A server at the revived Tierra Colombiana at 4535 N. 5th St. in North Philadelphia. (Nigel Thompson for Billy Penn)

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Mercy Mosquera thought it was all over. As the Tierra Colombiana co-owner watched a fire spread through the North Philadelphia restaurant she and her brother Jorge opened 34 years ago, she was convinced their time had come. 

“I just thought, ‘That’s it, this is the end,’” Mosquera said, thinking back to the fear and confusion of that night. 

Happily, Mosquera was wrong. With the help and encouragement of the Latino community who’ve come to rely on the restaurant, Tierra Colombiana reopened for business less than a week after the blaze.

It all started during the fateful evening of July 9. There was a booming thunderstorm, but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary, server Yareline Gomez told Billy Penn. That is, until around 6:30 p.m., when she saw a thin line of smoke begin to float along the ceiling throughout the restaurant’s large first floor.

“Must be the kitchen,” were Gomez’s initial thoughts, but none of the churrasco or other steak dishes on the menu had quite the “harsh” smell she remembered.

Mosquera and her brother had the same thought when they received the first call from that night’s manager about the smoke, she said. 

At the time, both were visiting their mother at her house in Center City. They told the manager to do a thorough check of the restaurant’s basement and first floor, and when nothing out of the ordinary was found, business returned to normal.

“We never thought about the third floor,” said Mercy, referring to the level above the main dining area, which is outfitted with a stage and used as an event space.

Not long after that initial call, however, Gomez remembered hearing what sounded like an “explosion,” and what was a thin layer of smoke became a thick haze throughout the first floor. 

The first floor of Tierra Colombiana is open for business, but there are still repairs happening on the upper level, destroyed by the fire. (Nigel Thompson for Billy Penn)

“It all happened so fast,” said Gomez, who quickly jumped into action with the rest of the staff to evacuate the customers and then themselves. Upon learning about the new, dire update, Mosquera and her brother directed them to call 911 and then raced to the scene themselves.

When the restaurateurs arrived on scene, firefighters and other emergency service personnel were already there. Mosquera said her first concern was to find out if any of the staff or customers were hurt, and when they all were accounted for, the shock began to set in.

A pillar in the neighborhood, now back in business

News of the fire at Tierra Colombiana spread rapidly through Philadelphia’s Latino community. 

Alba Martinez, founder of media and music company Ritmo Lab, got word via a text message from a friend. She immediately called Mosquera to check in.

“I was heartbroken,” Martinez said of her initial reaction. “Tierra Colombiana is an incredible icon in the Latino community. A symbol of community sacrifice, and dreams, and growth, and success.”

It’s also a place that holds significant professional and personal meaning to her. In the ‘90s, Martinez became executive director at economic empowerment nonprofit Congreso, taking leadership amid a time of major crisis for the organization. She recalled spending hours at the restaurant going over “piles” of paperwork between cups of coffee and plates of food. 

Tierra Colombiana at 4535 N. 5th St. in North Philadelphia. (Nigel Thompson for Billy Penn)

“I felt nurtured in that space,” Martinez said. “Just like me, there are many people who have woven Tierra Colombiana into their stories.”

For some families, it’s a big dinner on Sundays. Others use the restaurant to offer a glimpse into their culture through its food and atmosphere.

It’s why Martinez was far from the only community member to contact Mosquera after the fire. Personal calls, social media posts and emails arrived from everywhere with similar messages of love and support during the difficult time.

“I never thought that they are gonna care so much about us,” Mosquera said. “Sometimes, you are so focused on your job that you don’t realize how important you’ve become for the neighbors in the area.”

Co-owner Mercy Mosquera at Tierra Colombiana. (Nigel Thompson for Billy Penn)

While the overwhelming support was nice, she wishes positive news would spread as quickly, as many  don’t seem to realize the restaurant has reopened. Business has been “slow” since the fire, Mosquera said.

After being closed for just four days of cleanup and follow-up inspections, Tierra Colombiana officially began welcoming customers again on Friday, July 14. Only the first floor is open, but it’s a big space that can seat around 120 people, according to Mosquera.

“What we are doing now is working and promoting,” Mosquera said. “Letting our customers know that we are back, and we are open.”