Ilove Peoria. While not ignoring current issues that are being worked on, I would like to share my journey—and why this area is a great place to live.
I am an immigrant from Mexico City, and my family moved to Chicago at age three. When my mother-in-law passed away, she left a letter with her dying wish for my husband and I to open a business, which we did: Morse Gyros, a small fast food joint on Chicago’s north side. But we hit a wall in Chicago, so we moved to Peoria a few years ago—it was simply more affordable. I kicked and screamed in the face of leaving my friends and family; I would run back to Chicago on the weekends. That soon faded, however, and I began to fall deeply in love with Peoria.
My husband and uncle manage our gas station on Prospect Road, and I eventually left my job at Verizon to take over a Farmers Insurance agency. I had been interested in financial planning since the age of 19, and because I am bilingual, I can help educate on that topic. But I was nervous to leave the benefits of the corporate world behind. What if we both failed? This was a real concern. We started fixing up abandoned homes and making them affordable to rent, in part to replace my previous income. Still nervous and uncertain, I was looking for a business support system. I have always had mentors in my life, and I knew I had to network to find that support. And then a series of fortunate events happened.
One day I got a notification on my phone that a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was forming in Peoria. That same night I found one of the organizers, John Lamb, on Facebook and signed up to volunteer. At one of our early board meetings, we talked about how we must diligently research the area and market before formalizing the organization, and I took that to heart. I became a student, and my topic was Peoria and the Hispanic community. I set out to research the social, economic and cultural needs so we could cultivate our vision and learn where our services were most needed.
In search of feedback, we hosted and attended many community events, met with other organizations and leaders, and began to get a pulse for the city. We discovered there was truly a need for our organization in many fields, beyond basic business topics—including healthcare, the arts and education. Ours would be a unique chamber that can build relationships and help bridge the social gap.
We received helpful advice from the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce early on. Their executive director, Zenaida Landeros, suggested that we could not be the resource for every need, but we could help facilitate connections. As a board we decided to incorporate, and while working on the logistics, we stayed active in the community. You may see me and Yeni Rodriguez, a fellow board member and co-owner of Palarte Mexican Ice Cream, at City Council meetings and other events around Peoria. We love it, and we push each other to continue learning and keep things fun.
As we were busy shaping our vision, we were invited to participate in an exciting moment in Peoria’s history. Last October, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council led The Big Table event which united all of the area chambers—a vast number of community leaders and organizations on a mission to define the future of the Peoria area. I was thrilled to see the existing Chamber in action, and to learn more about my research topic.
Our participation has given us great information to help direct our growing Chamber. We have our monthly meet-and-greets and collaborations for workshops, such as with the Minority Business Development Center. The point is not to reinvent the wheel, but to work together and increase awareness so small business owners can really benefit from our support. I am proud to say that we will have another busy year in 2020!
Circles of Collaboration
We are excited to launch a partnership with Bradley University in which students can get involved in our projects, help coach the businesses we funnel into the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), or assist with translation. We also support the students, many of whom are first-generation or transfer students with a higher risk of dropping out. We call it “The Circle,” and it’s a win-win. Our first client is the Peoria Latin Soccer Club, which supports 60 to 100 kids and is taking steps to become a nonprofit.
Becky Wood, operational director of convergence at Bradley University, helps connect businesses with opportunities for collaboration. “The Circle project involves teamwork throughout the university from at least five campus organizations, including the SBDC,” Wood explains. “It allows the students to become immersed into the community, and potentially stay in Peoria after graduation. The partnership is mutually beneficial for the students, the Hispanic Chamber and the businesses it serves, as well as other minority businesses in the area.”
We also have partnerships with the Peoria Park District and Peoria Public Library which help increase participation from families and allow us to host exciting events. Last September, we celebrated Fiestas Patrias in Glen Oak Park with 800 attendees enjoying music, dance and games. We presented community leadership awards, small businesses and nonprofits had booths, and there were discussions about the 2020 Census and The Big Table. All of us wore hats we had never worn before to pull it off, and the event was wonderful!
We are here to support businesses and the workforce, to find and cultivate Latino leaders, to preserve our culture and to unite the community—and we invite everyone to be part of our organization and our events. Next on the social calendar, we have a Census 2020 concert sponsored by PCCEO in April. There will be five Hispanic heritage nights with the Peoria Chiefs, who are temporarily rebranding as “En el Rio de Peoria,” sharing their name with the Peoria Park District’s riverfront celebration in July. We have monthly Spanish readings with the Peoria Public Library and ART, Inc.; a committee for a film festival at the Riverfront Museum; and Fiestas Patrias again in September. Our momentum is strong.
Treasures in Peoria
During my short time in Peoria, the biggest treasure I have found are its people. So many individuals are committed to improving the quality of life in this area every day. There is no denying the lower cost of living, but we also have access to an amazing park district, shopping centers, a downtown and riverfront, a wonderful arts community, college campuses, innovation and agricultural hubs. I am excited to be part of it!
I am also excited for my next business, which will open this spring on Prospect Road. Mezcal & Miel Company will specialize in tequila and mezcal, and we will carry other spirits and natural mixers as well. We will have art and books, and we’ll host tastings and other special events.
Through my businesses and the Hispanic Chamber, I have found my passion. I love the freedom of being independent, and accept the years of sacrifice it will take to stabilize these projects. I plan to stay involved through commissions, boards and networking—I am dedicated to this work and have a few more goals to achieve in due time.
While my research is not over, our work has begun. If there was once little to no representation, awareness or participation of Latinx leadership in this area, we are striving to change that. I feel so thankful to be in a city where I can help represent our diverse Hispanic community. Being inspired is like being in love, and that is how I feel about my new home. I am fortunate to live and bloom in Peoria, and grateful for how things continue to line up. Thank you for all the support! PM