By RIGOBERTO HERNANDEZ
For immigrant street vendors in the Mission District selling jewelry, clothing and crafts, their dream is to someday open a storefront, safe from thieves, inquiring police and nettlesome rain, wind, and sun.
A number of vendors have realized this dream but now fear that the recession has so hurt sales they may have to return to selling on the streets.
Juanita Laurel, 50, originally from Cusco, Peru, opened her storefront, Qosqo Maky, which means “from the hands of Cusco” in Quechua, in April and she is still optimistic.
The 400 square feet at 3182 21 St. is about the size of a Muni bus and costs about $1,500 a month to rent.
Gone are the days when she walked for an hour from her then home in Livermore alone at 5:30 a.m. to BART to ride another hour before arriving in the Mission District and setting up her table on 22nd and Mission streets. She sold scores of handmade crafts that included earrings and necklaces, and alpaca-wool scarfs, but she barely broke even.
She had, however, a tidy savings from the 25 years she sold fruit, vegetables, soft drinks and cigarettes on the streets in Peru. “It was very difficult, we worked 14 hours a day, six days a week,” Laurel, now a Mission resident, said.
The last 15 years of those years were in Cusco where she learned how to make jewelry and ceramics from other merchants. She eventually switched to selling artisan objects and liked it because it was “clean,” and not too physically demanding.
Once she moved to the United States in 2000, she began selling her wares to craft stores like Tarasco on Pier 39 and to other street vendors on 24th Street, like Mixcoatl.
Thanks to her savings from those years, she was able to open Qosqo Maky. Laurel, who is married and the mother of two children, said, of her years in Peru, “To survive, that was our incentive.”
Another entrepreneur, who went from being an outdoor vendor, is Connie Rivera who in 2004 opened Mixcoatl, one of the stores that bought merchandise from Laurel.
Rivera used to sell indigenous jewelry and figurines at flea markets and county fairs throughout the Bay Area. A business course called Alas, which means wings in Spanish, offered by the Women’s Initiative, coached Rivera on how to open and run a business. The initiative is an organization that helps low-income women.
But the recession has hurt Rivera’s sales, “Right now it’s not going well,” Rivera said. Even though she doesn’t want to do it, she might have to again go on the
road and sell at at outdoor markets.
Cesar Oyagata, another former street vendor, opened his clothing store G.G. Tukuy on 24th street in 2004. He sells custom made t-shirts. For six years before he moved indoors, Oyagata sold t-shirts on the streets of the Mission District.
Since his sales have dropped at least 50 percent in the last two years, Oyagata said he is also considering going back to the streets, though he doesn’t want to.
“One has pride,” said the 30-something Ecuadorian who preferred not to share his exact age.
Oyagata said that while business is bad, “ambulantes,” or cart vendors, “have a better chance because they know how difficult their beginnings are– they had the streets as schools.”
Like Rivera, Diana Medina also took the Alas course from the Women’s Initiative. She opened Diju Jewelry, at 3406 26th street, in May of 2008.
It is important to have a fixed address, said Medina, originally from Mexico City. “People don’t trust if you are on the street,” she said. “You can’t fix people’s things because they don’t just hand you their gold or jewelry.”
But times are tough. Other street vendors turned storeowners have already failed. Maria Huertas, who used to sell tamales, opened her storefront on 24th street a year ago. Less than six months later, she was back on the streets, unable to keep up with the $6,000 monthly rent.
Jaime Trejo, an analyst who studies such trends for the Mission Economic Development Agency, said one advantage the former street vendors have is their experience with difficult business climates.
“They are very experienced merchants,” he said. “They know what to do when things are tough.”
Medina at Diju is a case in point. Her sales have fallen as much as 80 percent, she said, but she is now surviving by repairing jewelry that her customers already own. They too are struggling and some of them say they are getting their jewelry in shape—to sell.