Should budding entrepreneurs strike out on their own? Or is it more effective to pool resources with like-minded business owners? That was the dilemma facing the “micro mercantes” tamale vendors, a group of low-income Latinas who participate in a microenterprise program sponsored by Hacienda Community Development Corporation.
By Linda Baker
Above: From left: Inocencia Ordunás, Hector Vargas and Jazmin Lopez are part of a group of “micro mercantes” who have launched their tamale business with the help of a new program. Below: Tamales made by the Hacienda entrepreneurs. // Photos by Teresa Meier
Should budding entrepreneurs strike out on their own? Or is it more effective to pool resources with like-minded business owners? That was the dilemma facing the “Micro Mercantes” tamale vendors, a group of low-income Latinas who participate in a microenterprise program sponsored by Hacienda Community Development Corporation.
When the program launched in 2005, “The idea was to provide each lady training tools to start their own business,” says program coordinator Jorge Alvarado. But this year, “the ladies realized they could make more money with less labor if they formed a co-op.”
So on a recent Friday morning, nine women — and one son-in-law — gathered in Hacienda’s community kitchen, assembling spinach and chicken tamales, to be sold at 10 area farmer’s markets for about $4. Each of the women sells at one market a week, with one vendor working an extra market on a weekly rotation.
Buying wholesale and working as a team are some of the benefits of the co-op, says member Jazmin Lopez. Each woman contributes about $150 a week for ingredients; the vendors also share vehicles, and occasionally husbands, to help transport groceries and finished tamales. Weekly revenues are about $5,000, and depending on the individual, the women earn 50% to 100% of their family’s income.
Luz Maria Gastilum is one of nine women who gather in Hacienda’s kitchen to make tamales for sale at farmer’s markets. // Photo by Teresa Meier
Despite the benefits, working co-operatively can be a challenge. “It’s all about trust,” says Alvarado. “Some women say: ‘I’m working more than she is.’” When the co-op launched, one woman donated napkins and plates she had purchased for her own tamale operation, then later decided she wanted to be paid for the donations. Biweekly meetings help resolve these and other problems.
Hacienda’s microenterprise program, which serves residents of the nonprofit’s affordable rental housing communities, has already seeded a green landscaping business. Although Hacienda currently pays for the tamale vendors’ farmer’s market licenses, the goal is for the co-op to become completely independent.
The co-op structure is a “big change” for the women, and Hacienda, says Alvarado. But as the tamale vendors segue from sole proprietors to group ownership, one benefit of the Micro Mercantes program has stayed the same. Says Lopez: “We show our families that we can bring money into the family and be examples for our daughters.”