By: Carolina Hidalgo
August 7, 2010
Beneath a small farmers market canopy, Teresa Lopez peeks into steamy metal pots and counts her vegetable, chicken and cheese tamales. Two grandchildren dole out fresh fruit juice while her daughter, Rosa Govea, plucks out tamales, douses them with salsa and exchanges them for a few dollars.
It's a sunny morning at Oregon Health & Science University's Tuesday market, and a seemingly endless line of hungry customers stretches from the women's tamale booth.
But the mother and daughter are doing more than just supplementing their income --they're developing business skills through Micro Mercantes, an entrepreneurial development program that pairs low-income women with local farmers market booths. Twenty women, usually in mother-daughter teams, rotate through 11 markets each week, selling the traditional Latin American dish.
The program, developed by Portland nonprofit Hacienda Community Development Corp., has more than doubled the number of participants and booths since it started five years ago with six Latino immigrants. Now there are plans to transform Micro Mercantes into an independent cooperative, free of help from Hacienda.
"It has become the poster child of Hacienda," said Jorge Alvarado, who manages the program. "They learn what it takes to run their own business and that there are costs and risks."
Last year, tamale sales earned each team an average of $15,000 --enough to make a big difference for their families, Alvarado said. And at the request of loyal customers, the group --affectionately called "las senoras" --started to offer catering services last summer.
Before participants start selling, Hacienda gives them a seven-week business class to help them manage their earnings and set a foundation to one day become business owners.
The recession made entrepreneurship more attractive, even as it made getting off the ground more difficult. "Right now we're seeing really high numbers of folks moving into self-employment," said Valerie Plummer, executive director of the Oregon Microenterprise Network. Overall, about 94 percent of Multnomah County businesses have fewer than 50 employees, according to 2009 data.
Govea is among Micro Mercantes participants who hopes to start a business someday. She said she's confident the program is preparing her for the hard work and ups and downs.
Each week, she spends hours at a commercial kitchen in one of Hacienda's Northeast Portland community centers, working side by side with other participants. They cook chicken, knead tortilla dough and wrap tamales in corn husks to get them ready for their assigned farmers markets.
Some days, Govea sells only a few dozen tamales. Other days, such as last week's OHSU market, she and her family keep busy. Last week, they sold their 350 tamales in three hours.
On a really good day, Govea said, she brings in more at one market than she makes in a week at her Safeway job.
"But running a business is not easy," she said, wiping down a table. "It takes a lot of time and money."
Her mother, taking a break in a nearby camping chair, nodded. "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose."