America. The land of opportunity. The land of free. Where anyone with enough willpower can pull themselves up and make something out of nothing. We’ve all heard these sayings. Perhaps you or your parents came to this country with this in mind. It’s what has built this country from its humble beginnings – the quest for the American dream. With a multitude of small businesses in Fairhill, it is clear that this quest is very much alive today. And for Lela Maflores, her journey to the United States from Puerto Rico to achieve this dream didn’t come without a few detours along the way.
“My country’s economy was terrible,” she said in broken English. “I knew I had to get out and do something.” But she wasn’t quite sure what.
Maflores began by taking accounting classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. It didn’t take her long to see this wasn’t for her. “I don’t even know why I did it,” Maflores said jokingly. After a year, she dropped out and began working at El Coqui, a Spanish bakery located in the Kensington section. It was here that she began to hone her craft.
“I’ve been baking for just three years,” Maflores said. “When I started at El Coqui I didn’t know much.” To say she caught on quickly would be an understatement.
Within two years at El Coqui, Maflores created a number of her own recipes and used them at work and home. Picking up in a matter of months what takes some years to perfect, it was clear baking was a natural talent for her. Maflores’s own quesitos, a cannoli-shaped pastry filled with cream cheese, was one of the favorites of the store. From this it was becoming ever more clear what her next step would be.
“People would tell me ‘I only want you to make my cakes,’” she said. “The people pushed me to get my own place.”
With funding from non-profit organization HACE, Maflores’ dream came closer to becoming a reality much sooner than it would have otherwise. With Fifth Street, the business hub of Fairhill, undergoing a major overhaul, many new businesses were entering. The reason for the revitalization is far beyond bringing money to the community, however.
“Above anything, we wanted Latinos to feel empowered,” said Emanuel Rivera, assistant business district manager at HACE.
Along with Maflores’ bakery opening near Fifth Street and Somerset Avenue, there is a clothing store as well as a convenience store that have recently opened. All locally and Latino owned, the sense of ownership has the potential to revitalize far beyond most projects.
Calling her new endeavor “Boricakes,” Maflores wanted to continue in the tradition of making authentic Spanish pastries as well as specialty cakes. She used Facebook to promote the new bakery, showing her most creative cakes including one that looks identical to a high-end fashion purse and another bearing a striking resemblance to a turntable. This wasn’t enough though; Maflores also took to the streets of Fairhill, handing out flyers wherever she could and giving out free samples during the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“I made sure our name was out there,” she said. “But we couldn’t know (if it worked) until we opened.”
Then came September 25th. Opening day. The unveiling of a dream turned reality. No pressure, right?
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Maflores said. “I was a little nervous.” And who wouldn’t be? Opening a store is a risk many people want to take but don’t have the nerve to follow through. Anything could have happened. Fortunately something positive did – people came in large numbers to show support. It hasn’t waned since.
“(Business is) very, very good,” Maflores said. “Sometimes it may be a little more than I can handle,” she chuckled.
During our 10-minute interview we had to stop four times to help customers. Each time the bell above the door chimed signaling a new customer her eyes seemed to light up. As straining as the job may be it is clear that she loves what she does.
“It’s hard work but I love it,” Maflores said.
So why is Boricakes so successful already? Is it word of mouth? Or do people simply want to try something new? Maflores believes that though all of these things do play a factor, it is the taste of the pastries as well as their shared background that makes every encounter more personable than your average store.
“I hardly ever speak English at all (when I’m here),” she said. “It sometimes feels like I’m back in Puerto Rico.”
According to her though, it’s a good thing she isn’t. Coming from never baking in her life when she came to America five years ago to owning her own bakery today is something she believes would be impossible in Puerto Rico.
“What I did here with (having my own store) would have taken at least double the time (in Puerto Rico),” she said. “The economy’s not that good here but almost anything is better than home.”
Though her initial goal has been achieved, Maflores knows she has a long road ahead of her. With only two other people working with her, she has worked nearly 50-hour weeks since the stores opening. From helping customers to helping her employees with baking, her hands are beyond full at all times. Despite this, Maflores remains cheerful and is wide-eyed on the future of her bubbling enterprise.
“I want to get a bigger place later,” she said with a smile on her face. “The sky is the limit.”
She is living the American dream.