Jose Hernandez shows off a bag of dried yellow elder flowers from behind the counter of his Lake Street shop in South Minneapolis. “It’s good for diabetes,” he said in Spanish.
Tronadora is one of the popular herbs that helped save Hernandez’s failing suitcase store. When the market for suitcases went down with the outbreak of COVID-19, he drew inspiration from his rural Mexican upbringing and shifted to selling medicinal herbs.
Now his store – called La Petaca, Spanish for suitcase – has developed a customer base. People come to request all kinds of herbs, and as demand has grown, so has the range of Hernandez’s inventory. The store fills a need among members of the Latino community looking for an alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals.
“The person comes here and asks you for a product and tells you what it is for, so you get the product and now you sell it to others,” he said.
Hernandez, 48, came to Minnesota undocumented in 2003 from the Mexican state of Tabasco. He said he left in search of a better life and to support his family in Mexico, but Minnesota has since become home to him. He worked a variety of jobs until he obtained his legal residency in 2018.
A year after receiving his green card, Hernandez began thinking about starting his own business. He was tired of working for others.
“I was unemployed in 2019, so I started looking into what it takes to start a business,” he said. “I was only going to focus on selling suitcases for travel.”
The consultants were skeptical, and the organizations they sought help from told them it was not the right time to start a business. “Everyone would tell me, ‘Don’t do it,'” he said.
But Hernandez went ahead and opened her store at Plaza Mexico, 417 E. Lake St., in March 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold. She was soon forced to close the store, then renamed J&B Alta Tendencia.
When it finally reopened, Hernandez found that COVID had disrupted travel so much that no one was buying suitcases. He came from a small community where herbs were used by his grandparents, mother and neighbors to treat ailments such as headache, sore throat and fever. So he decided to capitalize on that knowledge and sell the herbs.
The store was at risk of closing again just weeks later due to civil unrest that erupted following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020. Protesters demonstrated for several nights on Lake Street, where the police department’s 3rd Precinct headquarters was located. , and many businesses were looted and burned.
Hernandez’s store, located about two miles west of the Third Precinct, was not hit, but neighboring vendor stalls were looted or damaged. Hernandez, who doesn’t like to discuss what happened, said what was important was that he was still able to work.
He said most of his customers come from outside the twin cities and keep the business afloat. Some travel as far as North Dakota and South Dakota to stock up on medicinal herbs.
Hernandez said there are good times and bad, as with any business. Like many stores in Plaza México, it is not fully stocked right now as vendors offer fewer items during the beginning of the year to save money. The business is entering some of its slowest months.
“There are days when nothing sells and other days we sell a month’s worth,” he said. But he said it didn’t concern him, smiling and pointing up: “He’s the one who decides it all.”
The aroma of earth and flowers pervades the small, stuffy space. The walls are lined with packages of dried herbs, vitamins and over-the-counter medicines from various Latin American countries. A few suitcases are placed on the walls above the herb, as a reminder of how business used to be.
Hernandez’s limited English-speaking skills limit her customer base, with non-Latino shoppers who are unfamiliar with medicinal herbs and skeptical about their use as alternative medicines. But he said he is grateful to Minnesotans for giving him the opportunity to live his dream.
“Americans don’t understand our customs — they can’t understand how tea can lower blood sugar levels,” Hernandez said. “We don’t know everything. But it can help, this drug is a help.”
this story comes from you Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. sign up for a free newsletter To get Sahan’s stories delivered to your inbox.