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For these Hispanic small businesses, belonging to a supportive community is everything
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For these Hispanic small businesses, belonging to a supportive community is everything

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This Hispanic Heritage Month, Intuit’s theme of “Unidos we grow'' invites everyone to reflect how an inclusive and supportive small business economy can build stronger communities, even during the hardest times, like the pandemic.

In a QuickBooks survey, 96% of 1,500 respondents reported that they are achieving some of all of their business or financial goals—among that group, 95% say their family contributed to the success of their business, as did the local community. Hispanic and Latino business owners start their businesses, on average, when they are just 26 years old, which is two years earlier than other business owners. Family again played a vital role: Nine out of 10 people surveyed said that someone in their family inspired them to start their small businesses. 

In that spirit, join us on a tour of three legendary Latino neighborhoods across the United States to meet and learn more about the entrepreneurs that power their economies, and the community members that lift them up. First: Pilsen in Chicago, IL;, followed by Calle Ocho in Miami, FL; and we’ll end the tour in Barrio Logan, in San Diego, CA.

Pilsen illustration by Víctor Meléndez

Illustration by Victor Meléndez

Pilsen is a creative hub interwoven with art, food and culture from Mexico.

Chicago, IL

Pilsen—a bustling neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—is in a constant state of transformation. Founded by Irish and German immigrants, it became home to Chicago’s Czech community until the mid-1900s, when Mexican families who had been living in central Chicago were displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois campus. They went to Pilsen, and with them came a thriving food and art scene that would define the neighborhood until today. Pilsen’s renowned murals honor the area’s Mexican-American heritage and struggle history. The neighborhood is also home to the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is the first nationally accredited museum dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Mexican art and culture.

Here, two local business owners share what it means to them to live and work in Pilsen—and how they’ve seen the small business fabric of the neighborhood evolve.

Chef Alfonso Sotelo

Seven years ago, Chef Alfonso Sotelo opened his restaurant 5 Rabanitos—which means “five radishes”in Spanish—a name that pays homage to his childhood in Mexico. When he was a kid, Sotelo’s family grew radishes on their farm in the state of Guerrero. When the future chef and his brothers took their crop to the market to sell, people would spot them and say “Ahh, the five rabanitos are coming”—hence the restaurant’s name. Fittingly, almost every dish the restaurant serves is decorated with radishes.

It’s the day before Mexico’s independence day—September 15th—and Sotelo is working hard to celebrate his native country and to give back to the community. “Although we can’t be in Mexico physically, our hearts are there today. Because of that, we have a different dish on our menu: chiles en nogada, which is the special of the month,” Sotelo explains before rattling off a mouthwatering list of ingredients including poblano peppers, shredded meat, dried fruits, and a walnut-based cream sauce with pomegranate seeds.

Being part of Pilsen means a lot to Sotelo. It has always been easier for him to navigate the predominantly Hispanic community, especially when he arrived in the United States at the age of 20 speaking little English. He enjoys visiting the local park, and whenever he misses his native country, he visits the National Museum of Mexican Art.

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In this neighborhood, if you work hard, nothing is impossible.
Chef Alfonso Sotelo

But what Sotelo enjoys most about Pilsen is how supportive other members of the community have been of his business. “In the seven years that my business has been operating, I have always gotten support from local restaurants,” he says. “We are constantly talking, wanting everyone to do well so we grow and move forward.”

Right now, small business owners everywhere are identifying inflation as a rising concern, and 5 Rabanitos is feeling the pressure as well. “We are paying more than double of what we used to pay last year on many items,” the chef notes. The business was also affected by the recent increase in minimum wage, but that brought Sotelo more joy than heartache. “I remember those times,” he recalls of his own experience. “Feeding your family with a low minimum wage salary is very difficult.”

But it’s during these times that the residents of Pilsen lift each other up. Sotelo makes sure to recommend other neighborhood gems to his clients so they want to return. After all, the Pilsen community has brought his American dream to life.

“Being Hispanic means a lot to me; it’s part of my identity,” he explains. “The United States has given me so much. I’m an immigrant who had the American dream come true. And my heart is here, but it’s also in Mexico, where I was born. I am proud of my roots and the family where I came from. We are hard-working people. And, in this neighborhood, if you work hard, nothing is impossible.”

Miguel Torres

Miguel Torres handles risk well. A 38-year native of Pilsen, he opened a small business to fix cell phones during the pandemic. Now, two years later, Device Fix has not only survived, but thrived during lockdown.

The secret to his success, Torres says, is being flexible and serving the specific needs of his community. The business started by only fixing mobile phones, but as COVID-19 hit the city, he realized that many kids were receiving computing devices—and their caretakers needed help with them. “With kids, sometimes the devices fell or a sibling spilled water on them. We ensured our survival by fixing computers and tablets, as well,” he explains. “Then, people asked us for help with game consoles and kitchen devices. We had to be resilient. We understood what we needed to survive.” 

Torres says that Pilsen’s Hispanic business community also helped support Device Fix when it opened. To promote their services, Torres and his team organized outside events where they invited people of all ages to sample drinks that local restaurants had donated. The local michelada company even discovered that their lemonade and aguas frescas were big hits at these events—and decided to officially add them to their menu. “We ended up benefitting one another,” Torres notes warmly.

Another aspect that assured Torres’ success? Providing services in both English and Spanish. Both of his parents are native Spanish speakers, so he was raised bilingual. “I am proud to be Mexican. I am proud to be able to speak the language that my family and many of my neighbors speak,” he says. “Being bilingual has only helped me grow my business and expand my horizons.”

Calle Ocho illustration by Víctor Meléndez

Illustration by Victor Meléndez

Along Calle Ocho, Little Havana becomes a melting pot.

Miami, FL

Calle Ocho is one of the busiest streets in Miami’s historic neighborhood of Little Havana, named for its large local Cuban population. Here, you’ll find Caribbean restaurants and cafecitos, old-style tobacco stores, barber shops, a domino park, and a monument to Cuban and Cuban-American heroes. And if you come on the third Friday of the month, you can enjoy an outdoor cultural festival packed with local artisans, live music, and dancing.

“Nowadays, Calle Ocho is a cultural melting pot,” says Brenda Betancourt, President of the Calle Ocho Inter-American Chamber of Commerce. “The area used to be mostly Cuban, but today we have residents who are from all over the Americas. For those people who cannot travel to their countries, Calle Ocho brings them a piece of home…It’s a place to soak up a lot of cultures”

Betancourt says that one of the neighborhood’s biggest challenges has been helping small businesses during the pandemic. She notes that there are grants available that small business owners may not know about. [More information about available grants and resources can be found on the Small Business Association’s website.]

Despite those pandemic-specific challenges, small business owners in Calle Ocho have always supported one another. Here, we spoke with just three of the many local business owners that call Calle Ocho home.

Marina Rivera

Marina Rivera describes her restaurant, El Pub, as a place “where the Cuba of yesterday is alive today.” Her parents acquired the restaurant in 1995 and officially opened in 1996. Today, Rivera runs the business with her family.

“Calle Ocho is a legend. It used to be like going to Old Havana in Cuba. Nowadays, it can feel like the United Nations,” she shares. “We are keeping Cuban traditions alive, and immigrants from Venezuela, Honduras, and El Salvador all contribute to make it a better place.”

Rivera used the pandemic as an opportunity to renovate the restaurant—”I put up a terrace and painted the walls”. And when it was forced to close for safety mandates, Marina was there for the neighborhood, making food for people who needed it. 

“One of the aspects that excites me the most about working on Calle Ocho is that I feel it is a little part of Cuba. For me, being here every day is a reminder of what one sacrifices by leaving your home country, and at the same time, the rewards and blessings you get in your new home,” Rivera concludes.

Wally and Rolando Elejande

Wally and Rolando Elejalde have seen their neighborhood change dramatically in the last 20 years. The owners of Master Cut Salon, a barbershop in Calle Ocho, arrived from Cuba two decades ago. At the time, there were no tourists wandering around, but they were excited to join the growing small business community: “We have seen many entrepreneurs arriving, leaving, changing places. We have seen it all,” Wally says. “I came at a young age and my children grew up here.”

Working in the heart of a cosmopolitan neighborhood today means that their clients come from all corners of the world. “My husband has over 300 established clients,” Wally proudly affirms. “The business is doing well, and tourists also stop by whenever they need a haircut.”

Getting established wasn’t easy, though, and Wally tears up when she talks about the couple’s Calle Ocho beginnings. “The partners we had were very important,” she says, referring to the neighboring businesses. ”They were always there to help us. They were very kind and giving neighbors who treated us like family.”

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Calle Ocho is our home. We love the joy and diversity of this neighborhood.
Wally Elejande

Community support was key during the pandemic, as was their heritage and shared experience. “The situation we faced in Cuba prepared us for rough times,” Wally admits. “The living conditions were critical and we learned. Since we arrived in the U.S., we have always had savings ready for any emergency.” Those savings proved especially useful during the past two years.

Like many business owners in Calle Ocho, the Elejalde family have expanded their services and revenue streams post-pandemic. Rolando now sells his paintings, and the couple decorates Dominos to sell to tourists. Anything to support and give back to the community they love.

“Calle Ocho is our home. We love the joy and diversity of this neighborhood. I am proud to be Cuban. Proud to be Hispanic. People around here are very open, supportive, and cheerful.” Wally says, noting that an afternoon walking Calle Ocho is enough to see why they call it home.  “You will understand why we stay and why we love working here.”

Barrio Logan illustration by Víctor Meléndez

Illustration by Victor Meléndez

In Barrio Logan, creativity thrives through Chicano culture.

San Diego, CA

Barrio Logan, a vibrant neighborhood in south central San Diego, has long been a focal point of Mexican culture. During the Mexican Revolution in 1910, refugees fled north and put roots down in Barrio Logan. Today, the neighborhood is best known for its galleries, breweries, restaurants, and more small businesses that celebrate Mexican heritage and tradition. At the heart of Barrio Logan lies Chicano Park, where 79 historic murals provide the backdrop for festivals, drum circles, and low-rider car shows. A grassroots coalition of artists, residents, and community leaders help the neighborhood’s business owners embody and preserve Chicano culture. 

Ahead, we speak with two of them about the challenges of artists and entrepreneurs in the area, as well as the importance of a supportive community for local business owners.

Hector Villegas

“Barrio Logan is a piece of heaven for me,” says Hector Villegas, a first-generation Chicano who began his art career as an apprentice during the 2011 renovation of Chicano Park. “Since I was a kid, it gave me a sense of belonging. People that lived here looked out for each other. I knew my neighbors—the family that owned a bakery nearby and another one that owned the tortilleria. I knew everyone at school. I loved growing up here; I always felt like I belonged.”

Chicano Park and art have special resonance for Villegas. He painted three of his own murals in the park during the renovation and has owned a local art gallery, Galeria 1904, for almost ten years. “With the gallery, I promote Hispanic, Chicano, Mexican, and Latin American artists since there are no [other] places like this in San Diego.”

While Villegas has had the opportunity to travel and live in different countries, he always finds himself longing for the Barrio where he grew up. “One of the reasons I started painting is that my parents are part Huicholes and Coras, and the history of our indigenous culture is reflected in murals.” He refers to the neighborhood as a “mecca” where Mexican-Americans and their sons and daughters—now Chicanos—are free to express themselves and their culture.

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You have to be active in your community to succeed.
Hector Villegas

But one of the biggest challenges the artist observes in Barrio Logan is gentrification. Some small business owners are being forced out of the neighborhood because they no longer make enough money to live there. From Villegas’ point of view, Barrio Logan loses an important part of the community whenever a small business closes or long-time residents leave.

The pandemic hit the area hard as well, with various businesses having to close. Villegas tried to help by shopping at neighboring small businesses. “You have to be active in your community to succeed,” he says. . 

And while the pandemic proved difficult for many, Villegas was able to thrive. He withdrew to his studio to paint, which proved lucrative. “I started selling many pieces,” Villegas says. “Since people were at home, many of them wanted to buy art. We were lucky that we survived.”

Alexandra Perez Demma

Alexandra Perez Demma has an important mission: helping independent artists succeed in Barrio Logan. Her venture, Simón Limón, is a curated retail and creative space showcasing Hispanic creatives and makers.

“My goal is to help creatives grow their businesses without having to invest a fortune to start. I am trying to save them money by renting a place, doing the branding and paperwork, and so on,” Perez Demma explains.

Alex, as her friends call her, is a Mexican-American woman who grew up in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Her mother is from New York; her father from Veracruz in Mexico. For her, identity is complex. She understands that being Hispanic carries within itself so many different identities, “which is what makes it so rich, diverse, and beautiful.”

During the pandemic, Perez Demma says she observed small businesses in her community coming together with renewed strength. People asked the government for help and grants were offered. The Logan Avenue Consortium and the Barrio Logan Association organized a bimonthly Barrio Art Crawl, which drew tourists from all over the city. It helped, but also had an unintended consequence.

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Having a support system is important. That’s why I like having my business in Barrio Logan.
Alexandra Perez Demma

“We used to depend on the art shows that happened every second Saturday. Now, people are getting priced out, and the art crawl is no longer enough. We are trying to find a way of bringing back art and artists of our community that had to leave because they could not pay their rents.”

Apart from gentrification, Perez Demma thinks that small business owners in the community would benefit from proper business education—especially when it comes to paperwork and taxes. “I have made mistakes and it was costly,” she says. “Even during the pandemic, some businesses weren’t properly registered and couldn’t apply for grants. They suffered because they didn’t have the right business education.” 

For Perez Demma—and for many Barrio Logan residents—finding a supportive community was the most important factor in starting a business venture. As someone who always wants to pay it forward, she offers the following advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Don’t be shy. Ask questions. Being vulnerable is okay and that is the only way we can learn. Having a support system is important. That's why I like having my business in Barrio Logan.”

Unidos we grow

Despite the challenges faced by Hispanic and Latino communities, entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds behind small businesses in these three communities have united to establish support systems. 

Through collaboration, people are creating stronger businesses than those that they could have even imagined on their own. Encouragement, creativity, empathy and being available to support those starting, has made it possible for them to learn, grow and succeed. 

Unidos we grow.

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Resources to grow your business

Whether you’re starting, running, or growing your business—or just dreaming of an idea—these resources will guide you through your journey.

Illustrations by Victor Meléndez

Víctor Meléndez is an Art Director, designer and illustrator based in Seattle, originally from Mexico. His work is a combination of bold lines, vivid colors, organic forms and mysterious, spellbinding characters. Melendez’s multicultural upbringing gives him a unique approach to craft and style. This distinctive quality has given him the opportunity to create award-winning work for a wide variety of clients that include REI, Pepsi, Target, Starbucks, Crayola, SubPop, USPS, Hallmark, and Honda, amongst others.

Víctor Meléndez

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