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Latino business owners staying afloat during COVID-19 pandemic despite hurdles

It’s difficult to say how many Latino-owned businesses have shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there are signs of growth in some parts of the city — even some new businesses are set to open.

Reyna Gonzalez, the owner of Dulceria La Fiesta, works on a piñata of Marshall, a character from the children’s TV show “Paw Patrol,” in the back of her Mexican candy shop in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After spending a year perfecting the art of making piñatas to help her Rogers Park shop stand out, Reyna Gonzalez decided to open her business in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her store, Dulceria La Fiesta Inc., opened in July, and she’s remained in business, though sales haven’t taken off like she expected. She has survived without help from loans or grants, and she recently started delivering groceries through third-party mobile apps to bring in extra income.

“It’s going to get better; it’s just a matter of time,” said Gonzalez, who quit her corporate job to open the shop that specializes in Mexican candy and party items. “The business is going to explode, I just have to be patient.”

While some Latino businesses in Chicago are struggling to stay afloat without access to capital, there are signs of growth. In Rogers Park, Gonzalez’s store was one of three Latino-owned businesses that opened during the pandemic while one Latino-owned business closed in the neighborhood, according to the Rogers Park Business Alliance.

In Little Village, 25 new business licenses were issued since last March, though the city’s data didn’t specify if all the businesses were Latino-owned. Before the pandemic — from March 2019 to March 2020 — 27 new business licenses were issued in the Little Village special service area, according to city data.

There weren’t any business closures in Paseo Boricua in Humboldt Park, and a new incubator is bringing more businesses to the area, said Carlos Bosques, the director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Across Chicago, it’s unclear how many Latino businesses closed during the pandemic because city officials extended the two-year licenses for all businesses, and a business is not required to tell the city when it closes.

Reyna Gonzalez, the owner of Dulceria La Fiesta Inc., stands in her Mexican candy shop filled with piñatas, at 7053 N. Clark St. in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Teresa Córdova, the director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Latino-owned businesses have been growing the past 20 years, adding it will be important to figure out how to keep this sector from crashing as the pandemic continues to destabilize the economy.

“If Latino businesses are one of the biggest growing sector of small businesses, then it’s in all of our interest that Latino businesses succeed,” she said, adding that small businesses are vital to neighborhoods.

Jaime di Paulo, director of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, estimated that many of the 120,000 Latino-owned businesses across the state employ less than 10 people.

The type of paperwork and documentation needed to secure government loans and grants to bring in capital makes it difficult for these small businesses to apply because some don’t have an existing relationship with banks while others don’t have an accountant on staff, di Paulo said. In the past year, the chamber has assisted Latino businesses with these types of government applications.

Others have struggled to adapt to technology, said Rebeca Fernández, the bilingual program manager for the Rogers Park Business Alliance. She witnessed it firsthand when programming shifted online, noting participation went down as many only had a phone and had to juggle home responsibilities.

Fredy Martinez, the owner of Taqueria Ciudad Hidalgo in Rogers Park, said he was unsuccessful in applying for loans and grants. Martinez said he’s making just enough to pay his bills and stay open. He hopes business will pick up as more people get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I haven’t thought of closing, but I don’t know how much longer we could do this,” Martinez said in Spanish. “I hope that soon people will have confidence to go out. It’s the only hope that I have.”

In Bucktown, Henry Cerdas, the owner of the Costa Rican restaurant Irazu, said he didn’t initially apply for the loans, worried it would leave him in debt. He dipped into a “rainy day fund” to survive the pandemic with a reduced staff.

Then a friend encouraged him to seek help to keep the family business going. He received funds through the Barstool Fund, and the restaurant went public with their struggles.

“We are not back to square one again, but the fever is gone,” Cerdas said after social media posts spurred sales. “We are always looking for innovative ways to discover new ways of doing business.”

Mike Moreno Jr., inside Moreno’s Liquor, said the family business has stayed afloat despite a change in hours because of city regulations.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

In Little Village, Moreno’s Liquors, a longtime family business in the neighborhood, has stayed open despite a change in hours because of city regulations, said owner Mike Moreno Jr. It’s been more difficult maintaining a speakeasy bar, Osito’s Tap, he had opened just months before COVID-19 spread in the U.S.

He applied for five loans and grant programs, and he was able to secure some government funds last year. But he didn’t think the funds were distributed in a timely manner. The city provided cube structures to create outdoor seating, but Moreno said that effort also came too late.

“By the time we were able to get those, we weren’t making our bottom line,” Moreno said.

To Moreno, it seems like businesses in many North Side neighborhoods have more access to outdoor space or patios than those in Little Village or other South Side neighborhoods. He wants the city to do more to help businesses create areas for outdoor service.

Cerdas said he would like to see property tax breaks for those who own their property.

Angélica Varela, owner of the Pilsen-based Semillas Plant Studio, is another entrepreneur who opened a business during the pandemic. She would like to see more opportunities to obtain capital, especially for women, pointing out she used her savings to start her business.

A study on the “2020 State of Latino Entrepreneurship” by Stanford Graduate School of Business concluded it might take Latinas longer to recover from the pandemic, pointing to survey data that showed more Latina-owned businesses reported closures and missed payments for rent or utilities than businesses owned by Latino men.

Martha Vega works on her computer inside the office of her business, MJV Services, in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. MJV Services is set to provide transportation to seniors in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In Humboldt Park, Martha Vega sees an opportunity in opening a business in the pandemic, noting that many seniors have struggled in the past year.

Vega is hoping to get her business off the ground by next month. After working as a home aide, Vega is getting help from the Illinois Small Business Development Center at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center to start a transportation service for seniors.

“A lot of people are afraid of the coronavirus, and it’s not right that [the seniors] are alone walking around in the cold,” Vega said. “That’s why I’m trying to hurry up and do it now.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.