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Neighborhoodsby Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez9:26 amMar 29, 20210

Baltimore’s Latino businesses, pummeled by the pandemic, are bouncing back

After taking second jobs, helping parents through Covid and finding grants and loans, small retailers and restaurateurs see better days coming

Above: Edith Esquivel at her Highlandtown event planning store, La Nueva Esperanza. (Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez)

Edith Esquivel remembers driving home and trying to stay hopeful on the day she closed La Nueva Esperanza last year – the same day Governor Hogan announced the first stay-at-home order.

Surely the shutdown was temporary, she thought. Soon the event-planning business she had operated for six years in Highlandtown, serving primarily Latino families, would reopen.

But it would be months before she could restart the business – and even then, she took a huge hit in the absence of large-scale events and celebrations. Her family’s life changed drastically in what felt like the blink of an eye.

One day Esquivel was curating quinceañeras, birthday parties and baptisms with up to 300 people, and the next day her customers were canceling all the events they had planned for months in advance.

She and her husband had to find a second job 40 minutes away from their home. Since then, working all day has been especially difficult for Edith, who now leaves at four in the morning and comes back at the end of the day “just to sleep.”

Two jobs help pay the bills, but have taken away quality time with her three children.

“I would take my daughters to the school, have lunch with them, but now I barely see them,” says Esquivel as her voice breaks in emotion.

When the pandemic struck, no one was buying Edith Esquivel's quinceanera dresses or other supplies for special events. (Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez)

When the pandemic hit, no one was buying Edith Esquivel’s quinceanera dresses or other supplies for special events. (Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez)

Grants and GoFundMe

A year after Covid-19 struck, small Latino businesses like La Nueva Esperanza continue to survive by adapting to the “new normal.”

After receiving a $5,000 grant from the city, Esquivel managed to pay rent and is gradually recovering. She is optimistic that once the city fully reopens, her business will have the chance to bounce back. But it was touch and go early on.

“I was desperate and had even thought about closing my business,” she recalls. “It was because of the grant that I got to keep operating.”

“It was because of the grant that I got to keep operating”  – Edith Esquivel.

That kind of emergency assistance also provided an economic lifeline for Rosalyn Vera, owner of Cocina Luchadoras, a traditional Oaxacan-Mexican restaurant located in Upper Fells Point.

With restaurants closed and then opened for limited take-out service, she was struggling. Vera took out a loan, applied for grants and started a gofundme.

The money helped her pay rent on time and kept her employees on the payroll, but while all of this was happening, her mother and stepfather contracted Covid.

At one point, her stepfather needed to go into intensive care. Vera stayed by their side, taking care of them until they were both healthy again.

Roslyn Vera outside her Oaxacan-Mexican restaurant, Cocina Luchadoras, on Broadway. (Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez)

Rosalyn Vera outside her Oaxacan-Mexican restaurant, Cocina Luchadoras, on Broadway in Fells Point. (Vanessa Gabriela Sanchez)

Sleepless Nights

Vera has managed to recover from the slump in business, but has had to readjust her restaurant many times to be able to safely serve her customers.

“We went through many sleepless nights trying to know what was right and what was wrong,” she remembers.

“There were days that we opened the windows, adjusted here and there,” she continued, recalling the many rule changes announced by city and state officials. “We just got really exhausted mentally and physically.

“We just got really exhausted mentally and physically”  – Rosalyn Vera.

No restaurant succeeds without tasty food and great customer service. In a pre-pandemic world, Vera’s clients would come to the restaurant and she would chat with them, even at times exchanging hugs.

“We will serve them and say, ‘Let me tell you all about making a tortilla!’ It was so different,” she recalls.

Now, human interaction has been constrained by face masks and social distancing.

“I can’t see their smiling faces. It has been very rough for me because I am a people person and very much want to get to know you,” said Vera.

Edith Olguin is one of the cooks behind Concina Luchadora's famous plates. (Concina Luchadora Instagram)

Edith Olguin is one of the cooks behind Cocina Luchadoras’ tasty plates. (Cocina Luchadoras Instagram)

Vera is not able to promote the aroma of handmade tortillas or a cochinita pibil – marinated pork, with achiote and oranges – anymore, but she has adapted through other means to showcase her menu and keep customers loyal to her business.

Social media and a webpage, where customers can order online, are keeping Cocina Luchadoras busy. Loyal customers have been vital to keeping the business afloat.

Looking Ahead

One year into the pandemic, Vera tries to think of all the disruption and pain as a bad dream she is finally waking up from.

She is in the process of opening Corazón Helado, or Cold Heart – a corner shop in Highlandtown that will offer paletas and other  traditional frozen treats from Mexico.

La Nueva Esperanza is also slowly coming back to life.

Edith Esquivel has rehired her former employee and recently had two events with reduced capacity.

Even so, she plans to keep her second job and to be prepared in case of another spike in Covid cases.

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