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New business association seeks to raise funds for Mexican merchants in South Philly during the pandemic

The business group, which has been self-sponsoring food distributions for Mexican and Central American residents in South Philadelphia, has seen barriers to access grant money and bailout loans.

Ignacio Marcelo Flores, owner of Los Taquitos de Puebla at the corner of South Ninth and Federal Streets, is a member of the Association of Mexican Business Owners in Philadelphia.
Ignacio Marcelo Flores, owner of Los Taquitos de Puebla at the corner of South Ninth and Federal Streets, is a member of the Association of Mexican Business Owners in Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The pandemic plight of restaurant owner Ignacio Flores is also the story of dozens of Mexican businesses in South Philadelphia, all hoping to hold on financially until economic relief and success with the coronavirus vaccine help them secure stability.

Flores, 44, purchased Los Taquitos de Puebla in early January 2020. When coronavirus-related regulations hit the restaurant industry in April, the entrepreneur’s operations took a big hit: Sales went from $500 each weekday to $80. Weekends were up to $1,800 daily but plummeted to $270. He temporarily furloughed five employees.

Reality didn’t change much for Flores when outdoor dining became an option during the summer. As tourist traffic remained low along the Ninth Street commercial corridor, Flores said many local essential workers struggled to keep steady jobs and feared exposure to the virus.

He tried to apply for PPP loans and state and local grants. But, as a new businessperson and an ITIN holder, he was told that his applications didn’t meet the requirements: He needed to present a Social Security number and at least two years of the business’ fiscal reports.

By the fall, tougher restrictions kicked in. Flores cried alone while at the restaurant, wishing to die, asking himself: “What have I done wrong? Why is this happening to me? Have I deserved this?”

He’s open seven days a week with a full staff three days a week. He’s behind in his bills — rent, electricity, phone, internet, water, and gas — and is hoping to avoid cuts and eviction.

“While only being able to operate for 25% capacity, some business’ utilities and rent come in every month in the 100% of its capacity,” said Flores, who is better known as Nacho.

Flores is one of the members of a self-organized group called the Association of Mexican Business Owners in Philadelphia. The group, which has held food distribution and other relief efforts for South Philly’s Mexican and Central American residents since the spring, is now focused on supporting its small-business owners.

With about 35 members, the association intends to close the language and digital gaps that affect these small-business owners while better promoting their work and investment in economic growth and development in Philadelphia.

With coordinating efforts from the Welcoming Center, the association has launched a crowdfunding campaign that would help 12 imperiled businesses survive what some of the members call “the last big wave” of the pandemic.

The campaign, called the South Philly Mexican Businesses COVID-19 Relief Fund, is the association’s first initiative, which hopes to provide financial assistance for these businesses and keep owners from filing for bankruptcy.

The fund-raiser seeks to raise $50,000 from the community via GoFundMe beginning Sunday. The donated money will be distributed equally among the 12 businesses, nine of which are restaurants, to support their operations, staff, and families.

Raúl Castro, president of the Association of Mexican Business Owners in Philadelphia, said the merchants have done everything in their capacity to keep South Philadelphia a great food and shopping destination for locals and tourists alike. But, he said, the drop in sales and the lack of financial assistance has pushed them to request public support.

“The majority have not received federal funds, so this is how we are doing something for ourselves, working shoulder to shoulder,” Castro said during a news conference held via Zoom Thursday.

Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes South Philadelphia, acknowledged during the briefing that the merchants’ business and investment were critical to help the city get back to normalcy, but that some city relief programs didn’t reach all constituents.

Jimmy Durán, chair for Gov. Tom Wolf’s GACLA workforce and business development committee, said business populations like these face many barriers to obtain federal PPP loans that are not just related to language and technology access.

The banking culture tends to process existing clients before working with new ones — a practice, he said, that tends to harm small-business owners of color, who are less likely to have a relationship with a bank or a larger commercial investment.

“This practice automatically discriminates against the neediest people of color, because the ones who have the most capital and loans with the banks are mostly white business owners,” Durán said.

He added that some state and local relief funds are being managed by community banks that can request their own set of requirements when providing assistance with a business owner’s application. The lack of a standardized process and the distrust in the forgivable loan concept, he said, discourages some Latino small-business owners from accessing these programs.

Over the past 20 years, Mexicans have settled their lives and businesses in South Philadelphia, making neighborhoods economically affluent and culturally rich. According to research by Édgar Ramírez, a community journalist and founder for Philatinos Radio, there are more than 100 Mexican-owned businesses in South Philly: Thirty of these are restaurants; 50 are located on the South Ninth Street commercial corridor.

In addition to Flores’ Los Taquitos de Puebla, other participating businesses that will benefit from the relief fund are Adelita, Alma del Mar, Chocolate Arts & Crafts, El Güero, Los Cuatro Soles, Mole Poblano, Philatinos Radio, Plaza Garibaldi, Philly Tacos, Taquería Morales, and Tamalex.

Eva Hernández, 45, owns Chocolate Arts & Crafts, where she has been selling Mexican handmade souvenirs like piggy banks, margarita cups, dream catchers, cloth dolls, ponchos, and engraved portraits of Lupita. Tourists used to frequently stop by her store after dining at nearby restaurants. The crafts were in such demand, she imported products weekly and stored them in a warehouse.

Now that she’s seen sales drop by 60%, Hernández is hoping for a favorable response on two grant applications she filed almost a month ago.

“The idea of closing our businesses is just horrible to think of, after so many stories shared with our clients.”