Coordinating public events during a pandemic is a challenge, but Diversity Richmond’s Raul Cantu is up for it. This Tuesday, he’s bringing back Diversity’s Viva! RVA as a food drive to benefit Hispanic families in the Richmond area.
You may remember Diversity Richmond’s Viva! RVA celebration, a food truck-filled festival which took place last September in recognition of Hispanic Heritage month. This year, Diversity Richmond is celebrating a little early, with a pandemic-appropriate alternative: a food drive.
Raul Cantu, founder of the recently closed but much beloved Nacho Mama’s in Carytown and longtime President of the Carytown Merchants Association, organized the event in his role as Diversity Richmond’s new Event Coordinator, a role he’s been thriving in since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We decided to do it a little earlier than September obviously, because people are in need of groceries for their families now,” said Cantu.
The U.S. hospitality industry is disproportionately represented by Latinx workers, and when the pandemic hit, many Latinx families were out of work and struggling to feed their families. Cantu has first-hand experience with this, as a Latino man and restaurant owner himself.
“They’re the backbone of most of the restaurants, no matter what cuisine you are eating,” he said. “Chinese, Mexican, Asian fusion, there’s gonna be a Latino working in that kitchen. And with COVID-19 hitting hard on the restaurant and hospitality industry, they haven’t been working.”
Using the funds reserved for this year’s Viva! RVA celebration as well as $5,000 raised in donations, Diversity Richmond will provide over 500 families with a week’s worth of groceries. The grocery bags, filled by volunteers, are to be plopped into car trunks assembly line style on the morning of Tuesday, July 28. Diversity Richmond purchased the groceries at cost, or at wholesale price, from Diaz Foods, for just under $13 per family.
Within Richmond’s Latino population, which is on the rise, no two families are alike. Cantu took this into consideration when designing the menu.
“I asked around, because in the Latino community, everything’s different,” he explained. “Not everybody has the same staple. Puerto Ricans, for example, like their black beans. The Hispanics and Tex-Mex people like their pinto beans.” For the grocery bags, Cantu went with black beans.
Cantu also took inspiration from his childhood, having grown up a migrant worker from South Texas. His family’s staples were refried beans, rice, and tomato sauce. “Let me tell you, I can cook you some mean Mexican food, just from watching my grandma cook as a kid growing up,” he said.
Thanks to his grandma, Cantu never cooked with recipes, a habit ingrained in him that would later pose a problem when opening Nacho Mama’s. “It was tough, because we had to be consistent with our food,” he said. “It was a little challenging, but we got it together and the restaurant was successful.”
However, after 22 years of restaurant ownership, Cantu was burned out. He and his partner sold Nacho Mama’s in 2018 and spent eight months traveling all over the world, planning to eventually settle in Florida for some much-needed easy living. To keep busy until then, Cantu served as a board member for Diversity Richmond, filling in between event coordinators.
“They liked what I was doing so much that they offered me the job,” said Cantu. “And then when COVID-19 hit, we decided not to move, because we didn’t want to start anything new during this pandemic. So I accepted the job!”
Event Coordinator is a position that comes naturally to Cantu. “Event planning to me is like planning a party. I could do it with my eyes closed,” he said. Recalling restaurant ownership, Cantu continued, “I even had a catering company where I planned events, weddings, quinceaneras, you name it. Coming here to work is just so fun, because you get to be creative.”
While the pandemic poses a new challenge, so far he’s only helping Diversity Richmond grow. With the infectious, positive attitude of a salesman, everything becomes an opportunity to Cantu. He’s even started renting out Diversity Richmond’s parking spaces to delivery drivers for a little extra cash.
“That’s my job, makin’ money!” he laughed.
Diversity Richmond has been less than quiet during the pandemic. In addition to hosting free COVID-19 testing, government press conferences, and the Stonewall Rising rally, their Drive-in Drag event is one of the most enticing uses of Diversity Richmond’s large parking lot thus far.
“We had heard that a lot of the entertainers weren’t making any money. A lot of the drag queens, drag kings and people that normally would work at clubs weren’t working because of the pandemic,” said Cantu. Learning that, he and Diversity Richmond board member Michael-Birch Pierce worked on a solution.
What they created was the Drive-In Drag Show, hosted in Diversity Richmond’s parking lot. For $10 a ticket, attendees enjoy a security-protected, DJ’d event featuring drag queens like Melanin Monroe and Sweet Pickles. The most recent event, held this past weekend, sold out despite the heat.
But how did they handle tips? Cantu had a solution. “We had two handsome young men walking around with fishing nets with six feet poles… we got some really cute ones that were pink and green and blue,” said Cantu. At the end of the night, the money was sprayed with disinfectant and distributed equally.
Event coordinating isn’t all fun and games. Cantu also answers all of the phone calls and emails, is the person you talk to if you’re looking to reserve a room, and sets up venues before events. He has one assistant, but the bulk of the work is on Cantu’s shoulders.
“It’s very time consuming, trust me. I spend three or four full days just on [emails], and I go home and work at night,” he explained. “But it’s fun because I get to know them, they get to know me.”
When Cantu isn’t responding to emails, he’s out on the town, visiting other nonprofits and comparing notes with friends.
“I try to keep Diversity on the map, so to speak. I let them know that we’re here for many reasons – to give out to the community, for event space, for our thrift store,” he said.
Aspiring party planners who still want to have fun during the pandemic: here’s what Cantu recommends.
“Number one is, you gotta do something you love. If you love to entertain, it’s gonna be easy,” he said. “As far as planning a party, you wanna make sure that you’re looking primarily for safety. Don’t lose your guard, make sure that people are keeping their social distance, and make sure they’re wearing their masks.”
“Number two is to be creative! Don’t let the pandemic make you think it’s over,” he said. “Look around your surroundings and see what else you could do. If you’re a club owner, maybe open up your club for meetings, if you have the space for social distancing.”
Even in retirement, Cantu will be throwing parties. “I was planning to, maybe down the road, open up a little beach taco margarita stand somewhere. So that’s still on my horizon, if I get bored,” he said. “Outside a beautiful condominium complex, [I’ll] hang out with all of my friends, close up and go home and open up the next day. Gives me something to do.”
It’s nice to think about.
This Tuesday’s Viva! RVA food drive will be held in the parking lot at Diversity Richmond, located at 1407 Sherwood Ave, from 9-11 AM. Supplies are first come, first served. For more info, visit Viva! RVA on Facebook.
Photos courtesy Raul Cantu/Diversity Richmond