Neil Pacheco smiled as he unrolled the banana leaf on one of the specialty tamales he sells at his Autenticos Tamales Oaxagueños stand in front of the Mitote Food Park on Sebastopol Road in Roseland.
Pacheco, a second-generation Latino entrepreneur, and a business partner have a kitchen where a five-person crew makes fresh tamales around the clock, about 2,500 a day. Area farmers and construction workers stop by his stand from 5 a.m. to noon for a tamale, usually for breakfast.
His tamales are what you’d find in southern Mexico, in the Oaxaca region, where he grew up after his birth near San Antonio, Texas. What makes them special and different from most others sold in the county, Pacheco said, are the variety of red, green and dark moles, the mixture of sauces and meats inside the tamales — and the presentation.
He tops them off with a dash of herb, grated cheese, edible flowers, pumpkin seeds and extra virgin olive oil.
Across the parking lot, right inside the front door of the Mercadito Roseland Market, Janet Sanchez runs Sanchez Artesanias, a small variety shop. The mother of five children started a year ago, by selling aprons and masks handmade in Mexico.
The two members of the burgeoning local Latino community represent the strong entrepreneurial bent of their Latin American heritage.
They are among 6,760 Latino-owned businesses in Sonoma County, representing 13% of total companies, with large numbers in food, landscaping and construction and an expanding group providing a variety of personal and professional services like car washing and real estate.
In the Mercadito, Sanchez is one of nearly 20 micro-retailers operating from the mini-market that serves as an incubator for startup shops offering an array of children’s and adult apparel, sneakers, jewelry, toys, handbags, kitchenware and artwork, among other goods.
Her shop carries items made by family artisans representing 18 of the 31 Mexican states plus the nation’s capital, Mexico City. Sanchez launched the enterprise after she had an accident while pregnant with her youngest and could no longer work as an adult caregiver.
Like Pacheco, Sanchez told me she’s driven to bring to the area “a little bit from Mexico, things that we don’t see every day.”
Marlene Orozco, lead research analyst with the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, said Latinos are twice as likely as other ethnic groups to become business owners, no matter if their families had operated businesses or not.
An economic sociologist contracted to work on entrepreneurship research for local Latino leadership group Los Cien, Orozco said the U.S. growth of Latino-owned companies is a two-decade trend that coincides with population increases. Indeed, the county’s Latino population grew 17.4%, from 120,430 residents in 2010, to 141,438 in 2020, according to new U.S. census data released in August.
Latinos now make up nearly 29% of Sonoma County residents, up from a decade ago when their share was just under 25%. White residents comprise slightly less than 59% of the total local population of 488,863 people. That’s a sharp decline from 66% 10 years ago.
Although the county’s population growth slowed considerably to a scant 1% in the past decade, clearly Latinos continue to relocate here.
As a result, Latinos’ latest estimated local aggregate annual household income was $2.3 billion in 2019, representing strong consumer buying power that’s growing, according to Orozco’s research.
Despite the economic and health challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, which dealt a well-documented disproportionate blow to Latino people, they stayed resilient rather than giving up, and more of them still managed to start their own ventures.
“They have gone through many challenges just to come to this country, pretty much coming from nothing,” Marcos Suarez, business diversity program manager at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, told me. “After that, you know how to persevere and push forward.”
In fact, the business startup trend among Latinos has accelerated during the pandemic, Suarez said, noting that after job losses many opted to take the entrepreneurial leap, rather than taking the risk of going back to work for somebody else.
Roseland’s Mercadito and the Mitote Food Park outside, complete with picnic tables for patrons to dine under a canopy while listening to Spanish music, are prime examples of giving budding Latino entrepreneurs and food truck purveyors the chance to strike out on their own in the pandemic and celebrate their culture — and food is a big part of that. Both opened a few months after the pandemic had begun in March 2020.