This week we chat with Victor Padilla and Jolie Gonzalez, the husband and wife team who launched two annual Hispanic culture events that draw thousands of people to Ybor City. The New Tampa couple are the creators of the Cuban Sandwich Festival, held in March, and the Biggest Cuban Sandwich in the World contest, held in July, the past two years. They are inspired by their granddaughter, Emberlynn Padilla, a 2-year-old living with a birth defect called congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a malformation of the diaphragm.
Gonzalez is president of Latin Times Media Inc. and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay.
Q: As creators of two major city events, you both appear to have a lot of appreciation for Tampa. What inspires your city pride?
Answer: Victor (Padilla) was raised in Tampa, so he is a Tampa native. I moved here a little more than 13 years ago from Chicago. I felt right at home in Tampa when I moved here even though I only knew three people. Tampa is a wonderful city with deep roots and a lot of beautiful history but even more than that are the people. Tampa is one big family. We love Tampa and Tampa Bay.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you are not creating celebrations for huge crowds?
Answer: We enjoy family time and reading the word to get closer to God. Quiet time is nice but not too much, because we also love the beach or hanging out by the pool, dancing salsa, of course, and spending time with friends.
Q: Your granddaughter, Emberlynn Padilla, plays a major role in your community service. Why is that?
Answer: Emberlynn, who is 2 years old, was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia syndrome. She was born without a diaphragm and could have easily died at birth. Everyday she is a living miracle. Every time she has come close to death she comes back stronger. We have done several fundraisers for her. Cynthia Fuente, who is Arturo Fuente's granddaughter, and Lisa Figueredo, owner of Cigar City Magazine, also did a fundraiser for her as well to help our oldest son, who just returned from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and his wife, with the hospitalization and transporting costs. The community knows her as a very special angel, and she is a gift from God. (Arturo Fuente owns Arturo Fuente Cigars, a company founded by his father, Auturo Fuente Sr.)
Q: Are you planning any changes with the Cuban Sandwich Festival and Biggest Cuban Sandwich event next year?
Answer: The Cuban Sandwich Festival has been a tremendous success. From the first festival, it was a hit. Each year (the event) gains worldwide recognition not only for the festival and the wonderful sandwich it celebrates but also for Tampa and Florida. Each year it attracts thousands of tourists and locals alike. Next year will be our third annual festival. We are thinking of combining both events and making it a huge Cuban sandwich weekend. For the Cuban Sandwich Festival, we will close off more streets to accommodate the tremendous growth of the festival. We also will start a new category: the "Individual" category open to nonprofessionals.
Because of the event, Tampa holds the title for making the biggest Cuban sandwich in the world. The sandwich was made (July 27) at the Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus and measured an outstanding 49 feet.
The best part of this whole event is the fact the sandwich was donated to Trinity Café, a restaurant which provides homeless people with the opportunity to actually sit and order off of a menu for free. It's a wonderful feeling inside to be able to give something back to the community.
Q: What other Tampa delicacies need to be celebrated, and why?
Answer: The Devil crab, the crab enchilada, and the cafe con leche. Why? Because these are what make up the flavor besides the Cuban sandwich in Tampa.
- Kenneth Knight