Hispanic businesses hit hard • Owners say economy, laws force some immigrants to leave

By Pablo Ros

Many businesses have been hit hard by the economic recession. But have those with a primarily Hispanic customer base seen worse times?

Eduardo Rosales, owner of Rosales Super Market on Western Avenue in South Bend, says that for every $1,000 he made two years ago, he now makes $600. Gone are the days when he had 10 employees — now he has only six. In March, he closed down another, smaller grocery store he owned in South Bend.

“This past year was the worst for sales,” he says.

Rosales Super Market is a grocery store and restaurant with a clientele that is approximately 70 percent Hispanic, Rosales says. And while the sad state of the economy is clearly the primary factor keeping customers at bay, Rosales says many Latino immigrants have told him they were leaving the country or were planning to.

“Every day, people are leaving,” Rosales claims.

Rosales says he has sold more bus tickets for people traveling south of the border. He believes undocumented immigrants are leaving because they have lost their jobs here and hope of ever regaining employment.

“If people had documents, they would stay,” he believes.

Manuel Villegas, owner of Taste of Mexico, a Mexican restaurant on Western Avenue, says his restaurant is making 30 percent less money than a year ago, and the bar about 10 percent less. He says he has had to lay off two of his employees and is now working 80-hour weeks, including weekends.

Villegas says he was employed in the construction industry before he opened Taste of Mexico three years ago.

“If business had been like this in the beginning, I would not have stayed open,” he admits.

Like Rosales, Villegas blames the economy but also the fact that anti-immigrant measures of the last few years have not been countered with a positive, legalization program.

“People can’t drive around anymore,” he says, referring to state laws that keep undocumented immigrants from driving cars. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to work.”

Villegas, whose clientele is 70 percent Hispanic, also says some of his former customers have left Indiana for other, more immigrant-friendly states or have left the country altogether.

But Rafael Martinez, owner of El Paraiso, a grocery store and Mexican restaurant on Main Street in South Bend, says that while sales could be better, neither the state of the economy nor the immigration problem seem to have had much of an impact on his business.

He says sales were the same for December 2008 as they were for December 2007.

“If you keep a good relationship with your clients, your clients will never leave you,” he claims.

Martinez also has shopped elsewhere to save money.

“As Americans like to say, you need to shop around,” he says with a laugh.

While Martinez has made some adjustments to his employees’ work schedules and has cut back on their working hours, he says he has not been forced to lay off anybody.