Mia Robles has been shaving ice, scooping fruit, and squirting chamoy in kitchens since she was 8 years old. Now 33, she and her husband are in the process of taking over Sonoran Delights from her parents. The Mexican street food restaurant on Tucson’s west side specializes in raspados and tacos, and has become a community staple — bustling in the evenings with families and teens wolfing down tacos de cabeza or stuffing themselves with Tostilocos.

Mia Robles dishes out a mango raspado Wednesday, Feb. 8 at Sonoran Delights, her family business located at 921 W. Congress Street on Tucson’s west side.

She shares stories about coming up in a family of hard-working immigrants as she prepares an order behind the Sonoran Delights raspado counter. The lunchtime rush is just starting, and not having time for an interview, she has to talk and work at the same time. She’s long been used to such multi-tasking.

Originally from Obregón, Sonora, Mia and her family migrated to Tucson in 1996. Within three years, they were selling tacos and raspados out of their home on West Congress Street. A few years later, they bought the building next door, their current location at 921 W. Congress Street

“We wanted to bring authentic street food from Sonora,” Mia says.

She says that they always want to go back to their roots, and take frequent trips back to Obregón for inspiration. 

“My dad always loved cooking his own food,” she says. “It was like destiny when the spot opened up. We still have customers from 23 years ago.” 

While other businesses are getting a lot of money from overpriced food, she says she and her family “strive to keep our prices low for our customers without compromising quality.” 

That has not been easy. Sonoran Delights survived the recession, ongoing gentrification, and the pandemic. She chalks that staying power up to support from the community and her family’s hard work.

Sonoran Delights has also benefited from both local and federal loans and grants, which have been essential to keeping small businesses like hers afloat.

Mia graduated from the University of Arizona and now wants to focus on running the family business. She doesn’t know that in less than 24 hours a Latina from President Joe Biden’s Cabinet will visit Tucson to spotlight Latino entrepreneurial leaders building mom-and-pop shops in communities across the nation. Leaders like Mia.

On Feb. 9 Isabella Casillas Guzman, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited Tucson to meet with Latino small business owners. 

Kicking off the Biden administration’s “Latino Prosperity Tour” in Tucson, Guzman said that opening a business can be not only a “pathway to prosperity, but toward community building.”

Isabella Casillas Guzman, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero laugh together at the MSA Annex before a news conference and walking tour on Tucson’s west side Thursday, Feb. 9. Credit: John Washington

Guzman and the Biden administration were celebrating the creation of over 12 million new jobs and the launching of over 10 million new businesses since they took office. But Latino businesses, in particular, despite booming in numbers, are still struggling to bring in enough revenue. 

According to SBA data shared with Arizona Luminaria, there were 229,000 small business applications filed in Arizona during the two-year period between 2021 and 2022. Arizona ranks fifth among all states for the highest population of Latinos. Business is, in many cases, good. But while Latinos are hanging shingles at an unprecedented clip, they’ve long been ignored by the government — both local and federal officials. It will take a lot of institutional support to address ongoing inequities, which is what Guzman and local officials hope to do.

“We have a very small profit margin,” Mia says, swiveling between the chopping block below the Sonoran Delights counter and the refrigerator behind her.

Those narrow margins may mean business owners under-paying themselves, digging into savings, or getting stuck behind on rent. It means times when they aren’t sure if they can keep the doors to the small white-brick building on the corner of Congress and Grande open.

Concerned about rising wages, rising supply costs, as well as ongoing changes to the neighborhood, she occasionally contemplates what having a “regular job” with a stable salary would be like. 

Despite the challenges, “We’re going to stay here as long as we can,” Mia says. “We want to be a neighborhood spot,” she adds, “and I’m already telling my kids” — 5 and 3 years old — “that they’re going to start working here soon.”

Latino businesses booming — and not booming

There were roughly 350,000 Latino-owned businesses across the country, generating more than $460 billion in annual revenue and employing 2.9 million people, according to a Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative study.

The study estimates that by 2023 there could be more than 400,000 Latino-owned businesses. Latinos are starting businesses at a faster pace than other groups, with 44% growth in the last 10 years, compared to just 4% for non-Latino businesses.

In other words, Latinos are opening businesses at a rate 11-times faster than non-Latinos.

And yet, in its annual Latino-Owned Business Study, Biz2Credit finds that Latino-owned businesses have lower average annual revenues (8% lower than non-Latino businesses) and lower average earnings (19% lower). Biz2Credit analyzed the finances of an estimated 48,000 companies, including more than 5,600 Latino-owned firms, that submitted funding requests through the company’s website.

“Average annual revenues for Latino-owned companies ($538,588) was lower than those of non-Latino-owned firms ($583,502) in 2021-22,” according to the analysis.

The same study reported that Arizona was the seventh overall for Latino businesses applying for loans. The average approved amount for Latino-owned companies was $24,529 less than for non-Latino-owned firms in 2021-22.

Across the United States, there are an estimated 4.65 million Latino-owned businesses. 

U.S. Small Business Administration leader Isabella Casillas Guzman stops into Petroglyphs in the Mercado District on Tucson’s west side to talk with owner Jose Jimenez on Feb. 9. Credit: John Washington

During a brief walking tour of businesses in Tucson’s Mercado District, Guzman met with owners of Petroglyphs, ’81 Barbers, Seis, and La Estrella Bakery. Guzman said that the Biden-Harris administration is intent on “making sure the economy is working for everyone.”

Guzman recognized that “under-investment in Latino businesses created inefficiencies.” She stressed that the SBA is focused on transforming the nation’s capital programs to equitably boost businesses owned by women, people of color and people living in rural communities.

 “We want those businesses to level up,” she said

The SBA only became a cabinet-level agency a decade ago. With an office in every state — which Guzman termed “local touch points” —  the agency is tasked with supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.

“My job is to ensure that the American dream of owning a business is achievable,” Guzman said.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero joined Guzman on the tour. She wanted people to remember the history of the Mercado District. It is the site of at least 5,000 years of human history, she said, where the Tohono O’odham and the Pascua Yaqui people have long lived and farmed.

“Government has a responsibility to invest in local entrepreneurs,” Romero said, and should focus on under-served communities. “Small businesses bring together families, encourage wealth development, encourage education. Small businesses are the lifeline of our country. They are huge job generators.” 

Romero pointed to her recent announcement of $1.5 million for the AVANZA Revolving Loan Fund for Under-Represented Entrepreneurs, part of the Transform Tucson Fund. The revolving loan fund is underwritten by federal funds, and is meant to offer small business loans from $5,000 to $250,000 accessible to Latino, veteran, Black and female-owned businesses.

 “We want these businesses to thrive, not just open, but to thrive,” said the daughter of immigrant farmworkers who became the only Latina mayor in the nation’s 50 largest cities when she was elected in 2019.

“The more you lend to small and underrepresented communities,” she added, “the more you give them access to capital, the more their families get to prosper. It’s about local people having opportunities, especially under-advantaged communities.”

As Guzman put it, “Small businesses are giants in the economy.”

Cabinet leader Isabella Casillas Guzman spoke in Tucson about the SBA’s focus on small businesses and entrepreneurs. “Small businesses are giants in the economy.” Credit: John Washington

“We owed it to our family”

Isaias Carrillo, owner of ’81 Barbers, says the pandemic “hit us kinda hard.” 

Having just spun around his last client to face the mirror and whip off his cape, he’s between customers and has one foot propped on the bar stool. He tells his next client he’ll be right with him and lays out what he and the shop have overcome. 

The barber shop shut down for two months, and he, co-owner Celia Rodriguez, and his wife, Bianca Valdez, dug into their savings to keep afloat and pay rent in their old location near the children’s museum in the Armory Park neighborhood. 

Because the barbers who work for Isaias and Celia (they also both cut hair themselves) are officially independent contractors — a common setup in barber shops and beauty salons — they couldn’t apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, and they struggled to pay salaries.

“We owed it to our family to keep us afloat,” Isaias says, referring to their team of barbers.

Their Tucson roots run deep. They’ve cut hair for generations of families in their hometown. Isaias grew up near Rodeo Wash, where neighbors have long battled flooding and each year wait for the seasonal watershed to wake a yellow sea of blooming Palo Verde trees.

Bianca grew up in the Amphi neighborhood, a place rich with a history of Mexican ranching and agriculture. Today, it is one of Tucson’s more diverse neighborhoods, home to refugee and immigrant communities. People from working families who speak many languages, and fill the vibrant Woods Memorial Library – with the second-highest number of visitors in the Pima County system – reading books from the packed children’s section and checking out community classes and computer time.

The co-owners signed the lease on their current storefront at 160 S. Avenida del Convento just before the pandemic hit. It was supposed to be their second location, and was set to open in October 2020. Instead, after two months of struggling to pay rent, they had to leave their original spot, and hunt for a new place to focus on fades and trims. 

They found that most property owners don’t want to sign short-term leases, even if their storefronts are empty. Eventually, they found a temporary location on Fourth Avenue, and then, finally, in June of 2022, moved into their new spot. 

As they struggled during the pandemic, ’81 Barbers was only able to secure a few small local grants, for just a couple hundred dollars. Mostly those grants covered COVID cleaning supplies. 

They are currently in the running for a much bigger grant from the YWCA, and are interested in a SBA loan that would help them hire a new full-time barber.

They’ve only recently become fully-staffed, and business is starting to pick up. With merchants and clients from the gem show bursting out of a temporary tent city across the street, they’ve had a slight uptick of clients, though they’re mostly one-offs. 

A unique part of their business is that ’81 Barbers is more than a place to clean up your do. They also serve beer and wine, and plan to expand to include a small bottle shop for people to pick up beer to go. 

Like Sonoran Delights and many other Latino-owned businesses, their hope is to become more than a business. They want to be an anchor in the community. 

“We fit in here,” co-owner Celia says. She never took that for a given.

Her customers are diverse, and they see “more whites than Mexicans” strolling into the shop. They win all their customers over with their professionalism, with their commitment, and maybe, also with the beer or wine they offer, she says with a chuckle.

“We want to be like a coffee shop,” she says, “connect with everyone. We’re like a big family.” 

Back at Sonoran Delights, Mia calls out, “¡Veinte-seis! Twenty-six!and slides the sliced-open chip bag of Tostilocos and two raspados onto the counter. She smiles at the family who retrieves their snack, and before she can turn to the reporter to continue the chat about her business hopes, another order spits out of the machine. She flashes a smile and flips open the lid to the cooler. Back to work.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...