By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio
Brenda Rodriguez came in on her day off to check in on her restaurant in Des Moines. It’s called Señor Tequila—or as she more informally calls it: her baby. She and her business partner opened the restaurant at the peak of the pandemic in November 2021. It took her a year to open it what with training all of the cooks and choosing everything in construction.
“It has always been my dream,” she said. “I opened one a long time ago in 2008. But I was with my partner at that time, and we got divorced and we closed the restaurant.”
Before Señor Tequila, Rodriguez had been working in the catering business. But when COVID-19 caused shutdowns throughout the industry, she lost her income. As a single mother of three, Rodriguez wasn’t used to not working. She started at the age of 12 as a kitchen helper in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico.
Out of work, Rodriguez found herself sitting at home. Again, something neither she nor her family was comfortable with.
Her story sounds familiar to other Latina workers in the state. Latina workers lost their sources of income more so than their white counterparts during the pandemic.
Latinas in Iowa were following a national trend. According to a study from the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California Los Angeles, Latinas exited the workforce at a disproportionate rate compared to other groups.
This was mainly due to the kinds of industries Latinas tend to work in—like food service and cleaning businesses. In a span of one year, Latinas in the workforce dropped by nearly 3 percent, which is the biggest drop in any demographic group.
But as pandemic restrictions began to loosen, Latinas in Iowa began to separate themselves from that study. That’s according to Himar Hernandez.
“It really caught me by surprise, the surge after, or even during the pandemic, especially maybe after the first eight or so months. It was just a, like an explosion,” he said.
Hernandez is with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. He works with immigrants who are opening their own businesses. He said more than half of the people he has worked with in the past few months have been women.
“They were really looking at an opportunity and saw the opportunity, during the pandemic, to do exactly that, maybe something that they wouldn’t have done before,” he said.
That’s what small business owner Heidy Estrella thought. The pandemic forced her indoors and without a job, so she had plenty of time to think.
“To be day to day working for the dream of another. Well, like why? I mean, why not work for my dream?” she asked herself in Spanish.
After working in the restaurant business in Puerto Rico, Estrella focused her sights on something completely different. She opened Blessings Factory with her sister. It’s a small store for personalized accessories, home goods and decorations. It opened in the fall of 2020, and now they have more than 100 clients.
Estrella said the pandemic was hard, but it pushed her to be creative to earn an income. She said Latinas are like octopuses, juggling the responsibility of raising and caring for their families with their own goals.
“We always say: Behind every strong circumstance that pulls your life, behind every blow, there are new ideas that arise. Behind every need, that’s when there are the best opportunities,” she said in Spanish. “That’s the essence of us as women. We don’t give up, we don’t stand down. If life gives us lemons, we’re going to make lemonade.”
Rodriguez, owner of Señor Tequila, while sitting at home during pandemic restrictions with one of her daughters, also realized she couldn’t let her dream go.
“I’m like, I can do this again. You know, I can. I’m old but I still can. And I just started like, you know, putting the pieces together,” she said.
But even now that pandemic restrictions are mostly gone, Latina entrepreneurs said they still have to overcome plenty of non-COVID barriers to opening successful businesses.
Berenice Valderrabano and her sister Daisy have two businesses based in Ames: restaurant Mister Burrito and cleaning company Family Cleaning. They are from Mexico and both speak Spanish. They said one of their largest challenges in navigating the world of Iowa business is the language barrier.
The cleaning company opened in January of 2020, right before the pandemic hit Iowa hard. Luckily they were able to devote their attention to the family restaurant while Family Cleaning was on a sort of uncertain hiatus. Daisy primarily runs the cleaning company, so she was able to support her sister in the restaurant during the midst of the pandemic.
“We stood, we stayed together and thinking that anything that came, well, it was going to be a fresh start,” Berenice said in Spanish. “I always tell everyone that this is the country of opportunity. I think that just wanting to be good is enough to be good, because where we come from, only desires are not enough, nor is the hard work enough. Here, yes, here it’s enough to want.”
Eventually, the sisters want to go into real estate.
Language is one barrier, but others say there are also educational and cultural differences to consider.
Rodriguez said her parents told her that her biggest goal should be to find a good husband and raise her children. But Rodriguez said daughters should be raised differently than that.
“Make them believe that we are equal. And we can do things. We only need to want to do it. And to never give up,” she said.
Rodriguez said her opening day for the restaurant was a major success, with people lining up at the door. She even had to leave at one point to get more food. Since then, business has been steady.
Before the pandemic, Latinas in the workforce were expected to grow in number by more than 25 percent. That is close to nine times the projected growth of white women.
It’s unclear at this point how that growth will be affected. But many Latina entrepreneurs in Iowa don’t have plans to stop any time soon.