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José Hernández shows off a bag of dried yellow elder flowers from behind the counter of his shop on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
“This one is good for diabetes,” he says in Spanish.
“Tronadora,” as it’s called in Spanish, is one of the most popular medicinal herbs that has helped rescue Hernández’s once-failing business. Earthy and floral scents permeate the small, packed space. The walls are lined with packages of dried herbs, vitamins, and over-the-counter medicines from different Latin American countries. High on the walls above the herbs sit a few suitcases, a reminder of how the business came to be.
Hernández still remembers the panic he felt after starting his business, La Petaca LLC, in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world. The store’s name means “the suitcase” in Spanish. As he leans on a glass showcase at the edge of his double stall at Plaza Mexico, 417 East Lake Street, the memories resurface fresh and vivid.
“Everybody would tell me, ‘Don’t do it’,” Hernández says.
The 48-year-old came to Minnesota undocumented from Tabasco, Mexico, in 2003 in search of a better life. He worked a variety of jobs until he gained his legal residency in 2018. Hernández wanted to support his family in Mexico, but Minnesota has become home, and Hernández is a proud Minnesotan.
A year after he received his green card, Hernández started thinking about starting his own business after growing tired of working for others.
“In 2019 I was left jobless, so I started seeing what it takes to start a business,” Hernández says. “I was only going to focus on selling suitcases for traveling.”
Advisors were skeptical of the idea. Organizations he asked for help told him it wasn’t the right time to start a business. But Hernández pushed forward and opened his store anyway.
Just as the business, then named J & B Alta Tendencia, got off the ground, the pandemic shut it down for months. And after it reopened, there was no interest in traveling as COVID continued to hospitalize people across the globe. Nobody was buying suitcases. That’s when Hernández shifted focus.
Taking inspiration from his upbringing in rural Mexico, Hernández decided to capitalize on his knowledge of herbal remedies and turn it into a business. Hernández came from a small community where herbal remedies were used by his grandparents, mother, and neighbors to treat ailments like headaches, sore throats, and fevers.
The medicinal herbs he started selling filled a need among members of the Latino community who were looking for alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals.
With time, clientele began forming. The majority Latino customer base came to him requesting all types of herbs. As demand grew, so did the inventory’s diversity.
“The person comes here and asks you for a product and tells you what it’s for, so you get the product and now you sell it to others,” Hernández said.
The business was in danger of shutting down again due to civil unrest after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May 2020. Demonstrators protested for several nights after Floyd’s killing, with much of the attention focused on the police’s Third Precinct on Lake Street near Hiawatha Avenue.
Several businesses along Lake Street and across the Twin Cities metro were damaged, looted, and burned during the unrest. Hernández’s business, located about two miles west of the Third Precinct, wasn’t damaged, but merchandise was thrown out while neighboring vendor stalls were either looted or damaged. Hernández doesn’t like to discuss the topic, and says what’s important is that he’s still able to work.
As with any business, Hernández says there are good times and bad times. Currently, the business is entering some of its slow months. But that doesn’t worry the fast-talking man with a soft voice who simply smiles and points up while saying, “He’s who decides it all.”
Hernádez said his business, like many in Plaza Mexico, isn’t fully stocked because vendors tend to stock fewer items during the start of the year to save money.
“There’s days that nothing sells and others where we sell a month’s worth,” Hernández says.
Most of La Petaca LLC’s clients are from outside the Twin Cities. It’s these clients that keep the business afloat, according to Hernández. Some travel from as far as North and South Dakota to stock up on medicinal herbs.
Hernández’s limited English-speaking skills and a skepticism of medicinal herbs from non-Latino customers has kept Hernández’s clientele from growing. But nonetheless, Hernandez is grateful to Minnesotans for allowing him the opportunity to live his dream, and he welcomes anyone who wants to try alternative medicines.
“Americans don’t understand our customs—they can’t comprehend how tea can lower blood sugar levels,” Hernández says. “We don’t know everything but it can help, this medicine is a help.”