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Photo: Instagram/L-R: Rosa Torres, Maritza Gomez, Yaquelin Hernandez
Culture Lifestyle

Undocumented Latina Entrepreneurs Thrive Despite Their Status

Rosa Torres is a 23-year-old undocumented sociology student who co-founded Floreria Esperanza with her mom selling custom flower arrangements through Instagram as a creative avenue to make money. Torres was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was six and is now a student at Calif. State University, San Bernardino and because of her undocumented status she doesn’t qualify for aid. It was this reality that set her on a path toward entrepreneurship, paving a way for herself to make money when the traditional path is beyond reach.

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Torres is not alone. There are an estimated 10.5 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. who have to navigate alternative ways to make money without a social security number. Due to the clandestine nature of these jobs, it’s difficult to track but some of the common factors include contractor roles and services jobs. Entrepreneurship allows Torres to make money doing something she enjoys while being able to have more control and a direct line to her profits.

Torres is one example of the entrepreneurial spirit that many undocumented immigrants, specifically women, exhibit in Los Angeles. There’s an estimated 50-60,000 street vendors selling food and merchandise and many, if not the majority, of these vendors are women immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, according to Victor Narro, project director at UCLA Labor Center.

Narro states that the low-wage service industries that make up 25 percent of the economy are mostly an immigrant workforce. This includes garment, restaurant, house cleaning and domestic work and he emphasizes that it’s these jobs that suffer from wage theft.

“In order to uplift and improve the lives of the immigrant workforce, we have to eliminate the prevalent levels of wage and hour violations and improve labor enforcement standards.”

These circumstances mean women like Torres are subject to time and energy-consuming jobs that aren’t financially viable but the advent of social media has provided her with a different path. Torres lives in Bloomington, an unincorporated town in San Bernardino County, in Southern California (SoCal), a state with roughly more than 2 million undocumented immigrants. She works a full-time job (for safety reasons she can’t disclose where) making $11 an hour while managing Floreria Esperanza. She is not a DACA recipient but the program itself is at risk of being terminated by the Trump administration. The current political climate has only added to her fear and those of many undocumented immigrants who are in desperate need of financial security but have limited means to attain it.

“During this time you have to do everything possible to bring in extra money,” she tells HipLatina.

Floreria Esperanza launched May 10, 2019, as a way to help pay for her tuition and as an added source of income for her mom. Her mom went to school for about a year to learn about floral arrangements and they launched on Instagram on Mother’s Day to capitalize on the holiday. From floral bears to half-chocolate/half-floral gift boxes to the traditional rose bouquet, their creations are all made by hand and sold via the social media platform.

“Such social media platforms have helped me gain new customers by simply sharing a picture or video of my products. The goal that I have for myself is to start selling flowers at farmers markets once I am done with my college degree. I want to start furthering my business in hopes that I can leave behind the job I currently have,” she said.

The real dream – the one she would pursue if she had an SSN/authorization to work- is to be a school counselor. “It is heartbreaking and at times I ask myself if I should continue furthering my education. There are always times of self-doubt and the attitude of  ‘I can’t do it, only a US citizen can do it, only they can apply to the country or a government job that I know I have the full potential for, but I am limited.”

This need to pivot from pursuing a dream to a more realistic goal is one 39-year-old Martiza Gomez is familiar with. She’s the founder of @Folkloricwear and MG Custom Printing, one selling Mexican-inspired folk apparel handmade by her mom and the other providing custom printing as well as Latin-themed mugs. She was nine years old when her family immigrated from Mexico to SoCal where she grew up in Orange County and Riverside County, where she still resides.

“My status has always been a roadblock, a roadblock that I’ve been chipping away at for more than 20 years,” she told HipLatina. Before owning her own businesses she attended a local community college while working for a shoe store making $30 a day with a nine-hour shift six days a week. She used her wages to pay her way through school and after nine years earned her associate’s degree. With the California Dream Act in 2012, she returned to school to study entrepreneurship and created a business plan with the help of a program through the Inland Empire Women’s Business Center. For the sellers permit, she used her mom’s Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) since she was the registered owner.

For two years she hustled, working a booth at events and doing homework when it got slow while making products during the week, which took time away from her studies. Last year she was able to adjust her status but says that she’s glad she didn’t wait in order to make a living.”Despite my status, I was able to accomplish so much.” Today she sits on the board of directors of the National Association of Women’s Business Owners- Inland Empire Chapter and is a proud graduate of Calif. State University, San Bernardino.

It is this sense of accomplishment despite the roadblocks that inspired her to create the Instagram account, @Undoculadypreneur, a platform she uses as a source of motivation and information for budding undocumented entrepreneurs. She also speaks on panels about how she has thrived despite her status and encourages others like her to make an effort to similarly give back to the community and be a positive light. Though many undocumented describe life as lived in the shadows, it’s women like Gomez that not only give a voice to the voiceless but act as a beacon of hope for younger undocumented generations who feel helpless.

Women like Yaquelin Hernandez, 29, who recently became an entrepreneur with the soft launch of @LaVidaPomPoms in August of 2018 selling handcrafted earrings and accessories. The Los Angeles-based Mexicana had a stable job as a nanny for five years but wanted to pursue a creative venture so she established the company in 2018 and in 2019 she left the nanny job. She now works full time creating earrings (sold via DMs on Instagram) and working as a freelance photographer promoting her vibrant and colorful work on the Instagram account @lavida.dacolores, launched January 2019.

“[The photography] is my main income because it’s faster money in a shorter time. They are both growing but I don’t think I can choose between them. They both bring different magical things in my life,” she tells HipLatina.

She explains that a small business like hers might be viewed as simply a hobby and her lack of business experience or college degree is used against but she doesn’t let it get to her saying she “just [has a] high school education and the ‘Gana de echarle ganas.” Her entrepreneurial education is primarily courtesy of Youtube videos on how to start a business with little or no money.

Some of her best-selling designs are inspired by her roots including the “corazonsito” earrings inspired by a trip to her homeland of Chiapas, Mexico where she realized she too could be an artisan. There’s also a rainbow earring inspired by her favorite show, Reading Rainbow which aired on PBS, which she watched growing up after moving to the U.S. when she was just a year old.

“As I started both my businesses little by little they have helped me heal parts of myself,” she says. “It’s allowed me to see my capabilities, my worth, and meet people. I’ve met the most amazing folks that with their guidance and feedback have helped me build my confidence and my growth which translates to my work.”

All three women are a small sampling of what the immigrant, not just the undocumented immigrant, workforce looks like with  a work ethic and determination that are understood to be the cornerstones of the American Dream.

When it comes to discussing immigrant labor with political conservative, Narro tells HipLatina that he always “asks them to show me a more entrepreneurial spirit in this country than immigrants who wake up every morning at 4am to be at public areas and street corners to sell their goods or make their skilled labor available for hire. They go home late in the evening only to wake up again early the next morning.”

While there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the circumstances of undocumented immigrant workers, it’s women like Gomez, Hernandez, and Torres that are finding a way to fight back instead of succumbing to this difficult reality. It’s their courage and ganas that’s helped them pave their own path where there seems to be none.

“I’ve seen so many undocumented businesses thriving and they always tell me to just keep going. The hard part has been done, which was to start,” Hernandez says. “The rest is all about just continuing on and to keep living our best life because we are worthy.”