Thursday, May 22, 2014

Long journey from Peru to Kalamazoo ends in success with Mamita's recipes

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 22, 2014

As the only Peruvian restaurant in Southwest Michigan, the owners of El Inka Peruvian Bistro were not prepared for just how popular it would be the minute they opened the doors. Zinta Aistars has the story, and the fascinating back-story.

Eighteen years old, just a few thin bills in her pocket, alone and with only the most minimum English skills, Sylvia Varillas left home in Lima, Peru, and fought her way to the United States. Mamita was so upset about Sylvia leaving that she wouldn’t speak to her. Papito understood. 

Today, Sylvia Varillas is co-owner with her American-born husband Erin Kane of the new restaurant on 563 N. Drake Road, El Inka Peruvian Bistro, which opened in February. Mamita and Papito (Sylvia Estacion-Fernandez and Hernan Varillas-Guzman) are always there to help, cooking, prepping food, waiting on tables, cleaning up, and joining in the laughter.

It was a long and arduous journey here.

Much has changed since the younger Sylvia came to the United States, but her journey to Kalamazoo is one that she wants her children to hear when they get older. Hers is a story of determination, persistence, and a willingness to work hard to achieve success—all qualities she is determined to bring to El Inka Peruvian Bistro. 

“I had gone to Saskatchewan in Canada for six months of high school on a scholarship,” says Varillas. “It opened my eyes to a different life. I didn’t have to hide or be scared.”

Varillas' memories of her childhood and teen years in Peru are of a government in turmoil and family life in ruin. Her father lost his job as an attorney, and the family lost all of their assets. No longer living in comfort, her father drove a taxi. They sometimes had to stand in line for food. 

“So when I was 18, I sold all my clothes, everything I had, and I bought a ticket to Miami,” she says. “I knew of someone there who I heard had a cleaning business.”

When Varillas arrived at the Miami airport, no one was there to pick her up. “I arrived at 11 a.m., but my ride didn’t show up until 5 p.m. … the next day. She took what money I had, $100, gave me a piece of bread, and locked me into a room with another girl. I climbed out the window.”

Varillas walked through pouring rain to reach a train station, where she begged for money to buy another ticket. Making her way back to the airport by train, she was allowed to make a phone call by a person behind the airline desk, and Varillas called her parents, who were by then frantic to hear from her.

“They begged me to come home, but I refused,” says Varillas. “So my papito gave me the phone number for his grandfather’s sister living in Maryland. He hadn’t seen her in 20 years.”

Varillas made the phone call. Her great aunt was ...


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