On the shelves that crowd La Guelaguetza, carved saints look down on plastic bags bulging with brilliantly colored Oaxacan T-shirts; handwoven baskets hang over a rack of embroidered aprons; and Santeria candles share space with cans of poblano peppers and pineapple juice. A small shop in New Brunswick’s Esperanza neighborhood, La Guelaguetza takes its name from an annual festival celebrated in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. But for the shop’s owner, Emanuel Garcia, guelaguetza has a more significant meaning. In the indigenous Zapotec language, he explains, it translates loosely to “helping each other, or helping those who need it.”

Garcia’s business is predicated on reciprocity: By paying a fair wholesale price for the goods he sells, most of which are handmade in Oaxaca, he’s helping the craftspeople who produce them. He’s also helping the Esperanza community, many of whom hail from Oaxaca—nearly 3,000 miles from New Brunswick—but haven’t been able to return to their hometowns.

“They come into the store,” he says, “and they say, ‘Oh, I haven’t tasted that bread, or seen those clothes, in 15 years.’”

As in many minority and immigrant communities, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Esperanza particularly hard. Owners of small businesses, Garcia included, suddenly found themselves in desperate need of help, as revenues shrank and residents contracted the virus. Charles Bergman, director of the Esperanza Neighborhood Project for the nonprofit group New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT), says that the pandemic amplified problems that already plagued the neighborhood.

“A lot of the businesses are immigrant owned, and the owners may not be fluent English speakers,” Bergman says. “Often disconnected from traditional sources of financing and business support, they may have trouble navigating government regulations or taking advantage of available resources.”

To help address those needs, Rutgers Global Health Institute launched Equitable Recovery for New Jersey’s Small Businesses, a program piloted in the Esperanza neighborhood in November 2020 in partnership with NBT. The Equitable Recovery program provides hands-on support to business owners like Garcia. The program offers live, web-based training in multiple languages on how COVID spreads, how to mitigate it, and how to find resources to deal with it, including vaccination and testing. In addition, one-on-one consultations, either virtual or on-site, explore business owners’ specific needs and risks and offer individually tailored safety recommendations. The program’s Resilience Network affords businesses and families access to a broad array of local resources, including business support and food and housing assistance, as well as pop-up clinics that help community members overcome barriers to COVID-19 vaccination and testing.

Esperanza, comprising 57 blocks in the city’s center, was chosen as the program’s initial site because it was deemed highly vulnerable. “Vulnerable populations are communities at a higher risk for poor health because of the barriers they experience related to social determinants of health,” says Arpita Jindani, the program’s manager and a staff member at Rutgers Global Health Institute. Jindani uses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index to help identify communities that are most in need of the program’s services. The index takes into account 15 social factors, including poverty, unemployment, lack of vehicle access, crowded housing, and minority status.

Garcia is, in many ways, emblematic of his neighborhood’s vulnerabilities. His business was hit hard by COVID, and he found himself unable to meet his expenses. He considers himself “75 percent” fluent in English, but not enough to fully understand what he needed to do to keep himself, his employees—all family members—and his customers safe during the pandemic. He also was unaware of the financial assistance available to him.

Equitable Recovery helped him in all those areas. “They told us to wear masks at all times, to wash our hands all the time, and to mark six feet [for social distancing],” he says. He also was advised to limit the number of customers in the store—critical in a space that’s 600 feet square and stocked with more than 200 individual products—and he got help with creating signage alerting customers to the store’s COVID policies. He learned that customers, too, needed to be masked; he was encouraged to keep a stock of free masks for patrons who weren’t wearing them. During his consultation, he also learned he was eligible for several grants and received help filling out the applications.

The program has since expanded to all of New Brunswick and to Newark as well, where business owners have been particularly interested in getting information about vaccination. Thanks to its success in both cities—and its ability to tailor assistance to the needs of local businesses—Equitable Recovery will soon be operational in Trenton.

Garcia says that the program “has helped not just me, but a lot of people,” including his family and his customers, a notion that’s very much in the spirit of mutual support and interconnectedness that characterizes guelaguetza. The shop, located at 240 Somerset Street, supports Garcia and his family, and it also supports the community that relies on it. That support goes beyond economics: By putting in place a host of safety measures, the shop also bolsters the health of its employees and its customers.

“I view it as a domino effect,” Jindani says. “If these businesses go down, community members lose their jobs. If they lose their jobs, their families suffer. They may go hungry, or their children may not have the resources to succeed in school.” They also may lack the money to spend in the community, which could cause other businesses to close, she says.

Bergman believes that Equitable Recovery has kept that kind of economic devastation from happening in Esperanza, though many businesses haven’t fully recovered from the effects of COVID. Garcia acknowledges that his neighbors aren’t spending at pre-pandemic levels. “I think customers are a little scared to spend money,” he says, noting that they share a worry that COVID could surge again, threatening their livelihoods even further. Still, as Garcia greets each customer like an old friend, it’s clear that he’s glad the shop remains open to share its bounties of bread and cheese, spices and snacks, sun hats and serapes.

“I believe,” says Bergman, “that our ability to help business owners like Garcia access aid and continue to support their local customer bases has helped most of them survive to keep fighting for another day.”

– Leslie Garisto Pfaff