COMMENTARY: Small Businesses are resilient in the Rio Grande Valley

By Daisy Alcazar

Last March altered the outlook of the world. From the global pandemic to record-high unemployment over the last 15 months, one thing has stood out — the resiliency of the Rio Grande Valley and how our community rallies together in difficult times. Despite the adversity the region has faced, how we respond next will define our long-term future.

As COVID-19 blitzed through our country, Texans collectively lost 1.4 million jobs and the unemployment rate peaked at 12.9% in April 2020. In Cameron County, where my family resides, the data is even more grim. Unemployment peaked at 16.2% and currently sits at 8.7% — well above the statewide and national averages.

Unemployment has disproportionately impacted Hispanic and Latino individuals more than the overall rate in the United States. Much of this can be attributed directly to the coronavirus and the toll it has taken on our community from both a health and economic perspective.

According to the New York Times, the Valley accounts for nearly 10% of the state’s some 52,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Today, deaths are significantly down, as are case numbers, and vaccination rates are higher than both the statewide and national averages.

On the economic front, sales tax revenue dropped by almost $2 billion in one year. But, by May 2021, there were strong signs of recovery — 1 million jobs and $1.6 billion in revenue were regained.

While we are beginning to see signs of recovery, how can we build upon this momentum? Collaboration, working together, and supporting our neighbors.

In 2019 I opened La Pale, a frozen fruit bar, in Brownsville. My ambition was to share my culture with the community and the thousands of tourists who visit our region.

In January 2020 I opened a second location, a kiosk, at Sunrise Mall. Within days of opening, it was shuttered. I lost more than $20,000 — all of it seemingly overnight.

According to a McKinsey survey, 58% of minority-owned small businesses in this country are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the viability of their businesses.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the Valley, there are people who want to see you succeed. I’ve witnessed first-hand how small business owners were empowered to pivot and adapt their business models and emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.

At La Pale, I found hope and recovery through two sources: leveraging Facebook to engage with customers and using business resources made available by the local chamber of commerce. Without embracing either, my business wouldn’t be alive today.

Using Facebook allowed our team to communicate directly and solicit feedback with a growing audience of 12,000 engaged followers. Through Facebook and Instagram Live sessions, we were able to source direct feedback on new products and flavors, rollout curbside and delivery options and, most importantly, leverage our platform to support local nurses and teachers.

While the entire country was learning and navigating the pandemic at the same pace, the chamber provided valuable insights on best practices for returning to work and mitigating COVID-19 in the workplace. If there were specific questions or guidance that were needed, they provided crucial information that allowed us to continue operations while keeping our customers and employees safe.

While change can be sudden, sometimes it can be for the best.

For small businesses that are uncertain of their future, embrace the digital age, engage your local community, and tell the unique story of your company to build a loyal and committed following. Utilizing Facebook and Instagram were instrumental in keeping our business alive and allowed us to hire 21 employees.

Our community was knocked down in the spring of 2020, but we’re not out.

I implore you to consider making yourself aware of businesses in the community outside of big-box retailers, following local shops on social media for new product updates and discounts, or visiting your chamber of commerce for local shopping guides.

It’s critical that Texans try and spend at small businesses, where possible, to continue to support and build back the financial pillar of this community. We’re stronger when we all work together.

Daily Alcazar is the owner of La Pale Frozen Fruit Bar in Brownsville.