The scene at Electronica y Discoteca Mexico last weekend looked like a typical street party in a Latino neighborhood: children with toys, mariachi bands and a live radio broadcast.
The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the audio electronics store's opening in Wilmington. It was organized with help from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce as part of a serious push by the chamber to appeal to Latino businesses.
The effort underscores the growing prominence in Wilmington of Latino entrepreneurs--and Latino shoppers.
"The last census showed that Wilmington was 65% Hispanic, and now it's probably 75% to 80%," said new chamber Executive Director Alicia Bennett. "And although most of the small businesses in Wilmington are owned by Latinos, most of those businesses are not members of the chamber."
Because the Electronica y Discoteca store is in the heart of Wilmington's shopping district, the chamber and the store hoped their joint promotion would help both parties, Bennett said.
"We saw that it could have a ripple effect," Bennett said. "Hopefully, we will, maybe by middle of next year, unite all the merchants on Avalon Boulevard and bring them in (to the chamber)."
Israel Ceballos, who owns Electronica y Discoteca, turned to the chamber because business has not been good lately.
"The business is kind of low the last few months, and we would like to bring a lot of people to downtown Wilmington from the whole area," Ceballos said last week as he prepared for the street party.
In co-sponsoring the party, the chamber did not help pay for expenses. Rather, it lent its name and organizational support. In return, Ceballos has promised to put in a good word for the chamber with neighboring merchants on Avalon Boulevard, Bennett said.
"He needed our help and we need his," Bennett said. "These businesses need to know that we can offer guidance if they have a problem. We can help them get the benefits from revitalization zones or if they need permits or variances and don't know how to do it, we can connect them with the right people."
Added Bennett: "We have very good ties to City Hall."
Bennett, who is Latina, said she understands the cultural reluctance of some Latino business owners to participate in an organization that has not visibly helped them in the past.
"You have to almost go one by one and show you can help," she said. "Not just talk, but show it."
Never before has the city blocked off a street to help a merchant's business. But the request, shepherded by harbor-area City Councilman Rudy Svorinich, sailed through the Los Angeles City Council without question.
"No merchant in Wilmington has ever done this," said Bennett, who became head of the chamber in July. "So we're hoping this will really help."
But if the Chamber of Commerce has not had large participation by Latino businesses, it is not entirely for lack of trying.
"That was my disappointment when I was president," said Olivero de la Cruz, owner of Harbor Furniture on Avalon. "We tried to include more Hispanics in the board, and tried to get more bilingual people for the office and more businesses involved, but it was hard."
The chamber's previous efforts at outreach included street fairs and the construction of what was billed as the world's largest burrito in April, 1992. Virtually every community organization in Wilmington participated in the planning and construction of the 2,219-foot-long burrito.
Business seminars and legal information would be helpful for many of the community's small businesses, De la Cruz said.
"Most of us have not taken a course in business," he said, "And it's very basic entrepreneurial things we need help with. Sometimes we don't even know if we're operating within the law--it's scary if you go and look at all the laws you have to comply with and how they keep changing.
"But I don't think that the needs of the Latino businesses are really different from the needs of any other small businesses," he said. "As immigrants we come here looking for the American dream--to make a living and to contribute."