By Kelley Atherton
Triplicate staff writer
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is breaking down boundaries and glass ceilings in Del Norte county.
The newly-formed Chamber offers a range of services for local Hispanic entrepreneurs. Founder Rene Quintana boasts that its Board of Directors is comprised of all Latinos and has elected a Hispanic woman, Lisa Serrano, as its president, a first for the area.
"I am proud to be the first Latina woman to be the president of any Chamber this side of the state," Serrano said. "I am looking forward to working with other cultures within and around this district."
Serrano was elected by the Board of Directors for her background in business, Quintana said. Her being the first Hispanic woman to do so was an added bonus.
"She was elected by the members,"Quintana said. "We've made history here.
Serrano moved to Crescent City from Los Angeles, where she studied business law and administration. She has been a bi-lingual educator and has collaborated with Rural Human Services, she said.
"A background in business is needed in this community," Serrano said. "(The Chamber) is a representation of businesses, to exchange information and ideas back and forth. This is something we can offer back to the community."
Quintana said that an organization specifically for Hispanic business people is necessary due to a significant communication gap between those who speak English and those who speak Spanish.
"There is a gap in services," Quintana explained, between the county Chamber of Commerce and Hispanics. "The whole idea is about communication between us and those otherwise ignored or not given the opportunities."
Serrano has been pushing Quintana to get the Chamber off the ground for years, she said laughing. Now that it's growing with 15 to 20 businesses in Del Norte, Curry and Humboldt county signed up, the group wants to work with the state and county Chamber of Commerce.
A growing need
A multitude of businesses are owned and run by Hispanics, Quintana emphasized, including service industries, accounting, ethnic food restaurants and other "big businesses."
"There's a large population of Hispanics (in this area), we're trying to fill the needs of those businesses," Serrano said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are an estimated 28,893 people in the county; 4,334or 15 percentof which are Hispanic.
A majority of Hispanics in the area do not speak fluent English and are unable to communicate effectively with bank clerks, insurance agents and other people with whom business owners need to speak on a regular basis, Quintana said.
"There is a language barrier and a lack of understanding," Quintana said.
Hispanic culture, he added, is also something that is greatly misunderstood.
"Hispanics have a self-reliant traditional means of credit and loans," Quintana said. "They'll have three to four jobs, save their money and then put it into their business. They don't know credit cards and loans exist. We have to show them it's a good thing and make them more aware."
In addition, Hispanics need to be aware of state and federal funding for business owners, he said.
"This is crucial information for the Hispanic community, which has never been presented before," Quintana said.
In order to be a member of the Chamber, business owners must go through an application process, have a business license and be active in the community, Quintana said.
One of the Chamber's recent achievements was hosting the Hispanic Heritage Day on Sept. 15, kicking off National Hispanic Heritage Month. The day is Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica's Independence Day. The day included booths with a variety of Mexican cuisine, artwork and other goods. Mariachi music filled the air at the Fairgrounds and local children led a procession holding Mexican flags.
Quintana hopes the organization will inspire more Hispanics to start their own businesses and become more acquainted with their community.
"Hispanics are not as migrant anymore, they're settling down," Quintana said.
Local Business Leaders
Las Tapatias Market at 721 Darby Street is owned by the De Leon family. The store offers everyday cooking items and Mexican specialities, such as El Mexicano products. Quintana pointed out that they support local artistry by selling handmade piatas. The store is located in the Bertsch Tract neighborhood outside Crescent City. Maria De Leon said that not only Hispanics shop at Las Tapatias.
"Everyone shops in here," De Leon said. "More and more white Americans come in."
Quintana believes another reason Hispanic businesspeople are inclined to join the Chamber is because of the strong feeling of support within the Hispanic community. They know they can lean on one another.
"The Hispanic community is very connected to each other, including their extensive families," Quintana said.
Chamber supporter, Carmen Nava is a bilingual marketing specialist and an agent at State Farm Insurance. She said her objective is to help local Hispanics understand how to better themselves.
"A lot of Hispanics don't know about life insurance, college funds, etc.," Nava said. "I'll call Rene for financial information and we send people back and forth for different services. I help people figure out where they're going (in life)."
"We have to exchange ideas, otherwise we'll be isolated," Quintana added.
Another supporter of the Chamber is Laura Flores-Chang, a real estate associate with Investment Realty. She hosted the first Chamber meeting in her office. Being fluent in Spanish, Flores-Chang, also serves the Hispanic community by helping them buy property or homes. They need the resources, she said, with good credit they can get better support for other loans.
"It's nice to see Hispanics buying property," Flores-Chang said. "When I first started I had one client and then they started spreading the word. I know Hispanics who were renting for many years. They don't realize they can buy homes, when financially, they can."
Quintana said the lack of resources for Hispanics doesn't stem from racism or prejudice in the predominately white area. He said he has never experienced that. Everything comes back to a language barrier that creates misunderstandings, which makes Hispanics feel isolated, but now they are becoming a substantial part of the community.
"I've always felt love and support," Quintana said. "Misunderstandings are always corrected. Once the people accept who you are, they always will. Not just the Hispanic community, but the community at large, support diversity."