A Journey of Passion Started with Adversity

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Photos by Tar Macias
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By Maya Chavez, Hola Iowa

Sonia Villalpando, a resilient entrepreneur with a heart as warm as her salsas, embodies the essence of Latina entrepreneurship in its most authentic form. She shared her journey with me about unexpected beginnings to becoming a beacon of hope and inspiration for aspiring Latina business owners.

Born in California and raised in Iowa, Villalpando’s father started Azteca Mexican restaurants. However, when her father was deported, her life went through a huge shift. “I was way too young, not ready at all. I just had serving experience and customer service. My dad got deported and it was his business. During our very short phone conversations he would instruct me how to do payroll, pay taxes, order produce, and talk to all our vendors. It was a crash course in an unconventional way so much so that I did not have a choice.” 

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Transitioning into the role of a business owner wasn’t easy for Villalpando. She was thrust into the position, facing challenges that tested her resilience and adaptability. But it helped her learn about herself, particularly her love of the hospitality industry. “Be at peace with how you make money, ethically, something that you love and that comes easy to you. I’ve learned, don’t do something you’re not passionate about. Sometimes a business is very stressful, you have to have some sort of passion behind it.” Her advice eye-opening and down-to-earth. “I feel like it’s an obligation to our ancestors to help one another out. We need to be supporting each other more.”  

As a woman and a Latina in the restaurant industry, Villalpando is no stranger to adversity. The lack of recognition and support for Latina entrepreneurs often leaves them feeling invisible. “It feels very unrewarding sometimes,” she says, “No one will recognize how hard you work, but a few close people. It would be nice if we were highlighted in some way to the public and community. I know we bring a lot of good advice and are a very valuable asset to the community.” Despite challenges, Villalpando remains steadfast in her mission to uplift her community. She offers free advice and support to aspiring entrepreneurs, seeing them not as competition but as those in a shared journey.

Her commitment to her culture is evident in every aspect of her business. From the Mexican dishes to the music that fills her restaurant, Villalpando takes pride in honoring her heritage. For her, entrepreneurship isn’t just about making money; it’s about preserving and celebrating the rich tapestry of Latino culture. “We are a Mexican restaurant, and I am so proud to be serving Mexican food, playing Mexican music, and just be reminded all day at work who we are and what we stand for, our heritage.” 

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To fellow Latinas dreaming of starting their own businesses, Villalpando urges them to seize the moment, embrace their journey, and never stop learning and growing. “GO FOR IT! You’re only as young as you are today, but also don’t rush. Live in the moment, track your little steps and progress.  It’s okay to mess up, but always learn and stay on a continuous path to self-discovery and self-mastery, which means control your emotions to get what you want.” In a community where support networks for Latina entrepreneurs are still growing, Villalpando envisions a future where collaboration and solidarity reign supreme. “There are not many [resources]. We should start one. The chambers are the only ones I can think of. However, I’m not sure how helpful they are to Latina entrepreneurs. We know a lot about labor, economics locally, how the food industry affects us, and most importantly we pay a lot of taxes and would like answers as to how they are directly serving our community”. 

Beyond business success, Villalpando’s greatest aspiration is to leave a legacy of empowerment and inspiration for future generations of Latina entrepreneurs. “We are supposedly more connected than ever because of the Internet. But when was the last time we all got together under one roof to actually meet and mingle? We need a night of Latina entrepreneurs!” 

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As she continues to tread the path she’s paved, Villalpando hopes to see a world where Latina entrepreneurs are celebrated, supported, and given the recognition they rightfully deserve. “I hope even after I’m gone, I have inspired or influenced a Latina to follow her dreams. If I could do it with no education, no professional training, they can do it too!”

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