COVID-19 pandemic pushes out Latino-owned businesses in San Francisco's Mission District: 'We have to say goodbye to this beautiful place'

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The COVID-19 pandemic may do what gentrification tried to do, and push out Latino-owned businesses in San Francisco's Mission District.

Thursday was moving day for Connie Rivera, but it was not a joyful moment.

"We have to say goodbye to this beautiful place. We have to close Colibrí with all the pain from my heart," said Rivera, the co-owner of Colibrí, a Mexican folk art store in San Francisco's Mission District.

Rivera and her husband Ricardo Peña opened Colibrí three years ago.

"We were so excited. We put a lot of effort, a lot of sacrifice, and we invested a lot of money to open this, but now we feel very sad, very devastated," she said as family members helped her put merchandise in boxes to prepare them for storage.

Rivera owns another business along 24th Street. She opened Mixcoatl 16 years ago on the corner of South Van Ness Avenue. The colorful display of Mexican wrestler masks outside her door has become an Instagram favorite and a symbol of the area's Hispanic heritage.

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But the city order to close non-essential businesses has proven to be too much for Rivera. With no income for several months, unpaid rent and bills began pilling up. She had to close Colibrí and is now trying to save the smaller Mixcoatl store.

Business owners like Rivera have long fought gentrification in their neighborhood. Rising rents driving my an increased demand from tech workers drove many other Latino businesses out.



But six years ago, San Francisco supervisors established the 24th Street Latino Cultural District to protect Latino-owned businesses and residents. However, the pandemic is threatening to drive more businesses out.

Cesar Oyagata has already closed the Native Forever store he owned for 17 years next to St. Peter's Parish.

"They gave me three days to leave," said Ogayata in Spanish. "I am trying to recover, but it is hard."

He left behind his shirt printing equipment as payment for unpaid rent.

Oyagata now sells masks, wallets and other merchandise from a small table on the corner of Mission and 23rd Street.

"The current state is panic, sadness," said Gabriella Lozano, the business liaison for the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, a non-profit organization that was set up to preserve Latino culture in the area.

Besides providing support for businesses, it also organizes Carnaval and the Day of the Dead festival. But with those events cancelled this year, Lozano worked with the city to repurpose the funds so they can be handed out as grants to struggling businesses.



So far, it has given out $2,000 grants to 26 businesses

"We handed it over as unrestricted funds so that they can pay their own rent, bills, their employees. Whatever they need. It will help them for a few weeks or a month," said Lozano, then she added with a somber tone, "Then what are they going to do after that."

La Palma Mexicatessen has managed to survive. It has been in business since 1953 selling Mexican food and producing tortillas and corn dough, or masa, for local restaurants. With many restaurants only doing take-out, La Palma's wholesale business suffered.

"With the Chase Center opening, we were expecting to do a lot of business and then the rug got pulled out from under us," said general manager Theresa Pasion.

La Palma had to lay off some wholesale staff. It has adjusted the schedules of its 35 employees to give everyone work, that includes the women who make the hand-made tortillas, gorditas and sopes sold at the store.

A few blocks away is St. Francis Fountain. The restaurant was established in 1918 during the last pandemic. Legend has it that a group of investors sketched out the San Francisco 49ers franchise at one of the booths. The restaurant has yet to reopen.

Owner Peter Hood said his old-time fountain restaurant is not suited for takeout food.

"We offer a dine in experience in an awesome historic environment. Diners, your traditional soda fountains, mom and pops, are not and have never been suited for take out," he said.

He said the restaurant will have to change its business model to reopen.

"We will reopen in about two weeks. There is no promise for sticking around, but we have a window of opportunity to get our employees some work and money, at least for a while," said Hood, who blames city regulations for creating what he says is a harsh environment for small businesses. It is a sentiment shared by other shops in the area.

"Before this, a lot of businesses were leaving because of high rents and city regulations. When COVID came, it is a double whammy. They gave up," said Pasion.

For her part, Rivera is not giving up. Even though she's closing Colibrí, she's trying to save her original store.

"I can't even imagine if I have to close Mixcoatl," said Rivera. "It would be devastating."

Rivera said she does not like handouts, but she reluctantly agreed to ask for $20,000 in donations on GoFundMe to pay her rent and loans she took out to buy merchandise.

More than 400 people have contributed so far, many with small donations of five to ten dollars. Rivera said she needs closer to $50,000 to get out of debt, but she said $20,000 will help her stay afloat.

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