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A pioneer of Kahlo's durability perseveres

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 31, 2002


To do what Angelica Diaz has done, you have to be nervy and unafraid. Most of all, you have to be a dreamer.

She is all these things.

Four years ago, she and her husband bought an old used car lot on a sorry stretch of Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights, just north of downtown Tampa.

Now Viva la Frida, the restaurant and art gallery Angelica Diaz dreamed of creating, is approaching its one-year anniversary on Dec. 5.

The restaurant, named to honor Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, has become a landmark in the Heights, a neighborhood with pockets of restored bungalows among brake shops, drug holes and empty storefronts.

Given the blight, you'd think the city would have fallen all over itself to help Angelica Diaz. But she often thought all the city wanted was for her to give up. Again.

Diaz had had another restaurant, in Ybor City. She was driven out by rising rents as the city let the bars move in and overrun Seventh Avenue.

In Seminole Heights, she was forced to battle construction inspectors, and although not much in a car lot would be worth saving, historic preservationists as well. She was socked with $10,000 in impact fees. She couldn't even get anyone on City Council to help.

"I got as far as his assistant," she said of council member Bob Buckhorn, now running for mayor. From council member Rose Ferlita came a letter that proclaimed, "the law is the law," Diaz said.

Diaz, 51, is a sturdy looking woman with dark eyes and a delightful habit of posing questions about the perversity of government decisions. Why doesn't the city of Tampa do for small businesses what it does for corporate developers and the owners of sports franchises? Why is every new project aimed at tourists and not people who live here?

But a year after she finally opened her doors, the restaurant is breaking even. She still can't pay herself a salary but, she said, "I'm happy and I feel secure just being able to pay the bills."

It helps that she doesn't need much. She could drive the same car for years, wear the same clothes. Happiness to her is never setting a foot in a mall.

It also helps that her family pitches in. Her husband, John Ames, is the cook. Their son, Lukas, is a busboy. Their daughter, Allegre, works the room, snapping Polaroid pictures of diners which she sells for $1.99.

And finally, it helps that Diaz lights a candle to Our Lady of Guadalupe. "I pray a lot. ... Faith is what keeps me going."

Her faith works. The softly painted walls of the restaurant are jammed with the work of local artists. The paintings range from the serious to the silly. At the moment, she is featuring the Cuban Sandwich Show, with various takes on the ubiquitous long, stuffed roll of Cuban bread.

There is also a tribute to the lap dance. You stand in a booth, flick a switch and get to sit on a vibrating black pillow while you watch several naked Barbie dolls vibrate as well.

But the main focus of the restaurant is a huge portrait of Angelica Diaz's idol, Frida Kahlo, in the striking, earthy colors that Kahlo herself used. When I asked Diaz why Kahlo had this hold on her, she cited Kahlo's story -- her suffering, her passion, her love of life. "She was intelligent, strong, so ahead of her time," Diaz said.

A couple of movies about Kahlo are about to be released. The timing is perfect for Angelica Diaz's restaurant. She hopes eventually to show the films herself.

In the meantime, other dreams are in the works. Diaz owns a small bungalow around the corner from the restaurant and she wants to turn it into a gift shop where friends can sell their creations. Let's see if the city gives her a hard time then.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

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