Incubating the American Dream El Pájaro community agency offers a helping hand

Yoli’s Adobo | Reynaldo Barrioz


By Mike Hale
Photos by Reynaldo Barrioz

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

— James Truslow Adams, “The Epic of America”

For many in our country, the American Dream is not merely elusive but unattainable. A dream of a dream. Nothing more. It seems no longer can the virtues of hard work, self-reliance and perseverance alone guarantee equal opportunity to success and prosperity.

Few people work harder, try harder or pray harder than Yolanda Ruiz. And no one knows more acutely how that admirable combination is never quite enough.

After years of practicing the art of resiliency, Ruiz finally asked for a hand up. Reaching out was Carmen Herrera, executive director of El Pájaro Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit in Watsonville that promotes equal access to economic opportunity through entrepreneurship.

“If you give someone an opportunity it can change lives, and lead to generations of success,” said Hererra. “To see a journey from farmworker to entrepreneur — many started that way when they came to us — is so rewarding.”

The word entrepreneur would have meant little to Ruiz when she met Herrera in 2015. She just wanted a chance to own a piece of something, to visualize a dream and see it materialize.

“One of my priorities was to be legal in this country and to have something for my kids,” she said through the translation of her daughter María. “I didn’t have the money to do it, but I had many plans for my family. To have a business was one of them.”

Ruiz headed north across the border at age 16 — holding not much more than a marriage certificate still wet with ink and a headful of recipes from her abuela. She left everything else behind in the remote village of La Sauceda, in the center of Jalisco, Mexico — the birthplace of birria.

A spicy stew traditionally made with goat meat and dried chiles, birria is often served at celebratory occasions, such as weddings and baptisms, Christmas and Easter. Ruiz remembers fondly helping her abuela cook birria and barbacoa to feed hundreds of friends, family and villagers celebrating one occasion or another.

“Every year my grandmother, la señora María, would raise a cow and kill it around April. She would use the meat to feed everyone,” she said.

Starting at age 6, Ruiz would help peel garlic, and grind spices by hand in a stone molcajete, and press fresh masa into tortillas.

The secret behind the birria was the family’s adobo, a kind of paste used to marinate all types of meat. The all-natural blend of ingredients includes dried chiles (California and pasilla), garlic, ginger, ajonjoli (sesame), vinegar and laurel leaves.

Ruiz came to California in 2000, and went to work raising a family and toiling at various jobs, including babysitting the neighborhood kids, who all called her Mamá Yolanda. Finally, in 2015 she made an appointment at El Pájaro, and the course of her life changed dramatically and immediately.

Inspired by her abuela, Ruiz had always dreamed of building a business around her adobo, to make it easier for anyone to easily create traditional dishes such as birria or barbacoa.

Ruiz attended workshops, received sound advice from business consultants and chefs, and learned professional food handling and preparation skills.

“They taught me how to prepare my product to make it look better, to make sure it’s safe to consume, and they introduced me to vendors,” Ruiz said. “Carmen has been there for me, and given me a lot of inspiration.”

The kicker for Ruiz came in the form of El Pájaro’s Commercial Kitchen Incubator Program, a fully equipped, shared-use facility in Watsonville. By using the commercial kitchen services, local food entrepreneurs (there are now 33) can save the costs of restaurant-grade equipment and county licenses that can restrict their ability to start or expand food businesses.

Ruiz has turned a family recipe, hard work and a helping hand into Yoli’s Adobo, a caterer and spice company in Watsonville.

“I love to see my kids see their mom working on something she loves to do,” said Ruiz, who caters events and also sells Yoli’s Adobo from her website. “And I like to make life easy for all the women who love making a good meal for their family, but they don’t have time to put all of these ingredients together.”

The kitchen facility is part of El Pájaro’s larger retail business incubator called Plaza Vigil. Created in 1997, the program assists low- to moderate-income, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs with starting and operating a successful business.

Following a charter expansion in 2007, El Pájaro CDC now serves Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, and is available to anyone with plans to open a small business. While many businesses helped by El Pájaro are food-related, all business concepts are eligible for assistance.

The retail business incubator offers a wide range of assistance, including low-cost and often free bilingual business education and training workshops that cover such topics as business plan preparation, marketing and sales, customer service, bookkeeping, computer basics, business management and financial literacy.

According to Hererra, El Pájaro’s business teacher and mentor Vinicio Vides has transformed the lives of hundreds of small entrepreneurs. “It is thanks to him that many have succeeded in business and have created assets for their families and their communities,” she said.

One such beneficiary is José  Chávez of Salinas, who is poised to open the Village Bakery at the Tynan Village apartment complex on Front Street.

In 2016, the city of Salinas contracted with El Pájaro to provide business development services to local entrepreneurs and small business. The contract also included identifying potential tenants for the vacant commercial space at Tynan Village.

Vides had previously counseled Chávez and his wife Guadalupe in 2003 before they opened Sanborn Plaza Market in East Salinas. It proved to be a successful business with its expanded line of Mexican pastries and traditional foods in their deli case, along with fresh produce and groceries.

Then in 2015, Chávez helped his daughter start her own bakery and deli in North Salinas called La Mariposa.

“We helped him learn how to manage, to hire, write job descriptions, but José  has been doing all the hard work,” Vides said. “He was just looking for some guidance.”

The commercial space at Tynan Village is 5,000 square feet, and has sat vacant for 10 years. The city wanted to see a tenant who had the experience and knowledge to handle the complex workload.

Chávez, 65, immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, with his parents and 10 siblings during the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the United States. His hard work shows on his hands, but never on his face.

“He’s always so positive,” Vides said. “It’s remarkable.”

Chávez said he’s ready for the challenge of running the business while managing 23 employees.

“I am happy and have the energy to continue working hard,” he said through Vides’ translation. “I’m also really grateful for the opportunity to serve the people and put others to work.”

The Village Bakery will serve more than pastries and cakes. The business will include a small grocery, and a deli-cafe offering tacos, tortas, tamales, menudo, pozole, handmade tortillas and other Mexican favorites.

“It’s a huge space, and will provide something for everyone living nearby,” Fides said.

The Village Bakery will feed people and feed the economy, of course, but will also feed the confidence of a community that grows from the seeds of each success.

To celebrate that concept, along with a grand 40th anniversary, El Pájaro will hold a special Tacos and Tapas event on Friday, Oct. 25 from 6-9 p.m. at the Kitchen Incubator, 412 Riverside Drive in Watsonville.

Ruiz will be there, making tacos using beef and chicken marinated with her Yoli’s adobo sauce — doing her abuela proud.

“It’s a celebration of a very strong legacy of passion for helping the community,” Hererra said. “We’re grateful for everyone who has played a role in helping us grow.”

Making the next generation better than the one before has always been integral to the American Dream.

María Ruiz says her mother’s success has inspired her in ways she never anticipated.

“She has encouraged us to be hard workers and to do something we love,” said María, who had always dreamed of opening her own business around custom jewelry.

“My mom was always telling me, ‘Mija, you can do it. Start little by little,’ ” she said.

Now the family can lay claim to two businesses, with María running Paloma’s Jewelry Shop online.

“My mom is the first person giving likes to all my posts,” she said. “And she feels proud telling everyone ‘my daughter is like me.’ She is the sweetest woman and the strongest woman I’ve ever met in my life.”

Letters: El Pajaro CDC is a testament to immigrant work ethic

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Salinas native Mike Hale is a freelance writer who shares his time between the Monterey Peninsula and Europe.