Philadelphia’s dynamic food scene wouldn’t be what it is without its immigrant restaurateurs.
The city owes its popular dishes to people from around the world who chose Philly as their home. When it comes to your favorite taco, you can thank the community of Mexican immigrants who have made South Philly the go-to spot for some of the best Mexican food in the country.
But serving delicious cuisine isn’t enough to sustain any restaurant during the pandemic – and that’s where a new GoFundMe relief fund comes in. Like many other business owners before them, a dozen Mexican merchants have turned to the platform for financial support in the absence of enough government support. The COVID-19 Relief Fund for South Philly Mexican Businesses campaign on GoFundMe launched two weeks ago and has raised a little over $24,000 from 200 individual donors, almost half of its $50,000 goal.
“The time is now for us as merchants to take advantage of this help,” said Karina Sánchez Arellano, who owns and runs Los Cuatro Soles on the corner of Chadwick and Moore with her husband Angel. “We must support each other. In fact, we are only going to get through this by supporting each other — as Mexicans more than anything.”
The launch of the campaign — and the formation of the Association of Mexican Business Owners of Philadelphia — is a culmination of a yearlong struggle to survive the pandemic, growing out of efforts of the Mexican community to come together to help one another during a time when they felt locked out of many support systems.
Every business has faced its own unique challenges during the past year, but in many ways, immigrant-owned restaurants and businesses have had to bear a different burden.
“Many businesses are in the same situation,” said Héctor Herrada, a radio host on Philalatinos Radio, who helped with the crowdfunding campaign. “But the difficulty for this population and this group, particularly, is that the owners have not been able to apply to many different reliefs.”
In addition to the everyday struggle to keep operations afloat, immigrant business owners can encounter language barriers, lack access to local and federal relief and for Latinos in particular, a higher risk of contracting the virus.
Jill Fink, the executive director at the Merchant Fund, the nonprofit receiving the campaign funds, said a lot of the barriers — like not having information available in languages other than English or even requiring social security numbers — are indicators of systemic racism.
“What we’re seeing these Mexican business owners do right now is in the same spirit that existed 160-plus years ago among business owners who had no larger government establishment that was supporting them, so they came together to figure out how to support each other,” she said.
Karina and Angel of Los Cuatro Soles learned about local COVID-relief opportunities through the news and social media. Despite navigating the application on their own and applying, they didn’t receive any financial assistance.
“It made things very difficult, but we kept going,” said Angel. The restaurant has adapted to every new restriction and continues to operate with the couple in charge, working with two other family members.
The couple, who came to Philadelphia together from Mexico and have been married for over a decade also welcomed a new baby during the pandemic, Itzae, in September. Out of necessity, Karina worked through the majority of her pregnancy.
“There was no other way,” she said. A few days after giving birth, she contracted COVID. She says the symptoms were minimal, but she quarantined with her daughter upstairs in their home, while her husband and their three sons lived downstairs separately.
“Unfortunately, many have died from it. When we contracted it, we thankfully only had mild symptoms. We managed to get through it,” she said.
Supporting businesses to ‘weather the storm’
Almost one year before the association officially formed and launched their GoFundMe campaign, the businesses, mostly restaurants, were at a standstill.
As the pandemic was picking up speed and shops were mandated to close, staff at the nonprofit Puentes de Salud noticed that many immigrant-owned restaurants were being left behind.
“A lot of the kind of grassroots efforts to provide contracts to restaurants to do things like serve food to hospitals or to serve food to the public, were missing immigrant business owners,” said Leah Reisman, health and wellness associate director at Puentes de Salud. “They weren’t included.”
Reisman and the team at Puentes began to address that gap by connecting the organizers with the businesses so that they could be included in those opportunities — that was just the beginning of the support they would offer over the course of the following year.
Meanwhile, the Welcoming Center, which has helped immigrant and refugee communities open businesses since 2003, pivoted to respond to the unfolding crisis.
“We decided perhaps training classes are not the best tool out there right now,” said Nicole Marcote, a program manager at the center. “What if we were to support existing immigrant-owned individual businesses to weather the storm?”
Marcote and her team did just that. “We started by walking up to businesses and saying, ‘Would you be interested in applying for an outdoor seating permit?’ and then facilitating that process again.”
As time passed and businesses began to connect through their common pandemic concerns and action to address those needs, they grew stronger in numbers and ideas began to form: an association, a GoFundMe campaign, a video to help with fundraising.
When the idea of an association came up, both Karina and Angel were on board, hoping that this could not only help them, but their community as well.
“The merchants all have regular meetings and there’s so many projects and so much work to be done,” said Karina.
Business at Los Cuatro Soles feels pretty normal nowadays to Angel, though the future is uncertain.
“I’ve worked in the industry for a long time. There are busy days, there are slower days. While the weather, like snow, can definitely affect business, I have no complaints at this time,” he said. “I think that this will come to an end, and even if things don’t go back to the way they were, I have a lot of hope.”
‘Put your money where your mouth is’
The fundraiser is about more than just money — it’s about acknowledging the contributions of an entire community to the city of Philadelphia and ensuring that they continue to shape it.
“These businesses have done [a lot] for this city,” said Marcote of the Welcoming Center. “Not only culturally or culinary, but also through economic impact.”
Fink from the Merchant Fund said the motivation to donate is clear: “A Philadelphia without these types of businesses is not Philadelphia that I really want to live in,” she said. “Don’t tell me that you love that Philly is a food destination, and that you’re a foodie, and you love all this stuff, and then not put your money where your mouth is.”
Alternatively, you can follow Herrada’s lead and “get your tacos from any of the restaurants. It will mean that they can do business and it would be as meaningful as donating.”
The final amount raised through the campaign will be equally distributed among the 12 businesses.
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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