José Hernández displays a bag of dried yellow elderflowers behind the counter of his store on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. “This is good for diabetes,” he said in Spanish.
Tronadora is a popular herb that helped save Hernández’s suitcase shop from closing down. When the suitcase market hit bottom due to the COVID-19 outbreak, he turned to selling herbal remedies, taking inspiration from his rural Mexican upbringing.
Now, his store — called La Petaca, Spanish for suitcase — has developed a clientele. People come for all types of herbs and as demand grows, so does Hernández’s range of stocks. The store caters to the needs of members of the Latino community looking for alternatives to traditional medicines.
“Someone 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 other people,” he said.
Hernandez, 48, came to Minnesota in 2003 as an undocumented immigrant from the Mexican state of Tabasco. He said he immigrated in search of a better life and to support his family, but Minnesota has become his home. He worked a variety of jobs before obtaining legal residency in 2018.
A year after receiving his green card, Hernandez began thinking about starting his own business. He’s tired of working for other people.
“I lost my job in 2019, so I started to understand what it takes to start a business,” he said. “I just want to focus on selling suitcases.”
The consultant was skeptical, and the organization he was seeking help told him was not the right time to start a business. “Everyone would tell me, ‘Don’t do this,'” he said.
But Hernández went ahead and opened his store at Mexico Plaza at 417 East Lake Street in March 2020, just as the pandemic was raging. He was soon forced to close the store and then named it J & B Alta Tendencia.
When he finally reopened, Hernández found that COVID had dampened travel so badly that no one was buying suitcases. He comes from a small community where his grandparents, mother and neighbors used herbs to treat ailments such as headaches, sore throats and fevers. So he decided to use this knowledge to turn to selling herbal medicines.
The store was in danger of closing again just weeks later due to civil unrest that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020. Protesters demonstrated for several nights on Lake Street, where the police department’s 3rd Precinct is headquartered, and several businesses were looted and burned.
Hernandez’s store, about two miles west of the Third Ward, was not attacked, but merchandise was thrown away as neighboring stalls were looted or damaged. Hernandez, who doesn’t like discussing what happened, said it was important he was still able to work.
Most of his clients are from outside the Twin Cities, which keeps business afloat, he said. Some even travel all the way from North and South Dakota to source the herbs.
As with any business, there are good and bad, Hernandez said. Like many in Plaza Mexico, the store is currently running low on stock, as vendors tend to offer fewer items at the beginning of the year to save money. The business is entering some slow months.
“Some days we sell nothing, and some days we sell a month’s worth,” he said. But he added that he wasn’t worried, smiling and pointing upwards: “He’s the one who decides everything.”
Earthy and floral scents permeate a small, compact space. The walls are covered with dried herbs, vitamins and over-the-counter medicines from different countries in Latin America. Several suitcases sit on the high wall above the herbs, a reminder of how the business got started.
Hernández’s limited English skills limited his client base, as well as non-Latino shoppers who were unfamiliar with herbs and skeptical of their use as alternative medicine. But he said he’s grateful that Minnesota gave him the opportunity to live out his dream.
“Americans don’t understand our customs — they don’t understand how tea lowers blood sugar levels,” Hernandez said. “We don’t know everything either. But it helps, and the drug helps.”
this story is from you sahan magazine, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to reporting on immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota.Register a free newsletter Receive Sahan’s stories in your inbox.