Members of the Concilio Hispano de Empresas de Colorado Springs (Colorado Springs Hispanic Business Council) get together each month for a networking and educational luncheon.

This month’s meeting on Sept. 18 at the Hotel Eleganté has a special purpose: to mark Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. It will be an occasion to celebrate the Hispanic business community’s unique character.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino comprise 17.1 percent of El Paso County’s population. They are landscapers and roofers, tech experts and politicians, and many are small business owners.

The Hispanic business community is growing along with the demographic.

“We are part of the overall business world, and we have a significant impact,” said Mariano Nandin Jr., owner of Are We There Yet Travel. “The fact that we are Hispanic serves not only our large population of Hispanics but all of the community.”

“We add flavor to Colorado Springs,” said Gene Sanchez, who owns Zehcnas, a firm that provides IT services including systems integration. “With a lot of the experience we have and the products we sell, whether food or technology, we have been contributing to this town and our country in huge ways. I think we’ve been the best thing since the round tortilla.”

- Advertisement -

Diversity and expansion

Hispanic-owned businesses are part of a vast number of industries in southern Colorado.

“Hispanic business owners are looking to do business across the spectrum, and there is a wide variety within the county,” said Concilio President Joe Aldaz, who manages a training and employment program for transitioning service members, veterans and families called Onward to Opportunity.

The Concilio’s membership roster includes representatives of banks, insurance agencies, health care businesses, design firms, several business service providers and the technology sector.

“There are a lot of Hispanic-owned small businesses with clientele predominantly of Hispanic heritage,” Aldaz said. “The challenge is taking that next step — to build a culture where businesses, regardless of ethnicity, are willing to do business together and learn to do business across cultures. That’s one of the goals of the Business Council.”

Anthony Perez, a co-founder of the Concilio, moved here in 2013 from Chicago. Perez, an entrepreneur, coach and motivational speaker, has created at least four businesses here. They include Success Is a Language, through which he offers training in leadership, team building and culture development to businesses and organizations.

“Our culture naturally embraces entrepreneurship,” Perez said. “But sometimes there’s a block mentality — I’m going to stay on this block and open up a taco place right next to another taco place.”

There is a concentration of Hispanic-owned businesses in southeast Colorado Springs, where a large, traditional Hispanic community supports them. The local businesses in turn help to preserve the community.

“Some people want that — a tight-knit community where people speak Spanish, go to [Spanish-speaking] churches and go to the local carniceria,” Perez said. “Especially if you’re moving here and you don’t have a big support system, you want that familia.”

But increasingly, Perez sees more of a Hispanic presence in the northern part of El Paso County.

“Folks who are moving here are looking at the marketplace of Colorado Springs a little differently,” Perez said. “Families are buying homes, shopping and setting up businesses there rather than staying in the southeast corridor.”

In another five to 10 years, “I’d love to see not just the Hispanic community, but minority businesses across the board, have more presence downtown,” he said. “I want to see our patrons be more diverse, too.”

The growing community of Colorado Springs presents a myriad of opportunities, Perez said.

“We’re going to see more minority business owners who want to build things,” he said. “We’re excited about what we can do with that here.”

An untapped market

“We offer a little bit different perspective as Hispanics,” Nandin said. “There’s no question about our work ethic; we have a long history of being hard workers, and we’ve got a little bit more of a flair when it comes to supporting the community. We’re pretty social when it comes to relationships, and we like to have fun.”

Anna Ornelas, manager of the Carniceria Leonela on East Pikes Peak Avenue, stocks produce at the market.

Since many Hispanic business people are bilingual, “we can service a part of the community that others can’t,” he said.

The Hispanic community is very family-oriented, a characteristic that has spawned a number of family businesses.

Sanchez points to Carniceria Leonela, a grocery, butcher shop, bakery, deli and restaurant owned by Oscar Ornelas and named for his daughter. Ornelas’ brother, Carlos, and sister, Anna, serve as managers.

Since 1988, the carniceria has been a mainstay and gathering place for the Hispanic community. It also is popular with non-Hispanic customers who come for coffee and a freshly baked pastry in the morning, shop for quality meats and produce, and pick up deli dishes to go.

The growing Hispanic population “in general is an untapped market,” Aldaz said.

“There is a lot of buying power in the Hispanic community,” he said. In addition, “we are very active and passionate about the causes we support. We like fellowship and bringing the community together in festive environments, which makes people more comfortable.”

Aldaz notes that the political community has two Hispanic representatives: Yolanda Avila on the Colorado Springs City Council and Longinos Gonzales on the Board of El Paso County Commissioners. Both are members of the Concilio; Gonzales serves on the organization’s board of directors.

“In the political realm, we’re working to make sure our people are able to set up businesses,” Avila said. “Small businesses are the backbone of any economy, and Hispanic women were going into business more than any other group starting small businesses. That came out a few years ago when I was campaigning.”

The Hispanic community can be the source of workers to fill many positions in Colorado Springs, Avila said.

“We’re growing and doing really well in the city, but sometimes the skills that are needed do not match the labor force,” she said. “We have to make sure people get the skills they need to get jobs and make sure the papers are all right so they can work.”

Facing challenges

Hispanic enterprises face the same challenges as all other businesses, including competing with others in their fields, getting the word out about what they offer and finding the resources they need to run their businesses efficiently.

They also face some unique challenges, including immigration issues.

“There is a misconception behind us and immigrants,” Sanchez said.

People with Hispanic names often are perceived as immigrants, when in fact many of their families have been in this country for 400 years, he said.

That underlying perception will take time to overcome, but recent government policies have had an acute effect on Hispanic businesses and employees.

The Trump administration announced a year ago it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, widely known as DACA, which allowed qualifying undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to obtain permits that would allow them to work in this country.

A legal battle ensued, and several federal courts have ruled that DACA immigrants are protected by federal law from discrimination and have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to restart issuing the renewable permits. Just last month, a D.C.-based federal judge ordered a full restart of the program but delayed the order to allow a government appeal.

The program is in limbo as the lawsuits progress through the court system, but it has resulted in a loss of jobs throughout the country.

“These people went to school and got degrees, and corporations had to let them go,” said Elizabeth Mota, owner of ProBooks Small Business Accounting and treasurer of the Concilio. “It was a huge problem for the people that hired them.”

While Mota doesn’t know how many local people were affected, she said she has heard and read about people who lost their jobs. Some DACA recipients have been hired back, Mota said, but the matter remains unsettled and a source of anxiety.

Like other small business owners, Hispanic entrepreneurs want greater access to federal contracts and sometimes need assistance in understanding and complying with government regulations.

The Concilio aims to provide resources, support, networking, collaboration, connections, training and education.

“There are a lot of services available to help build businesses if they’re willing to make an investment,” Aldaz said.

The Concilio is partnering with organizations such as the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, where members have access to workshops and training at a discounted price.

Perez, Gene Sanchez, Steve Sanchez and Cory Arcarese launched the Concilio in 2016.

The Concilio fills a void left when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, an organization that once had more than 450 members, was disbanded in 2011.

“Our initiative is to be able to develop and bring together small businesses in a membership-type environment to work together … and break down barriers,” Sanchez said. “Look at us in the perspective of starting a new business. We’re still in startup mode.”