New look, new chance. But now mercaditos, like other Latino businesses, hang in the balance

Luz Arango waves at a regular patron at Lupita's Corner Market and Deli in L.A.'s Westlake District
Luz Arango waves to a regular at Lupita’s Corner Market and Deli, a family-owned business in L.A.'s Westlake District for nearly 30 years.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

People have been dropping by Lupita’s corner for years.

¡Hola mija! they often shout as they walk past the front door.

Qué hay de bueno? What’s new?

For 27 years, the little market at West 3rd Street and Lucas Avenue in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood has been far more than just a store.

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“It’s a place that feels like home — like it belongs to us,” said Josefina Reynoso, 72.

Luz Arango, right, helps longtime customer Josefina Reynoso at Lupita’s Corner Market.
Luz Arango, right, helps Josefina Reynoso, who was the first customer at Lupita’s 27 years ago.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Before the pandemic struck, sealing off much of the world around us, Lupita’s Corner Market was on the verge of a rare transformation. Lupita Olague, 67, the single mother who opened the mercadito in the 1990s, had passed the business on to her children.

Her kids, Luz and Raúl Arango, were working hard to make their family store a space that offered much-needed aid to the surrounding neighborhood like free groceries, more healthful food options, a space for kids to do their homework and for neighbors to host small gatherings.

“It’s been difficult,” said Luz, 33. “We love this community, we have this vision for it, and all the pieces came together so organically, but then COVID came along and everything changed.”

From one day to the next in mid-March, when schools shut, Lupita’s Corner Market lost about 80% of its business. Much of its sales came from across the street, where the local high school and elementary school used to send dozens of kids over each week in search of drinks and snacks.

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A neighborhood resident receives donated groceries at Lupita's market.
A neighborhood resident receives groceries at Lupita’s as another waits his turn. The food was donated by Atwater Village Farmers Market.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Nationwide, business have been hit hard by the pandemic. In Los Angeles, Latino small businesses such as bakeries, restaurants and mercaditos have suffered disproportionately, said Lilly Rocha, executive director of the Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce.

About 1 out of 3 Latinos have seen their business shut down or have experienced a significant drop in revenue, she said.

“We’re losing so many different entrepreneurs who for many years have put all their eggs in one basket,” Rocha said.

Latino small-business owners play a vast role in the economic landscape of Los Angeles. The chamber represents more than 1,700 of them. But many mom-and-pops were already at a disadvantage before the virus grabbed hold.

They lacked access to financial resources and struggled to seek out support due to language barriers. During the pandemic, most were passed up by federal financial assistance programs, Rocha said. Many didn’t have the necessary connections with banks, which played a role in helping access the dollars.

Luz Arango bags food donated by Atwater Village Farmers Market to be distributed to neighborhood members in need.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

And although studies have shown that Latinos spend a lot of time online, many Latino small-business owners have yet to learn how to market and sell their goods on digital platforms.

“It’s been very hard for them to pivot,” said Rocha, adding that the chamber will be working to provide more technical support in coming months.

In Westlake, small businesses run by Latinos are widespread. There are discount stores, hair salons, curanderos (healers) and countless food vendors. Mom-and-pop mercaditos dot just about every corridor.

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It’s a working-class area where just about everyone rents and the household income is nearly $26,724 less than the county median.

Over the years, Lupita, a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, who lives in Pico Rivera, had done everything to keep her doors open. She lived frugally with her twins, took out loans, emptied out her savings.

In 2017, she was starting to feel tired. She was just getting by, the fridges were run-down, and the place was in dire need of a renovation. She had been manning the market almost entirely alone, seven days a week, for nearly 25 years.

Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Olague holds the hands of her children, Luz and Raul Arango, at their home in Pico Rivera.
Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Olague with her twin children, Luz and Raul Arango, at their home in Pico Rivera.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“This was the one thing that gave me a path forward after struggling so much,” Lupita said. “It allowed me to take care of my children and not ask anyone for help. I just didn’t have the strength to keep it going anymore.”

Her kids, who grew up helping at the market, had other plans. Luz was interested in pursuing radiology. Raul wanted (he still does) to become a firefighter.

The family was wrestling with the tough decision to sell Lupita’s when, one afternoon, a young woman walked into the store offering information on how to revamp the market, how to make it a healthier space for the community.

“She said we were located in a food desert,” Luz said. “She told us there were programs that could educate us so we could have a more positive influence in the community.”

Luz Arango celebrates good news that she received money to help keep her business’ doors open for another month
Luz Arango, second from left, celebrates good news that she received money to help keep her business’ doors open for another month with volunteers Nina Angelo, left, Lola Gutierrez, and Osunkoya Chavon, right, while bagging donated food and passing them out to the neighborhood at Lupita’s Corner Market And Deli.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Luz was transformed by the courses she took with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, a nonprofit launched by the city to promote equal access to food. As her mom stepped back from the business, she and her brother became more involved, offering fruits and vegetables, smoothies and press-pressed juices and adding a deli with fresh-made sandwiches.

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“I’ve always wanted to help people, to be a resource. This helped me realize how our store could be all those things,” Luz said. “I saw all these possibilities, all this hope.”

In 2019, Luz and her family teamed up with the Food Policy Council and other organizations and, through a series of fundraisers, grants and donated work, fully renovated Lupita’s Corner Market.

They cleared out the dim, cramped aisles, gutted the space and created, in bright shades of blue, green and orange, a brand-new, light-filled store with custom shelving, a spacious deli, a community wall for announcements and seating nooks for customers.

The space was thoughtfully designed with the needs of the neighborhood in mind, said Christine Tran, executive director of the Food Policy Council. The organization has transformed seven other stores in a similar way in Los Angeles.

Luz and her family celebrated the grand reopening of Lupita’s in September 2019, just six months before the pandemic would come along and test them in unforeseen ways.

On a recent afternoon, with both schools still shut across the street, business was slow, but Luz stayed busy behind the register.

Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Olague smiles with her twin children, Luz and Raul Arango, at their home in Pico Rivera
Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Olague smiles with her twin children, Luz and Raul Arango, at their home in Pico Rivera.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

She and Raul overhauled the deli menu, they’re promoting their offerings on social media, and they’re hoping to launch a website and curbside pickup. They also partnered with a nearby farmers market to give away free groceries to the community each Wednesday.

“We’re behind on rent, we’re behind on bills, but we’re giving it our all,” Luz said. “Our mom always taught us, ‘If you don’t know the answer, you’ll figure it out.’”

Just before noon, a customer walks through the door, an older woman with a mask and a warm look in her eyes.

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“Chata!” Luz cries out. “Como estas Chata?”

“Good, mija,” says Chata, also known as Josefina Reynoso.

Reynoso was the store’s first customer when it opened in 1993. The homemaker remembers going for a walk around her block, turning the corner and suddenly spotting a little market where a bookstore used to stand. Lupita was behind the register.

Hola, pase, pase,” she hollered with a smile. Come in. Come in.

The two women went on to become great friends. They used to spend long afternoons inside the market chatting about their lives and their children.

A man carries a bag of food past a mural at Lupita’s Corner Market And Deli
A man carries a bag of food past a mural at Lupita’s Corner Market And Deli, a family-owned business in L.A.'s Westlake District for nearly 30 years.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

If Chata ever went down the street to buy bread or toilet paper at a competitor’s market, 8-year-old Luz would tease her about it.

These days, Chata only hears about her old friend through Luz. Lupita, who has severe asthma, has been at home since March to avoid catching the virus.

She hopes that, once the pandemic lifts, Lupita will be back in the store, at least a few days a week.

“They’ve been through a lot this past year,” said Chata. “But these kids, they know how to take care of their mother, and her legacy is in the best hands.”