels the same community spirit at the restaurant as in her home: “Whenever Venezuelans come together, it’s a party,” she said, leaning against her table.
The immigrants remain ready to joke about almost anything in spite of the harsh reality of their daily lives. One fear among immigrants is being caught by the police before they have their working visas—under Panamanian law, the police have the right to randomly demand identification. One man has been caught twice in a single day. He laughed about his bad luck and bemoaned not being stopped since receiving his papers: “When you don’t have papers, everyone down to the dogs stop you.”
Even though most immigrants have at least one friend or relation already in Panama, a community eases the pressure. Hernandez, who has lived in Panama since 2014, points fresh immigrants toward safe housing, jobs, and helps them navigate the slow, complex visa process. His staff is entirely Venezuelan. Some have no culinary experience but learn on the job. Like Hernandez, other Venezuelans who own businesses are eager to employ fellow immigrants. They know how an immigrant’s desperate situation can easily be taken advantage of, resulting in unfair pay and abusive treatment.
But Cachapas Don Luis plays an even broader role in the city. Although the majority of the restaurant’s customers are Venezuelan, it attracts Panamanians ready to try another country’s cuisine. The subsequent cultural sharing is crucial for an improved relationship between the two groups. Many Panamanians distrust immigrants, fearing they will heighten crime and steal jobs. Frequently, tensions result in open hostility. Many immigrants feel the need to keep low profiles, sometimes changing their accents to sound less Venezuelan or claiming that they are Colombian.
Still, neither group believes the other carries the full blame. “There are good Venezuelans and bad Venezuelans, exactly like with Panamanians,” one man said simply. Like many, he recognizes that the resentment between them is valid, but he believes they still must find a way to peacefully coexist. Places like Cachapas Don Luis allow the two cultures to unite, harmonize, and come to appreciate their differences.
Cachapas Don Luis is a testament to the impact that a single place can have on a community. The large influx of immigrants has been too sudden to allow for Venezuelan neighborhoods to develop organically, but the restaurant has become a joyous microcosm where Venezuelans come together, connect with their culture, and find the freedom to say what they want. A small chalkboard sign, hanging beside the restaurant’s sliding doors and decorated with small a Venezuelan flag, reads, “Here we speak badly about Chavez, Maduro, and all those SOBs.”
Monique-Marie Cummings is a Venezuelan American high school senior and intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She visited Panama this past summer to interview Venezuelan immigrants and share their stories.