By Jorge Andres Casarez
he origin of Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week is a sort of love story. Monica’s parents were from Colombia; she loved her family and her heritage. Monica understood a simple truth: we are all connected. She understood the importance of knowledge, that it is not just for problems solving but to be enjoyed and shared with others. And, for that reason, Monica was active in her community and loved helping everyway she could.
She was an instructor at Henry Ford College and taught medical terminology and surgical technology. Monica had several jobs all at once, she was also an instructor helping small businesses in Southwest Detroit to organize and improve their own entrepreneurial skills. The Southwest Detroit community is more than just a place. That is also the name that was chosen for an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum which Monica also helped develop. Monica’s skill set was organizing and making things better and beautiful. She loved to make things beautiful because she could do it very well and quickly. It made her smile; it made me smile… it made others smile.
She wanted people of Metropolitan Detroit to know that the Mexicantown area was more diverse than imagined: Mexican food is highly regional, and that the cuisines of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Salvadoran, and Venezuelan restaurants are also very diverse and all could be found in Southwest Detroit. The goal was to help these small restaurants attract new customers. The idea sprang in March of 2017 in a Business Plan Class w/ El Salpicon, La Posada, and El Asador restaurants. When she came home, I remember her excitement of the class and ideas were quickly developing. A planning team quickly formed: Monica, Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez, and Joanna Dueweke. By May, an outreach meeting was pulled together with the restaurant owners to discuss collaboration on the project. That summer volunteers met with Southwest Detroit organizations to discuss and begin strategizing a plan for the next year.
In the spring of 2018, as all things in Michigan, ideas that were dormant for the winter were blossoming again; ideas and concepts were reinvigorated with all of the Latino restauranteurs in Southwest Detroit brought together, plans were shared, agreements were made anew, and new problems were solved. By August 2018, a website was launched to promote Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week thanks to cofounder Joanna Dueweke. In September of that year, the first Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week was launched and it sailed successfully like a new ship.
Monica was featured as the event spokesperson on several TV interviews showing the heritage dishes. Twenty-three participating restaurants representing seven different Latin American countries became known to the greater Metropolitan Detroit and people from all over came and discovered previously unknown gems of homemade and favorite heritage meals. Two worlds came together.
In October 2019, the second Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week had 24 participating restaurants representing seven different Latin American countries and their native cuisines.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic started and virtually everything was shut down on March 15th. I can tell you that Monica was immediately concerned about how this would affect the small businesses families with whom she worked for three plus years. The Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week Team of Monica and Juan Carlos got together with Robert Dewaelsche of the Southwest Detroit Business Association and teamed up with the Ford Motor Company to support the local restaurant community. Monica and Juan Carlos supported restaurant owners with translation, public health protocols, curbside pick-up, and PPE related to the COVID-19 pandemic including facilitating the use of WhatsApp group for all Southwest Detroit businesses to ensure the community was getting resources and communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Monica went to work at Harper Hospital as a surgical tech on Monday, March 23rd — by Sunday, Monica was hospitalized. Then on April 11th the hospital called, the worst had happened and my heart was broken; she was gone.
So many people loved Monica and made donations in her name. In April 2020, the Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week team (and friends) created a fundraising campaign for Southwest Detroit restaurants in honor of Monica. The donated funds were shared with 27 restaurants with a loving message from the team in honor of Monica’s commitment to their families and communities. Additionally, a Legacy Scholarship was made by her friends for young minority and community-involved women going to Henry Ford College pursuing Health related professions; so far, there have been three recipients of this award!
Earlier this year, Juan Carlos got the Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week Team together once again and re-invigorated the project with 21 participating restaurants representing the cuisines of seven different Latin American countries plus 12 food trucks/pop-ups. The mission continues to be focused on helping the small family businesses, highlighting regional cuisines and the diversity of Southwest Detroit’s native foods. The plan is the result of organizing and making the world better. This is what Monica loved to do … all of this was what she loved to do. This was the love story.
Photo caption: This year’s Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week is posthumously dedicated to the event’s co-founder Monica Echeverri Casarez.