Paula Tejeda gathered friends and strangers Monday evening at Chile Lindo on 16th Street to find a piece of home and the sound of familiar chatter and music on Chile’s Independence day.
“There’s a party tonight, come and join!” longtime proprietor Tejeda said to two new customers in the shop Monday afternoon.
By evening, friends and strangers packed the cafe’s small space to eat the empanadas that have become the Chilean’s trademark – ones she once sold from a basket and now from 2943 16th Street.
Coincidentally, it also marks 50 years since Chile Lindo first opened, and September 11, a more somber day for most Chileans, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup that ended the short reign of the socialist President Salvadoran Allende and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power.
“I have sentimientos encontrados” (mixed feelings), said Cecilia Tello at Chile Lindo this evening. Tello had just been accepted to the national ballet company in the days before the coup, and had been booked to perform on Sept. 13, 1973, two days after the coup.
Instead, she started looking to find a way out. Three years later, at the age of 22, she left for the United States, and made a life here. Chile is a beautiful country, she said, but it’s difficult to look back on it without fear.
“Paula has more love in her heart for Chile than I could ever have,” she said.
Tejeda has long made sharing Chilean food and culture her business.
Born in New York to Chilean parents, Tejeda grew up appreciating both American and Chilean cultures — and connecting the two. She took over Chile Lindo at 2944 16th St. in 1995. And, while it was always Chilean-owned, she put more of an authentic spin on it. One of the first things she did when she took over was replace the Salvadoran pupusas on the menu with Chilean empanadas.
Tejeda initially obtained the business with a loan from a local nonprofit and, without any substantial capital, keeping the place afloat has always been a struggle. “It’s been a rough ride, and I’ve been ready to throw in the towel many times,” she said.
But every time she would want to give up, something would inspire her to keep going. Like some kind of fate, she said.
While that something may have been financial support or good press, it was also Tejeda and her own sense of entrepreneurship. In 2009, during the recession, she became “the girl from empanada,” selling empanadas on the street. And, a couple of years ago during the pandemic, she created Chile Lindo Live, a space for artists to perform in the cafe’s parking lot.
Her resourcefulness and perseverance has gotten the business over a number of hurdles: Theft, employees quitting, vandalism.
Today, she made sure the windows — once covered in graffiti — were instead covered in red and white gingham paper, to match Chile’s national colors.
In many ways, Tejeda lifts the community that has lifted her, and Monday night was no exception.
“Why say ‘para’ when you can say ‘pa’?” said Rodrigo, or ‘Rollo,’ as he prefers, referring to a Chilean way of cutting words. In town from his home in Des Moines, Rollo made sure to be at Chile Lindo on Monday to hear a familiar Chilean hum. He moved to the United States 10 years ago and misses home, particularly how people talk — and the food, he said. “I’ve learned to cook every Chilean dish you can name, out of nostalgia.”
And nostalgia was on the menu, in the form of Chilean red wine, empanadas and pastel de choclo, a comforting baked dish made with ground beef, chicken, raisins and hard-boiled egg, topped with a layer of corn paste. It is like a shepherd’s pie, but the corn makes it sweeter. “This is the gateway drug to Chilean cuisine,” said Carin, Rollo’s wife, who is Jamaican American.