Paraiso Tropical – Many Voices, One Common Culture:
Paraiso Tropical’s story began in the 1980s when Jesus Gonzalez Sr. and his wife, Alba Gonzalez Rivas, left their town of Acajutla, El Salvador and immigrated to Edmonton, Alberta. Their story is not unique to Albertan history as thousands of Salvadorans fled their homeland amid political and civil unrest at that time. What made these pioneers unique within the Latin American community was their desire to bring a part of their culture to their new city.
Coming from a place viewed as a tropical paradise, Latin Americans encountered a culture shock, much of it caused by a lack of their local cuisines. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, traditional Latin American goods were nonexistent and so Jesus and Alba, along with two other families, opened Paraiso Tropical in 1991 for all Edmontonians.
Located a few blocks from Edmonton’s historical Chinatown, the original list of imported goods included beans, corn flour, and traditional goods that needed to be either frozen or stored in jars, along with typical music, movies, and magazines unique to Central America.
During 1993-1997, there was an increased demand for Latin American products, not only Salvadoran goods, due to the new waves of Latin American immigration. While keeping pace with this unprecedented period of activity and growth, the Gonzalez family never expected that Paraiso Tropical would evolve a culture and identity of its own. Latin American immigrants found a place to feel at home, celebrate their culture, and connect with others who share a similar background. Being Latin American meant proudly embracing a common culture, regardless of country borders.
In 1997, the store relocated to its current location (118 Avenue & 91st Street) on Alberta Avenue. An increased variety of inventory created the necessity for more storage capacity and with the addition of a full commercial kitchen, the current Paraiso Tropical came into existence. The kitchen allowed for more prepared dishes and take out options: a popular choice among the store’s customers.
After six months in business, Jesus and Alba proudly took full ownership of the growing operation and focused on nurturing their trade. This was no easy task and the business was very demanding. However, with their strong work ethic and the support of their two older children, the Gonzalez’s business grew. Within two years, Paraiso Tropical relocated to Alberta Avenue on 118th Avenue and 87th Street.
Jesus Gonzalez Rivas, Jr & Jesus Gonzalez, Sr.
In the late 2000s, the youngest of the Gonzalez’s children – Jesus Jr. – took an active role within the family business and is now Paraiso Tropical’s President.
“I’m always working to continue expanding our product line and to introduce new items and flavors,” says Jesus Jr. “It’s always a pleasure seeing the smiles of our regular customers, as well as new ones, and being able to chat and provide suggestions.”
The Gonzalez family announced the opening of their second location (69 Avenue & 104 Street) in 2015 to provide more access to their unique products. Today, many traditional ingredients and foods from all over Latin America fill the shelves of the family-owned store. Paraiso Tropical remains a central hub for Latin Americans in Edmonton.
Jesus Jr. reflects on Paraiso Tropical’s early days.
“Growing up with the business, it was challenging having our parents work all day, seven days a week, and yet still expect them to be available outside work. All of my siblings had to do our part in the family business, working after school and weekends.
Now our Paraiso family has now grown outside of my nuclear family, but they are still very much my family. We have been through thick and thin, many of my key people have the same history as my parents. So I'm proud of their success in and out of work. Like a family we have our ups and downs but we take care of each other and that is very fulfilling.
“With the success of our business, I don't get to be in the frontlines anymore as I used to be, I enjoyed that a lot, talking to my customers, especially the ones I grew up with. I never take for granted the support of our loyal customers that carry our business forward.”
But I know I have a good team to back me up on that. I look back in retrospect and realize how blessed we were to get to the point where we are now. You learn the value of hard work and the strong effort required in overcoming challenges. This didn't happen overnight, we are going 30 years strong with exciting changes on the horizon. I take pride and fulfillment in creating this unique legacy for our family business, the Hispanic community, and our beautiful city."