By LLUVIA RUEDA
Businesses are turning into the new "green cards" of opportunity, as both immigrant and native Hispanic groups take the American dream by the horns on national and local levels.
Fruteria La Unica Beaumont business owner Aurelia Sanchez said her store is the key to a better future.
Sanchez stood in her shop and gazed with pride at the fruit stands and candy racks that decorated the inside during a Nov. 21 interview.
"I didn't think I would be able to make it, but here I am ... It's small, but you have to start somewhere. It's a day-by-day process," she said.
"It's hard," admitted Sabrina Vrooman, 51, chief executive of the Port Arthur-based tortilla manufacturing and food distribution company Hernandez & Solis, Inc.
"But it is very rewarding. We have the support of the local community, and we are looking into expanding our business even more. It has been going very well," she added.
Vrooman and other local Hispanic owners' most recent achievements are reflected in the steady growth of Hispanic-owned and operated businesses in the United States, mushrooming by 31 percent between 1997 and 2002, a rate three times higher than any other business sector, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
That growth is soon to affect the local pockets and buying habits of Southeast Texans, said Dave Mulcahy, Lamar University Small Business Center director.
American Pie Slice
Hispanics topped off the year 2002, the most recent year for which business statistics are available, with a total of 1.6 million businesses generating $222 billion in revenue. Almost all of the business owners work in their own stores and only 13 percent of all Hispanic businesses in the United States have paid employees, the Census figures showed.
In the Beaumont area, the Hispanic slice of the market expanded from 3 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2002, Mulcahy said.
"(The local Hispanic population) originally came over here because of the jobs and positions available in the area. Families stayed close-knit and continued to remain in the area. As a result, the Hispanic population has grown and with it goes the market," Mulcahy said.
Increases in population and opportunities have given Hispanics a chance to construct their futures, said Mark Mather, demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington.
"(Population growth) accelerated in 1990, driven mostly by immigration coming in from Latin America or young people coming here and starting families," Maher said of the opportunity-population correlation.
History and U.S. national policies also played major roles in the present situation, Maher said.
"It is really just linked to the mid '60s, when they liberalized the immigration policies with the 1965 Immigration or Naturalization Act. More Latino people came into the country, and so we're now seeing the results of those policy changes - 30 years later," he said.
By 2007, 45.5 million Hispanics were in the United States, a 29 percent increase of the 35.3 million present in 2000, according to the National Population Bureau. They make up the majority of people in Texas, California, Hawaii and New Mexico.
Although there is strength in numbers, Hispanics still have to face challenges when starting their own businesses.
Access to capital, overcoming bad credit, finding contacts and balancing their businesses' finances are the primary hurdles for Hispanic businesses, Mulcahy said.
Most of the business owners interviewed preferred to first stockpile the money needed to open their shops because of a lack of lending opportunities.
"The credit crisis has affected everybody, but it might affect Latinos more because some of them have no credit at all and no collateral to back it (loans) up, so they are not able to apply for most available loans," Mulcahy said.
Sanchez said the credit situation was "critical."
"I used my own money because I knew I wasn't able to get anything. It was very hard. My family had to help me open the store," Sanchez said.
Jacey Garcia, owner of the City Dance Center in Beaumont, agreed.
"It's very pricey to have your own space in the business, so I would suggest that people really look into private investors and become really involved in everything about their company," she said.
Restaurant owner Ricardo Figueroa said his experiences with the credit crisis and opening his businesses have been positive, but he knows many Hispanic business owners struggle with the issue.
"If you don't have good credit, you can forget opening a business unless you earn all the money to have everything. It's almost impossible to do anything without it," he said.
Still, they manage.
"The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States is expected to grow to 4.3 million within the next six years, with total revenues surging to $540 billion annually ... due to population growth and a purchasing power fast approaching $1 trillion," U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce chairman David C. Lizarraga said
Mulcahy reinforced the point when he alluded to the colorful collage of businesses that line College Street and The Avenues, citing them as perfect examples of the Hispanic economy.
"Most Hispanics seem to be comfortable buying and dealing with other Hispanics in business matters, especially since most of the ones that come in are the younger, immigrant population who can't speak English," Mulcahy said.
About 547, or 6 percent, of the 9,118 businesses in the Beaumont area are Hispanic-owned, based on Census figures. No figures exist for Port Arthur.
While the number has been increasing over the years, it has been hard for the local chambers and the city to keep track of the influx.
"We don't usually keep records of the businesses based on their owners' ethnicities, unless it specifically markets in that category," said Jim Rich, president of the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce.
"They have been doing very well in the Port Arthur and Beaumont areas, and getting a lot of business from everybody, not just the local Hispanic demographic," he said of area restaurants.
Goals and Determination
Figueroa, owner of the Caribbean-Hispanic restaurant Tropical Grill, 4747 Gulfway Drive, and welding outfitter Welder's Ware, 4751 Gulfway Drive, both in Port Arthur, said his businesses have thrived because of the area's large Hispanic population and personal determination.
The former pipe fitter and welder saved for 15 years while working those jobs, then spent three years building the restaurant with "my bare hands" and help from friends, he said.
"I have no debts; all I have to pay is the utilities. Plus, we have built up a pretty good reputation. It's worked out," Figueroa said.
The Hernandez family, all involved in the Port Arthur tortilla and food enterprise, said their experiences with the 28-year-old company have been enjoyable and profitable.
"It's still growing because we have put a lot of work into it and we want to produce ... the best products and provide the best service to our customers. And we do," said Elias Hernandez 74, Port Arthur resident and founder of the distributing company.
As for the existence of a racial "glass ceiling," most say that is hasn't been that much of a problem in the Beaumont and Port Arthur regions.
"I haven't had a bad reaction from other people. In fact, it's actually benefited us. Hispanic parents who come in here are very comfortable with us. But it's (the Latino business boom) proving close-minded people, who say negative things about Hispanics and their businesses, wrong," Garcia said.
Vrooman said the family's experience with other people also has been very positive.
"I don't think it has affected us at all. If it has, it has always been a positive thing," she said.
Fernando Ramirez, the 57-year-old co-owner with Eddie Cervantez of the two-year-old Otra Hispanic Media, a public relations and Hispanic news service based in Port Arthur, said he feels the local community still needs to be "introduced" to the Latino community.
"I think there is still a lot of racial tension here and everywhere," he said.
"A lot of times, people will be OK with Hispanic people having the typical Hispanic businesses, but they are not willing to have us compete in the American market," Ramirez said.
Still, it's not just the Latino food service industry that is raking in the revenue here. Hispanics are succeeding in other sectors as well.
Katy's Video, a Beaumont store at 2568 College St. that sells DVDs, cassettes, CDs and snacks "of all kinds," is owned by Benancia Ordaz, a San Luis, Potosi, Mexico, native
"It's different. We wanted to open something that everybody would like and be interested in. We have our regular customers and we make enough to do well. We are thinking about getting a bigger place, but that is in the future," the 45-year-old woman said.
Garcia's dance studio is another example of a mold-breaking business.
"I always wanted to open a dance studio since the time that I was really young, but I finally decided to open my business about 2 years ago. I had two twin boys and when they first started going to school, I realized that it was now or never to build the business," Garcia, 30, a Port Neches native said.
"I got tired of working really long hours and killing myself. Now, I own my own place and I keep track of everything," the 52-year-old said.
Ordaz, who had worked in a restaurant, said she and her husband took their chance about four years ago.
"It was the best decision we ever made; I don't have to tell anybody where I am going or why I need the day off or why I was late," she said with a smile.
In this area, demand for Hispanic oriented and owned businesses seems to be flourishing, thanks to the steady local economy and the growing Hispanic population.
"I am very proud to be a part of this. It's amazing. Just amazing," Garcia said.
The cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur welcome the change with open arms, said the presidents from both chambers of commerce.
Mulcahy echoed their sentiments.
"Hopefully, we will work more with these businesses in the future. Our economy will depend on them pretty soon," he said.
Source: Beaumont Enterprise