Hispanic business owners on the rise

Margarita Grill owner Javier Jerez spoke about the trials and victories of being a Hispanic business owner. (Reporter photo / Jon Goering)

By CHRISTINE BOATWRIGHT / Staff Writer

Mariachi music rang throughout the restaurant as the owner took a short break to discuss his position as an entrepreneurial businessman in a country that struggles to accept his ethnicity.

Javier Jerez, owner of Margarita Grill, and his family moved to Miami, Fla. in 1982 in order to escape political unrest in Nicaragua. Beginning in 1986, he served his new homeland by joining the U.S. Air Force.

Jerez’s interest in the restaurant business began when he took a job working in a restaurant in Shreveport, La. after his stint in the Air Force. When the restaurant owner decided to relocate the restaurant to Alabama, Jerez followed, working with the staff until 2004. In 2006, he decided to take the next step.

“I opened my own place in 2006,” Jerez explained, speaking of Margarita Grill. “I think it has a lot to do with trying to move to the next level, a better financial situation.”

As with many Mexican restaurants, the majority of Jerez’s employees are Hispanic. While he said he doesn’t intentionally hire Hispanic employees, he has a reason behind his staffing choices.

“I guess it follows a certain ethnic trend. If I were Japanese, I would work at a Japanese place,” he explains. “I guess it’s more of knowing a friend of a friend who comes to work for us. It has more to do with availability. I’d like to see other people here working as well.

“There’s a lot of hard-working people here of different races. And that’s what makes it successful,” Jerez said.

The success of the Hispanic businessman goes beyond his wait staff, however. He believes in a personal responsibility that goes beyond the prejudice of other cultures.

“Like I tell my guys, I think the bias starts with yourself. If you think you’re going to be discriminated against, then you’re going to be discriminated against. So I think that people will treat you how you want to be treated. That’s how I look at it,” Jerez stated.
“People judge you by the way you dress and by the way you behave. The way you carry yourself says a lot about who you are – black or white – it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Although Jerez keeps a positive attitude when addressing questions of bias and prejudice, he’s not blind to the issues of his ethnicity in the U.S.

“I can understand how the Americans can feel like America is being taken away from them. From my personal experience, I’ve seen in Miami, where the kids no longer spoke Spanish. So I think that if people realize that this is the first wave, and the second generation is smoother than the first,” Jerez said.

“I think patience is called for. I can understand the other side,” he said. “Both sides should be open-minded. I like to joke with my guys, ‘It’s America, and we speak English. If you want to make it, take it to the next level. You can speak Spanish all your life, but you’ll stay on one level.'”

Instead of staying on one level in America, however, some Hispanics are moving back to their native countries in order to find new labor opportunities. The Hispanic community has seen its share of ups and downs due to the economy much like the rest of the nation has during the past few years, said Jesse Hernandez, a staffing agency director who helps find work for Hispanics in central Alabama.

Hernandez, president of the Hoover-based Hispanic Employment Labor Pool, has witnessed the affects of the recession within the Hispanic community.

“I know when the (economic) downturn hit, a lot of (Hispanic immigrants) went back home to Mexico because there was no work,” Hernandez said.

Isabel Rubio, executive director of The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), approaches a supposed exodus from another angle.

“People put down roots, and they have children in schools,” she said. “It’s harder to just get up and move, even with the tough economy.

“The economic downturn has definitely hit the low-income immigrant community, because those are often the first jobs to go when the economy struggles,” Rubio said. “More people are reaching out for food assistance. It’s dramatically increased over the past few years.”

Hernandez’s Labor Pool works to ensure all of his workers have proper documentation and to match Hispanics seeking employment to particular jobs based on their skill set and English-speaking ability.

“The fastest-growing percentage of new business owners are Hispanic,” Hernandez said. “It helps because they give employment to other Hispanics, especially in restaurant, construction and landscaping.”

Rubio said she has also seen a rise in Hispanic business owners over the past 8-10 years, and the number continues to rise. As more immigrants settle into their lives in America, they’re integrating into communities and using talents for new businesses.

Jerez, as a part of the growing percentage, realizes his success comes from more than hard work and self-motivation in America.

“I know that it’s a liability right now, being Hispanic in the U.S.,” he said. “The majority of Hispanics are very honest, like myself, and feel they’re fortunate to be in the U.S.

“The staff has been the reason for the success,” Jerez said. “I owe it all to the people of Shelby County, the people of Alabama.”

Sports Editor Wesley Hallman contributed to this report.