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Carrying on Jorge Ayala's Legacy: A Conversation With James Gonzalez, Co-Owner of La Fonda

Naomi Banks | 01 June, 2024

            Carrying on Jorge Ayala's Legacy: A Conversation With James Gonzalez, Co-Owner of La Fonda

James Gonzalez, owner of La Fonda, offers insights into the restaurant's 36 years of history and its essential role in preserving Puerto Rican culture in El Barrio. Taking over as owner after years of being a customer, James has been instrumental in ensuring the restaurant's survival amidst challenges faced by Puerto Rican eateries in New York City. With a commitment to nostalgia and cultural representation, James strives to create a sense of home for patrons, honoring the legacy of founder Jorge Ayala while advocating for the broader Puerto Rican community.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity. Check out the short video clip from the interview on Instagram and TikTok by clicking the hyperlinks.

Purchase the only print signed by the owner to support a worthy cause. In celebration of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, we are donating 100% of the proceeds of the signed print benefit the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Scholarship Fund.

Can you share your history with La Fonda?

Gonzalez: I became part of La Fonda after being a customer a long time ago. This place has been here for 36 years. It was George and Gina’s in the beginning, and then after them, it became Jorge Ayala’s, who was the founder of what most people know as La Fonda Boricua. He then brought in his brother, and that led to an expansion, including a space across the street. 

Fast forward years later, there were many issues that caused the place to shut down. When the opportunity presented itself, I became a silent partner, and provided financial support to help the business sustain itself. By the end of 2018, I got tired of working in the corporate world. Essentially, after the pandemic, the transition occurred, and I became the full owner. Before that, I was just helping him out, and was learning from him. 

If I had not stepped in around that time frame, with all the connections and resources that I had, the place simply wouldn't exist. Our backyard space came from that, which was something we didn’t have before. The space used to be an area where we stored the garbage and had unpaved ground. 

I stepped in primarily because we are running out of Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City and throughout the states. In Manhattan, in terms of full-fledged restaurants, I think there are only three: Casa Adela, being the first and oldest; now us, La Fonda; and the third one is Counter and Bodega, which is Downtown. All are great restaurants run by great people who provide an aspect of our culture that we need.

Tell us about the art on the walls inside.

Gonzalez: Everything I do has been a lesson from Jorge Ayala. He wanted to give art to the community, and he always had art hanging on the wall, even if it just started as a small section. When you walk into the restaurant today, you are actually entering a space that was not part of the original layout. It used to be a flower shop that's now across the street. When you go around to the dining area, that's where La Fonda really started. Local artisans had hand-sketched the walls, and Jorge saw this as an opportunity to expand on their vision. A lot of the art pieces you see now are his personal collection. Everything you see here is by local artisans and all Puerto Rican artists. There's not a single piece of artwork that's not done by aBoricua. When his kids are old enough, if they want to take the artwork, they're more than welcome to.

I bring this up because unfortunately in the beginning of 2023, Jorge, who was my mentor, and close friend, unfortunately had a stroke which led to dementia. That's why he's not here, otherwise he'd be conducting this interview and talking about it himself. 

What message do you hope you’re sending to the community as a Puerto Rican restaurant?

Gonzalez: When I stepped in, it was because I didn't want to see another institution disappear. When people come here, it's to create some nostalgia for them. I hope that people feel a sense of home. The artwork is to show people that as Puerto Ricans, we're more than athletes, boxers, or actors. We have important scientists, philosophers, activists, that have been here. 

Hiram Maristany, for example, was a photographer that took his camera at the age of 16, and wanted to document our community. At that point, black and brown people were not being depicted well in the media. His lens was to try to change that image. While it took him a very long time, he took photos for sixty years, until his last day on earth. Everything was about El Barrio. Everything was about the movement. So when people come here and eat something, I want it to remind them of someone. When they see the artwork, it should remind them of the beauty of our culture, which is enriched by the Africans, the Taino, and even the Spaniards. Love it or hate it, they’re colonizers, but they’re a part of our culture. At the end of the day, I do this to keep the legacy that he started for our community alive. 

I'll give you a quick story. There was a lady that came in (and this happens a lot) and she ordered thesorullos, which are corn fritters. It happened to be my mom’s recipe, and this lady eats it and falls in love. She stops me while I was at the bar helping the staff, and she's like, “Oh my God, it reminded me so much of my mother," and her mom had just passed away probably no more than a year ago.

To hear that and know that nostalgia is happening when they eat the food makes my day. I've had people say the same thing about the steak, themofongo, the chicken, it’s always something a greattia,una abuelita,una madre, someone that they remember, avecina, one of their neighbors. It's a lot of things that I want people to have when they come in here, but more so just a place that they can say “it's my own.”

When they come in, it's like “I came to La Fonda.” I want to change the landscape, I want people to start respecting our cuisine because it's more than just rice and beans.Arroz con Gandulesis a very complex dish, it's not a simple dish.Pernil in the oven is a very complex dish. I want people to start seeing our food for more than what it is. It's not just what you had at home. There's art behind it, there's love behind it.

To makeArroz con Gandules you're puttingsofrito, which alone has seven ingredients. Then, you're addinggandules, the rice, some add bay leaves, olives, and then thesazón,and others put tomato sauce. By the end of it, you're between 12 and 15 ingredients for one dish. The same with thePernil. When people come, I want then to see that we’re playing with presentation. We have a chef, Chef Bradley, who's been playing with the different plating. Now, ourPernil is served in a littleolla, like the same one that you would use for your rice. For thePollo Guisao’ we're using one of the littlecaldero cast iron pots.

What are some of the signature dishes at La Fonda that you believe best represent the essence of Puerto Rican cuisine?

Gonzalez: It’s not just fried food. I tell people all the time, depending on the region you're visiting in Puerto Rico, the food and the cuisine is going to be different. Of course there's main things, there’s yourPernil,there’s yourMofongo. Mofongois an African dish that we inherited. Depending on where we are, it changes.

Our signature dishes includePollo Guisao, our top seller;Bistec Encebollao;Mofongo con Camarones al Ajillo;empanadas orpastelitos(depending on what people call them), andBacalaitos. Those are our staples. We get ourChuletasfrom the local butcher, so we try to keep as much local as we can.

On Sunday, I was really cravingFarina, and my mom was visiting from Puerto Rico. So, I had my mom make some, and we gave it to all the patrons in the restaurant. They fell in love with it. I had patrons from Massachusetts say, “Hey, can I take some for the car ride back home?” just because it was nostalgic for them.

What message or sentiment do you hope the parade conveys to the broader community in New York City?

Gonzalez: I will always give Jorge credit. If it was not for Jorge Ayala, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to step in and keep this place alive longer. He always did something for the people. He's always been a part of the parade, the festival. He's always focused on serving food.

When Puerto Ricans come from different parts of the country and around the world for the parade, we just want to give them that same feeling when they come here. They get to enjoy that food that brings back some nostalgia for them. It’s funny, we serve on paper plates and use plastic cups and utensils because with so many people—like the 3,000 we had for parade weekend—we don't have time to wash so many dishes.

I just want to continue his legacy, I want to be able to make sure that what he's done stays around a lot longer, even to the point of training my staff and giving them equity in the company after three years. This way, when I'm dead, if they build this out with their family, the community still has a Puerto Rican restaurant, 100 years from now.

With the parade, the message should be a reminder of why the parade is in existence. People forget that we fought for the right just to have a flag, you know, just to have certain rights, and to be respected both here and in Puerto Rico. 

I hope at some point, we can bring back that message and not just say“wepa!”, but also remembering figures like Pedro Albizu Campos and what he stood for.

You have all the activists, Pedro Pietri, who was part of the Young Lords, you have Hiram Maristany who was a Young Lord, and one of the main photographers for them. You have Felipe Luciano, the Young Lords from Chicago -- the original Young Lords. You have to think of the movements. The Patient's Bill of Rights came because the Young Lords and the Black Panthers partnered together to hijack Lincoln Hospital after too many of our people were dying.

I would love for people to understand that that's the importance of our parade. We had Hiram’s work up here when he was alive. After his passing, his kids took it down, rightfully so, to protect it, preserve it, and to document everything. The goal is to have more of his work up here at some point because he documented history and it's important to know that.

We have to remember that whether you're Black, Brown, or Latino, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we all faced the same issues. I am here today because of predecessors prior to me. You are here today because of people prior to you. We owe it to them to continue to unite, work together, believe in each other, and build each other up.

I just want to keep Jorge’s legacy alive, because if it wasn't for him, El Barrio wouldn't have La Fonda. At some point, I hope to pass that down to his kids if they want to get involved, or the next generation.

Click the photo above for more information on the La Fonda signed print for the NPRDP Scholarship Fund.