By Martha Sarabia
For a long time, Latino business owners in North San Diego County did not have an association to help or support them in their business plans. They also did not have an organized group to represent the Spanish-speaking community socially nor economically until four Latino merchants from Escondido got together to create the Latino Merchant Association (CLA.)
Seven years later, the founders and members of the CLA are proudly celebrating the anniversary of this association.
“We’ve been successful. I never thought we would exist for this long,” said Bill de la Fuente, one of the founders and current CLA president.
The association is similar to a chamber of commerce and it focuses on promoting the economy within the Latino community by providing support to business owners so that their success contributes to the regional economy. Furthermore, its members are encouraged to become involved in their community by being informed of new laws, services and other developments that have an impact in the Latino community.
“Half of the focus is to produce better Latino merchants, mentor new businesses and those already established. The other half is being a participant of the community,” de la Fuente said about CLA’s objective.
Some of its members have served in the Escondido planning commission and one ran for a state assembly seat, which has helped change the bad image that other members of the community had of Latinos.
“We knew that the image of the Latino in Escondido was suffering. It was not all that it could be. Through our mission statement, we tried to change that perspective about Latinos,” said de la Fuente about the other reason why the group was formed.
According to the members of CLA, belonging to the association is productive and pleasant.
Vicente Cortez Jr., owner of So. Cal Tree Care, Inc. and CLA member for more than 5 years, said, “I’m very happy to be a part of this organization. The merchants are very optimistic, have dreams, are motivated to go forward and have a plan for the next 5 years. I’ve learned how to make my own plans and look towards the future with an optimistic perspective.”
For Ana Lara, owner of Francisco’s Deli in Vista for more than 17 years, the experience has also been satisfactory.
“It’s been great because it’s about helping the community,” said Lara.
CLA is a non-profit organization made up of about 125 volunteer members who range from real estate agents and taco shop owners to financial consultants and flower shop owners. There is no membership fee and prospective members are only required to show interest in the organization and attend the meetings regularly. The members cooperate with one another, share information and knowledge, mentor each other, help developing business and attend workshops about topics such as obtaining a loan and marketing strategies to improve the image and profits of their businesses.
“Every time we meet, we talk about how to improve and move forward,” added Lara, who has been a member for more than 2 years.
The unity and collaboration of its members have helped the CLA reach many of its goals in the 7 years of existence. Establishing a Latino Speaker’s Bureau, organizing the biggest annual blood drive for Latinos in North County as well as giving 5 scholarships to high school seniors and holding a computer drive for students going to college are some of the CLA’s biggest accomplishments.
“By helping our students, we are helping the community because in 10 years they will be the future. Through the years, those students could help us in our business growth and expansion,” said Cortez, who was named Latino Merchant of the Year in 2005.
CLA officials hope to soon establish a chapter in Vista to facilitate the participation and membership of the Latino merchants in the northern coastal region of the county.
“Even though we have a lot of issues in common, we have different issues in the area. So, we have to take that into account. Second, we want to create more leadership,” said de la Fuente about the reasons why he wants to create the group.
“My other goal is to improve their business through education, provide them with the information that would benefit them,” added de la Fuente.
CLA holds general meetings usually in Spanish the first Monday of every month at 7:15 a.m. at the Redwood Town Court located at 500 E. Valley Parkway in Escondido.
For more information, call (760) 414-9661 or visit www.clasd.org.