Six days each week, the plate-glass front door at Herrera’s Jewelers in downtown Fresno hardly swings open.
The exception is Sunday, a day when co-owners Berta Herrera and husband Armando Toribio do about 80 percent of their business.
Why Sunday? For one, many of their store’s regular and most loyal customers are undocumented farm laborers. During the week they’re busy.
But that’s not the only reason, as Herrera kindly explained.
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“They’re scared,” she said. “Sunday they feel more safe because they think no immigration is working.”
Walk inside Herrera’s Jewelers – provided you can find the entrance through the ever-shifting maze of construction fences indicating the transformation of the Fulton Mall into Fulton Street – and you’ll see a mishmash of items for sale: rings, necklaces, watches, perfume, cowboy boots, kids’ backpacks and clothing.
But most of the customers aren’t looking to buy. They’re coming in to send money to family members in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
A typical farm laborer whose family is already in the U.S. will send between $150 and $500 per week, Herrera said. Those separated from family send between $1,000 and $2,500.
No one ever sends more than $3,000. Why? Because any more than that, and the sender is required to show proof of income.
“Nobody will be making that amount,” Herrera says, “at least in the fields.”
Herrera’s Jewelers is a point of sale for three money transfer services, each with slightly different rates depending on how much one sends and where it gets picked up. Herrera and Toribio work with each customer to ensure they get the best deal.
Because Herrera’s Jewelers does so much volume, it also offers the best exchange rates and lowest fees around.
“That’s why I come,” said Baldomero, a 28-year-old plumber who sent $220 to his father in Guatemala and would only smile when asked his last name.
We have a lot of loyal customers. I hope they keep coming when the street opens.
Blanca Herrera, co-owner of Herrera’s Jewelers on Fulton Street
Several have closed. Herrera and Toribio are fortunate because their money exchange rates keep people coming in, at least one day each week. Many cash their paychecks and some use layaway to pay for expensive items, like a wedding ring.
They also have a lenient landlord who takes their rent check on the 15th but doesn’t deposit it until the following month.
Through word of mouth, the couple has heard about the city’s bold hope to turn Fulton Street into a nighttime entertainment district with restaurants, cafes and nightclubs occupying the newly laid wide sidewalks.
How Herrera’s Jewelers and other Fulton Mall-era businesses that cater mostly to lower-income Hispanics fit into this plan is an open question. It’ll largely depend on how much revitalization actually takes place.
Toribio isn’t worried about that just yet. Instead, he questions why the $22 million construction project didn’t include a public restroom. (Answer: The grant used to pay for the project was all about the roadwork and didn’t allow for building things like restrooms.) Also, he’s concerned mall regulars will not be as comfortable in the new environs.
“A lot of them like their kids to be able to run around,” Toribio said. “Now, with the street, I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Maybe my customers will go someplace else.”
Business ice cold at Casa Latina botánica
The ice cream freezer at Casa Latina hasn’t been restocked in weeks. Nor is it stationed near the front door, where the selection of frozen, flavorful treats is more accessible to Jesus Diaz’s customers.
Why not? No need. Since April 2016, when construction crews started tearing up the old mall, they stopped coming.
“I used to fill this thing up once a week,” Diaz laments, nodding toward the freezer. “Now it’s been three weeks and it still has a lot of ice cream.”
Casa Latina is a botánica. It sells religious candles, statues and trinkets; folk medicine; incense; amulets; and cosmetics. A life-sized wooden statue of a Native American warrior in full headdress stands inside the front window saluting all who pass by.
Before construction, business was steady. A slow day would still put $600 to $700 in the cash register.
“Sometimes I make $150 per day,” Diaz says. “For this place, that’s not good. Look around. There’s nobody here.”
The only people inside the store, besides Diaz and myself, are his wife and daughter. He had to let two part-time employees go because he didn’t have money to pay them. Nor does he have the money to pay an $1,800 PG&E bill that’s two months’ overdue. But he must find a way, because the utility company recently sent a seven-day notice.
I don’t have any more money.
Jesus Diaz, owner of Casa Latina botánica
“We’ve got to have A/C,” Diaz said, because without it many of his products would melt in the Fresno heat.
“If I show you my accounts, it’s empty,” he added. “I don’t have any more money.”
Diaz is hopeful things will pick up once Fulton Street opens – the grand opening celebration is scheduled Oct. 21 – and his customers can park right outside.
But he’s also wary that the city’s plans for a revitalized downtown core might squeeze him out anyway.
“If we don’t have customers and they raise my rents, what am I going to do?”
New flavor for longtime agua fresca stand
Unlike most businesses down here, La Chiquita does not have a physical address.
That’s because La Chiquita is a mobile stand selling six flavors of agua fresca (10 on weekends), fruit cocktail, churros, popcorn, nachos and bacon-wrapped hot dogs that come smothered in mayo, mustard, relish and chili. (Burp.)
Every morning except Tuesday, their day off, Juan Jose Ruiz and his 20-year-old son Joseph wake up at 5:30 to purchase fresh fruit. Then they pick up supplies before heading to a small space they rent to prepare that day’s drinks and food.
After that they trailer the cart to the Mariposa Plaza, its location during construction. Before that, the family operated two carts, one in front of CVS and the other at the corner of Fulton and Tulare.
Where will they be once Fulton Street reopens?
“We still don’t know if the city is going to allow us down here,” Joseph Ruiz replied with a shrug. (The city is still working on a plan.)
The family, which has owned and operated La Chiquita since 1989, isn’t taking chances. Next month, before the opening, they’ll move into a permanent location at what’s now a vacant storefront next to China Express. The place will be called Antojitos Mexicanos Ruiz, and they hope to keep the cart operating too.
I see not just Hispanic people but people of all different races down here now.
Joseph Ruiz, on the changing clientele on Fulton Street
“We’re ready to take on the challenge and responsibility and excited that the street will bring more business for us,” said Joseph, who will manage the store in addition to majoring in fire technology at Fresno City College.
At age 7, Joseph started serving water to his dad’s customers. In the 13 years since he’s seen Fulton Mall go from a bustling place, at least for the Hispanic community, to nearly deserted during construction.
Lately, though, the mix has started to shift as more and more people head downtown to poke around and see all the changes.
“I see not just Hispanic people but people of all different races down here now,” he said. “It’s good to see other people here. That’s what I think about when I think about a mall. Stores for people of all colors.”
Kind of like flavors of agua fresca.