EP Award Promo

On East Grand, Spanish is the language of business


Her father and her husband both grew up in Mexico, but Christina Palacios is just now learning to speak and understand Spanish. What inspired her? As the co-owner of Los Laureles restaurant, 1518 E. Grand Ave., she sees motivation walk in the door every day: hungry patrons who speak little or no English.

Like Palacios herself, the neighborhood just east of downtown represents the intersection of English-speaking Iowa and the state’s growing Hispanic population. Thousands of vehicles roll along Grand daily between East 15th and East 18th streets, passing a pastry shop, photography studios, grocery stores, a clothing store and more — but most of the drivers probably can’t translate most of the Spanish-language business signs, and many might feel uncertain about whether they’re welcome to stop and shop.

“Sometimes when I tell people where I work, they make a face and say, ‘I don’t go over there,’” Palacios said. “I think people are afraid to get out of their comfort zone, and maybe they’re leery of Hispanic people. I don’t know why; they’re just people like everyone else.”

She’s hoping that a planned renovation of the area by the Neighborhood Development Corp. will bring more visitors to the area. The long-term project is intended to spruce up storefronts, resurface rough parking lots and add trees and flowers along the street. “We’re pretty excited about it,” Palacios said. “We think it will look nice.”

Christina’s husband and business co-owner, Antonio, found Des Moines the same way several other East Grand business owners did, by following the lead of friends after living in other parts of the United States.

Juan Mayorga arrived here as a teen-ager after his family left Mexico and spent just a week and a half in Chicago. They, too, were seeking the comfort of living near relatives who led the way here. Now 30 and a graduate of Drake University, Mayorga runs his own business, La Oficina Hispana, at 411 E. 16th St.

In this island of Spanish surrounded by an ocean of English, Mayorga opened a translation service and proceeded to take on any task that arose. The resulting assignments cover a lot of ground.  On a typical June day, he accompanied a client to a doctor’s appointment; mailed an income tax report he had filled out for another customer; took care of a title transfer; helped secure the return of an impounded car; talked to a state office on behalf of his father; handled another tax question; worked on an application for an individual taxpayer identification number; helped fill out an employment benefits enrollment form; and wrote a letter that a couple would use at the airport when putting their kids on a flight to visit relatives in Mexico.

“I like working with people who need help,” Mayorga said. “I get personal fulfillment from that.” He remembers what it was like when he was struggling to become comfortable with English. “I took English in junior high and high school back in Mexico. The teachers did OK with the grammar part, but they didn’t know how to pronounce all of the words correctly. After six months here, I was more shy to speak English than I had been when I first got here.”

Such insecurities about language help the neighborhood’s business people find and keep Hispanic customers, said Daniel Abonce, 17, who helps his mother, Carmen, negotiate her way through English conversations.

“Hispanics can feel intimidated doing business with English people,” he said. The lure of a Spanish-speaking photography studio such as the family’s Giselle Studio at 1605 E. Grand has brought customers from as far as Iowa City and Omaha, he said.

“When we came here from Chicago, there weren’t many Spanish businesses here, just two grocery stores on Grand,” he said. “We wanted to be near those stores.”

Though the cluster of Hispanic shops is a magnet for Mexican immigrants, it can hold other people at bay, Carmen Abonce said. “If all of the photographs in the window are of Hispanics, we get only Hispanic customers,” she said. “After we put an African-American photo out there, a Nigerian family came in for pictures.

“Now I have a sign in English, and we’re getting a lot of variety in our customers.”

Longtime Capitol Heights Neighborhood leader Nadine Hogate thinks more English signs are a step in the right direction. “Until quite recently, you didn’t know there was a business inside some of those buildings,” she said. “It’s only within the past year, when more businesses opened and the situation became more competitive, that the owners began posting signs.”

Hogate expects a “laborious, grinding” process to renovate the area. “It will be a piece at a time, just like downtown,” she said.

“Getting drawings done was the easy part. The hard part is knowing which properties to acquire, which ones to rehabilitate and which ones to tear down. We have to have some commitment from the people who are already there.”

The short-term result might be an increase in business. “They need the upper- and moderate-income people to come there and spend their money,” Hogate said.  But increased traffic and prosperity could cause problems for the first generation of business owners, too. For recent immigrants to the United States “it’s cheap to buy and rent property there now,” she said. “When things start to improve, it could be an entirely different story.”


Multimillion-dollar  project is under way  The Neighborhood Development Corp. has purchased some property in the East Grand business corridor and is negotiating with business owners for more acquisitions, according to Executive Director Carol Bower.

The NDC bought land on the north side of Grand Avenue at the corner of East 18th Street and intends to remove the ceramics shop and house that stand there. However, the first phase of construction and remodeling is planned for the north side of Grand between East 15th and East 16th streets, an area that contains the Los Laureles restaurant and a grocery store.

“That area will have the most significant visual impact on the neighborhood,” Bower said. “I would anticipate a $4 million to $5 million investment in that phase over the next 10 years. There’s a potential for an investment of up to $15 million in the five-block corridor.”

Bower said her organization has letters of intent from several bilingual or Hispanic business owners who are interested in locating along East Grand. “As we bring in new businesses, the area will market to a broader base,” she said. “I think that will be a tremendous plus for the Capitol East neighborhood.”

This fall, the NDC will ask the State Historical Society of Iowa to designate the East Grand corridor as a cultural and entertainment district. Such a designation would qualify the renovation project to apply for historic preservation grants. The NDC is a non-profit group that received about $1 million from the city of Des Moines last year.

“We would like the area to become a destination for shopping and dining,” Bower said. “We’re working on a name for it, just like the eastern part of downtown is being called East Village.”

shivehatterty web 070123 300x350