Postcards From The Pandemic: Latino Businesses Maintain Community At Portland Mercado

By Crystal Ligori (OPB) and Jenn Chavez (OPB)
Portland, ore. July 13, 2020 12:30 p.m.
A mural representing Latino culture adorns the exterior wall above the main entrance to the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The Portland Mercado, opened in 2015, serves as an incubator for Latino-owned and operated small businesses, especially restaurants and food carts.

A mural representing Latino culture adorns the exterior wall above the main entrance to the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The Portland Mercado, opened in 2015, serves as an incubator for Latino-owned and operated small businesses, especially restaurants and food carts.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

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OPB reporters and photographers are capturing “Postcards from the Pandemic” to document the lived experience of people in the Northwest during this historic and unusual time.

Heading down Portland's Southeast Foster Boulevard, you can't miss the Portland Mercado. The city's first Latino public market pops with bright colors. A mural depicting a guitarist and a dancer swinging her dress welcomes you inside to a juice bar, a cafe, a small grocer and a neighborhood bar. A wooden pergola tops a patio full of tables and red, green, blue, and yellow food carts serving cuisine ranging from Mexican, to Colombian, to Peruvian. Music is playing. Music is almost always playing.

The Portland Mercado celebrated its five-year anniversary in April. But 2020, of course, has been no ordinary year. An anniversary video on the Mercado's website, showing its business owners at work, is full of people wearing face coverings and protective gear. One vendor, Amalia Sierra, stands before her Oaxacan food cart Tierra Del Sol and says, "con el COVID diecinueve, el invernio ha sido muy largo: with COVID-19, winter has been very long."

The Mercado was launched in 2015 as part of a business incubator model developed by the nonprofit Hacienda CDC. It provides affordable retail and commercial kitchen space to start-up Latino and immigrant entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses, with the support of Hacienda CDC advisors. The Mercado is also a hub for Latino culture and community — hosting not only shoppers and diners, but Latino makers fairs, music festivals and Día de Muertos altars.

Spring is usually the time business ramps up at the Mercado, heading into the bustling summer months. But the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the Pacific Northwest in March caught the market and community space off guard. As foot traffic dropped off and public gatherings ceased due to the statewide stay-home order, Mercado businesses saw an initial decrease in sales of 40% to 70%. Emergency rules closing restaurant dining spaces meant making a quick transition to online and to-go models in order to stay open. Applications for financial aid to help support struggling businesses weren't always available in Spanish. All of this was happening against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic which has disproportionately impacted Oregon’s Latino community.

Yet, as Amalia Sierra continues in the Mercado's anniversary video, "tenemos esperanza. We have hope."

OPB spoke with vendors at the Portland Mercado, as well as Hacienda CDC’s Mercado Programs director, about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their businesses and their lives. Here are some of their stories.

Omar and Vanessa Salomon, Xōcotl

Omar and Vanessa Salomon, owners of the Xōcotl juice and smoothie shop at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., pose for a portrait on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Xōcotl has remained open for takeout and delivery orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Omar and Vanessa Salomon, owners of the Xōcotl juice and smoothie shop at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., pose for a portrait on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Xōcotl has remained open for takeout and delivery orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

Xōcotl is the Aztec word for fruit and a fitting title for Omar and Vanessa Salomon's juice and smoothie bar just inside the Portland Mercado. The couple dreamt of opening a business when they immigrated from Mexico, and the Mercado provided that opportunity. "Being part of the community" was a big draw, Omar Salomon said. "It's one of those places where you can find music, culture, other carts with Latin American food. So you feel welcomed, and you share your own mother language. Language is important."

When the stay-home order and coronavirus restrictions hit, Xōcotl felt an immediate impact. March is typically a good month for business, but this year it was “really bad.” Omar estimated it was 70% worse than March 2019. To adapt, Xōcotl launched a punch card system, as well as an online and text based to-go ordering system to maintain social distance. But it wasn’t enough to avoid laying off staff and taking on more work themselves.

“The most difficult thing was that we don’t have employees here,” Vanessa Salomon said. “So we need to work seven days a week, from 7 to 8, because we’re still having customers, so we want to make sure we have sales, and keep [the place open].”

Meanwhile, the couple had a 12-year-old son suddenly out of school. “School is a big thing for us, we value education,” Omar Salomon said. “Not having regular classes put us in a spot where we had to really be like teachers at home and remember and relearn many things.” The education system, he said, is very different from Mexico’s, which has been an additional challenge. “For us it was like relearning math.” As they waited to have enough money to afford hiring staff back on, they were fortunate to have family members to help with their son while they were at work.

They also felt fortunate for their customers. “They’re very loyal,” he said. “Neighbors have been helping us, by coming back and saying, ‘How are you doing? We want to support you guys, and I’m glad you’re open.’” The support of community members, as well as the area business association, has been instrumental.

The pandemic caught them by surprise, Omar Salomon said, “But [it also] gave us big lessons on how we can do better, using other tools. Using more social media, using the internet, and technology… how we need to adapt to changes.”

Fernando Rodriguez, Fernando's Alegría

Fernando Rodriguez, owner of the Fernando’s Alegría food cart at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., poses for a portrait from inside his cart on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. As a food cart, Fernando’s Alegría's business centered around takeout before the coronavirus pandemic.

Fernando Rodriguez, owner of the Fernando’s Alegría food cart at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., poses for a portrait from inside his cart on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. As a food cart, Fernando’s Alegría's business centered around takeout before the coronavirus pandemic.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

Fernando Rodriguez is one of the business owners who’s been part of the Portland Mercado since the very beginning in 2015. He loves the diversity of countries represented there.

“Before this, I didn’t know a single Colombian. I didn’t have a Cuban friend. We created a community where we could meet other Latinos,” he said. “We found a place that allowed us to be ourselves, if you will. Speak Spanish all the time, if you wanted to.”

He was compelled to start Fernando's Alegría after years working as a chef in a restaurant at Nike's headquarters. "I feel like I knew everything about it, like I knew how to do inventory, recipes," he said. "So I decided, yes, why not start making the money myself?" Plus, it's given him the freedom to be more creative with the food he's preparing. "It's the best part of it — be creative. Try to come up with something delicious. You know what? What I noticed about Portland is, you can make anything, and people will try it," he said.

Rodriguez said that when the pandemic became serious in the Pacific Northwest, it seemed like something out of a movie at first, before it sunk in that it was really happening. “I was obviously worried because we were like, what are we going to do?” He ran through scenarios in his head: “Am I gonna have to close the business? Am I gonna have to let everyone go? Or maybe I won’t let anyone go, but customers, will they still come?”

Worst case scenarios haven’t played out, and since the majority of his customers were already doing take-out orders before the pandemic, it wasn’t as drastic of a shift for his business model. But fear of the virus kept people from wanting to venture out at first, even for take-out, so business saw a quick decline in the first couple of weeks. As people became more accustomed to wearing masks and social distancing, things improved. “But it hasn’t been normal — it’s still a little scary to be living through these times,” Rodriguez said.

While he, like many Mercado vendors, has received financial assistance, he recalled the frustration of being denied for one funding source that many of his fellow business owners had received. “It was really hard for me, because everybody around me was happy with the great news. ‘Yeah, I got the grant! I got the loan!’ But not me,” Rodriguez said. “We’re all on the same page here. We’re all the same here.” So that one stung.

Of course, his biggest fear is the business not being able to weather the storm. “Without the business, we will lose everything, lose home,” he said. “It’s how we support our family.” But he said he’s optimistic that won’t happen.

That's on top of the fear of contracting COVID-19, which continues to disproportionately affect Latino populations in Oregon.

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“I feel like if I get the virus, I might not survive it. We all in our heads think, it could happen to me,” he said. “When you start thinking about not being here — no! I like being here. I like existing.”

But he hopes, amid the fear and tragedy, some positive lessons might come out of the pandemic. “Maybe I can try to be a better human being. Maybe I can be a better neighbor, a better father, a better son, a better brother,” Rodriguez said. “What gives me hope is that we’ll come out of it, and I believe we’ll come out of it stronger.”

Verónica Gutiérrez, La Arepa

Verónica Gutiérrez poses for a portrait in front of her food cart, La Arepa, at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. La Arepa specializes in Venezuelan cuisine.

Verónica Gutiérrez poses for a portrait in front of her food cart, La Arepa, at the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. La Arepa specializes in Venezuelan cuisine.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

In 2008, Antonio Gutiérrez and Elsy Rodríguez opened La Arepa after noticing a lack of traditional Venezuelan food in Portland.

“There was no representation of our culture here in Portland,” their daughter, Verónica Gutiérrez, said. “They said, ‘Okay, we need to bring this to Portland and make Portlanders love the Venezuelan food,’ because we represent our culture through our food.”

Specializing in traditional Venezuelan street food, La Arepa has two locations, one of which sits at the south end of the Portland Mercado.

It's a family business, but as soon the Gutiérrez family heard about the pandemic, they made some quick decisions: “First, quarantining for parents, 100%,” Verónica Gutiérrez said. “They still are in quarantine.”

She also wanted to check in with her staff to see if they felt comfortable continuing to work, or if they would prefer to stay at home. She said her first priority is keeping her staff healthy and safe. As a group, they decided to reduce the schedule to limit how many people would be working at time, having just one person working each shift inside the cart.

La Arepa also switched how it was taking food orders. “[We’re] not receiving payments on-site, only working online,” Gutiérrez said. “We are working with Caviar, Postmates, Uber Eats. And then we created a direct connection through our website, so people can order pickup and pay online.”

While keeping her staff safe and her business running, Gutiérrez also saw an opportunity to give back during the pandemic.

“I was watching the news, and then I saw this organization and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I really want to be part of it.’”

The organization was FrontlinePDX, a volunteer-run, local chapter of a national nonprofit which provides meals for frontline workers donated by local restaurants.

During the pandemic, Gutiérrez has also been donating food and working with Stone Soup, which feeds the unhoused community in Portland and the Clackamas Women's Shelter.

“It was important, because it's giving back to the community,” she said. “We have been receiving a lot, and it was time to give back.”

Aldo Medina Martinez, Mercado programs director for Hacienda CDC

Aldo Medina Martinez, programs director for the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., poses for a portrait in front of the market's food cart pod on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Medina Martinez oversees the Mercado's various business programs.

Aldo Medina Martinez, programs director for the Portland Mercado in SE Portland, Ore., poses for a portrait in front of the market's food cart pod on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Medina Martinez oversees the Mercado's various business programs.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

Behind the scenes, Hacienda CDC’s team at the Portland Mercado have played a crucial role in helping businesses adapt their business models & obtain financial assistance during the pandemic.

For Aldo Medina Martinez, the Mercado programs director, that need immediately became clear. “One of the things we did as a team was, we assigned every business at the Mercado a business advisor to really take a look at their current business strategy and situation and start planning,” Medina Martinez said.

One aspect of that, right off the bat, was adapting business models to help businesses adapt to online ordering  and take-out. They helped vendors “get on every single platform, online delivery. And then as a team, using our platform with social media and our impact, we were able to continue to announce that folks were open for business, businesses were taking all precautions,” Medina Martinez said.

As the end of March approached, April rent was top of mind. Rent, along with labor, is one of the biggest expenses for the Mercado’s businesses, Medina Martinez said. “We shifted and transitioned right away to try to apply for relief for rent for some of the businesses.”

He and his colleagues helped business owners apply for financial aid like grants and loans provided by Prosper Portland. Staff also obtained $75,000 in funding to disperse to business owners from a national organization called Raza Development Fund.

When it came to applying for Paycheck Protection Program aid through the federal CARES Act, a road block appeared — it wasn't immediately available in Spanish. So the bilingual and bicultural team at Hacienda CDC joined with a few partners to translate application materials. "It was really important to us to take the initiative and do the CARES Act en español," Medina Martinez said.

Language aside, he and his colleagues wanted to help the business owners understand and navigate the system. "A lot of the businesses we work with are micro-businesses," Medina Martinez said. "Sole entrepreneurs, smaller teams and operations ... they don't necessarily have the infrastructure to apply for the grants. So, a lot of our technical assistance is really helping them navigate a lot of these resources that are new to them."

While the financial aid has been crucial, Hacienda CDC also took a big step on their own: offering the business owners at the Portland Mercado an 80% discount on their rent in April and May.

They've also been trying to maintain a sense of shared Latino community at the Mercado. They've been hosting monthly business seminars called Café y Pláticas — coffee and chats — that they've now taken virtual. "It's a gathering place for entrepreneurs. It's held in Spanish. So it's really a place where we build community," Medina Martinez said.

The vendors have always supported each other, too. "You know, when one of them runs out of tomatoes or plantains, you know, they could just go to each other's cart and whoever has a little more can share," Medina Martinez said.

That mutual support has continued during the pandemic. Sandino Coffee, a cafe inside the Portland Mercado run by coffee farming and roasting brothers from Nicaragua, had to initially close due to the lack of foot traffic and the closure of the Mercado's indoor space. "One of the beautiful things was Sandino [Coffee] started selling coffee bags out of Kaah Market. And they started selling drip coffee at Xōcotl," Medina Martinez said. "It was really reaching out and leveraging each other during these tough times to support each other."

And then, there's simply the act of continuing to feed the Latino community. "Just providing the cultural foods that we're used to over at Kaah Market ... through their businesses, folks really look out for some of the comfort foods. Especially in times like this, just having some kind of comfort food and reminder: that's the importance of keeping their operations alive and open," Medina Martinez said.

To hear more from Portland Mercado entrepreneurs, use the audio player at the top of this page.

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