After missing out on its 2020 season due to COVID-19, Mercado on Fifth is gearing up to reopen in June with a renewed sense of its mission and a new leader at the helm.
Anamaria Rocha, who grew up in Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood, was hired in March as Mercado’s new director. She joins the nonprofit organization, led by co-founder and President Maria Ontiveros, as it prepares for what will be the fifth season of the popular Friday night outdoor markets on 5th Avenue in downtown Moline.
“We could not have found a better person for the Mercado at this stage,” Ontiveros said. “Not only does Anamaria bring the skills needed to grow the organization, but she is passionate about Mexican culture and well-connected in the Quad Cities Hispanic community.”
Rocha, whose work experience includes positions with the economic and community development departments in Moline and Rock Island, is the Mercado’s second director.
“In a lot of my positions, there was a component of helping the Hispanic community like there is with this job,” said Rocha, 36.
While at the City of Moline, she created an online business resource guide aimed to help aspiring Hispanic business owners that is still in use. “I’m very passionate about helping Hispanics start their own businesses, and Mercado is a resource for that,” she said.
Since the Mercado was launched in 2016 by Ontiveros and her grandfather, Bob Ontiveros, founder of Group O, the organization has served as a platform for more than 100 small businesses and nonprofits. Working with its community partners, including Black Hawk College and the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Western Illinois University-Quad Cities, Mercado has assisted over 25 new minority-owned startup businesses.
Though Rocha’s new job duties still are being defined, she said her goals include growing the number of vendors and visitors as well as forging more partnerships with community organizations. She is also eager to put her event planning skills to work to expand and promote the market’s activities and entertainment offerings.
“We’re not straying away from what the Mercado has been, but we’re looking for ways for it to grow and attract more vendors and people,” said Rocha, whose own family has frequently attended Mercado events.
“I like that it is a family-friendly space,” she added. “The Quad Cities has never had something like this before. There are other ones in larger cities, and it was exciting to get one here.”
Rocha said the Mercado finally offers the region’s large Hispanic population “a place that is dedicated to them and their culture.”
It is a culture she knows well having grown up with her parents and six siblings in the Floreciente neighborhood – first in a house on Railroad Avenue and later across from St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
In fact, at about age 9, she was one of the neighborhood’s youngest entrepreneurs when she and her brother sold vegetables grown in their father’s garden to St. Mary’s parishioners leaving Mass. “My dad pitched the idea to me to earn money as a child. It worked. I sold a lot of tomatoes.”
Her summer-long business continued with her nieces and nephews. “We’ve all taken a turn with our own small ‘shop’ in my mom’s yard.”
Rocha is a graduate of Moline High School and the former Kaplan University in Davenport. She also studied international business at the University of Arkansas. Married to Marco Rocha, the couple lives in the Quad Cities with their three children: daughter Exayra, 12; and sons Messi, 10, and 2-year-old Jaxán.
In addition to city government, she worked six years as a paralegal for several Quad Cities law firms. She was with Califf & Harper in Moline when the firm began an immigration law practice. She also previously was a court translator in Rock Island and Scott counties and a translator for UnityPoint Health –Trinity.
Working for Rock Island’s community development staff, she was tasked with helping attract more Hispanic residents to the city and served as the city’s housing and loan program officer. After COVID-19 hit in 2020, she left her city job and sidelined plans to return to college to help her children with their remote learning.
The pandemic also changed course for the Mercado, which was unable to hold its traditional outdoor markets last year. Tentative plans are for the market to return June 4.
Meanwhile, work is moving forward with renovating an existing building adjacent to the Mercado to be an indoor, year-round market, Ontiveros said.
“We recently received our first check from the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity after being awarded a Minority Business Incubator grant in March 2020,” she said, adding that the next phase of construction begins this week. She hopes the building will be completed by the end of 2021.
“We will be using funds from the Moline Foundation to add heated concrete flooring and a grant from the Scott County Regional Authority to help cover the cost of extensive carpentry work,” Ontiveros said.
Both Ontiveros and Rocha are confident that the State’s eased crowd restrictions will allow the market to open as planned. Visitors will be required to wear masks and hand sanitizer stations will be provided.
Rocha admits the ongoing pandemic may create anxiety for some potential visitors. “The one thing we do know is people are ready to get out and we’re hoping they come back to the Mercado.”
Anyone interested in becoming a vendor at the downtown Moline market should contact Rocha at 305.934.5297 or [email protected].