Equal Access to Economic Opportunity

Plaza VigilIn 1979 a group of community members got together to organize the business owners of the Lower Main area in Watsonville in order to lobby for protecting their rights and obtaining equal access to business opportunities from local government. The community members recognized a need among Latino, Spanish-speaking business owners to obtain help in the form of access to business loans and other aid from local sources. At the time there had been talk about razing some of the buildings on the Lower Main area in order to build other buildings and promote economic growth, but this action would have displaced many Latino business owners. Concerned community members decided to form an organization that would organize the Latino, Spanish-speaking business owners to address perceived injustices and make sure their voice was heard in local government.

One of these community members, Karen Osmundson, helped with the organization, fund raising, and assistance that contributed to the formation of the El Pájaro Community Development Corporation. The group has support from the local newspaper, many community members, and local business. “We met at a family owned restaurant called Mona Lisa Restaurant for our organizational meetings and fund raising events,” Ms. Osmundson reminisced, “we brought bands in from South America to raise funds for the El Pájaro CDC. The Mona Lisa Restaurant was already a hub of activity for the community, and it became more so when we started meeting there.”

Because of the founders’ tireless work in organizing and fund raising, the El Pájaro Community Development Corporation incorporated as a non-profit, public benefit corporation in 1979 and has been promoting equal access to economic opportunity in microenterprise development since that time. For almost thirty years El Pájaro CDC has organized local business to promote their rights and obtain access to business resources, has offered free bi-lingual, bi-cultural business assistance to Spanish-speaking business entrepreneurs, created job opportunities in Watsonville and the Pájaro Valley, and promoted economic development in downtown Watsonville.

Reaching the Low-income, Minority Community

The El Pajaro CDC started because of the need for the underserved and dispossessed of the community to have the ability to access economic opportunity. By organizing local business entrepreneurs and offering free business education the El Pájaro CDC has been instrumental in bringing about a change in the economic prosperity of many business owners and in the development of downtown Watsonville. One of the El Pájaro CDC founders, Ms. Osmundson, thinks that without the El Pájaro CDC there would not be as many Latino, Spanish-speaking business owners, nor any Latino, Spanish-speaking people on the City Council. “The CDC is the reason for these successes,” she said.

Reviving Downtown Watsonville

Ground Break Downtown Watsonville was devastated by the Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989. Watsonville was only a few miles from the epicenter of the earthquake that registered a magnitude of 6.9. Many of the buildings along Main street had to close because of structural damage. Watsonville was particularly vulnerable to the effects of the earthquake because of the economic status of the business owners and residents in the area. Little money was available for reconstruction and many of the business owners had to close their stores permanently because of the damage of the earthquake and lack of funding resources.

Gary Smith was the Assistant City Manager and Fire Chief at the time and became involved in the El Pájaro CDC because of the Plaza Vigil and the new links that El Pájaro CDC had made with the city. “I got involved with El Pajaro CDC right after the earthquake,” he said, “the Earthquake was horrible, but it also brought mixed blessings. Because of the earthquake the Federal government put a lot of money into Watsonville to help with redevelopment.” Susan Olson was the Director of the El Pájaro CDC after the earthquake and recognized the devastation as well as the blessings that came with it. “In fact the quake was a blessing because it changed that economic development aspect of the community,” she said, “it would have moved at snail’s pace without the destruction of the quake: about every other building was condemned. Without the quake Watsonville would be falling apart, the quake brought a major focus on economic development.”

The El Pájaro CDC saw the devastation of downtown Watsonville, and many Latino-owned businesses, as a chance to reinforce the economy by supporting business entrepreneurs in new ways, such as through the Plaza Vigil.

The Loma Prieta Earthquake and the Plaza Vigil Incubator

After witnessing the devastating effects of the Loma Prieta earthquake on the retail business of downtown Watsonville the leadership of the El Pájaro CDC conceived of a building of retail business spaces that would help Latino, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs start or retain their business by giving them the resources to do so. Raymond Vigil, who was one of the founders of the El Pájaro CDC, was on the board of directors at the time and really pushed for the building to be completed. “Raymond Vigil is the one that kept the organization going,” Gary Smith said of Mr. Vigil, “he was involved in the community by encouraging voter registration and promoting small business development for Latinos. He was passionate about getting Latinos engaged, productive and happy in the community. It was because of his passion for Latino involvement that he rallied around the El Pájaro CDC and what it stood for.” Mr. Vigil pushed for the retail incubator building to be built on the land that the El Pájaro CDC had purchased on the corner of East Beach and Union Street.

Plaza Vigil under construction
At the time of building the El Pájaro CDC was low on funds. They secured funds from sources like the Federal government, and the City of Watsonville to ensure that the building would finally be finished. The City of Watsonville became very involved and supportive of the El Pájaro CDC and its incubator building project as one of the many ways it supported economic development in Watsonville. Since that time the City of Watsonville has had a close and productive relationship with the El Pájaro CDC.

At that time the CDC was finishing building the Plaza Vigil but it was not yet named. “The Board of Directors voted unanimously to name the building Plaza Vigil after Raymond Vigil,” Board Member Gary Smith recounted, “I had the opportunity to tell Ray. It was on the day of the opening of the Plaza, a beautiful sunny day, and Ray was beaming with excitement because his dream had finally come true of having a business building that would promote Latino small business development. I told him that the Plaza was to be named Plaza Vigil after him. He sat for a while without saying anything, then he turned and looked directly into my eyes and said ‘I didn’t want anything from this. But the Board of Directors has given me everything.’”

El Pajaro CDC is now best known in Watsonville for the successful Plaza Vigil retail business incubator that opened in 1996. Sister Susan Olson was the Director of the El Pájaro CDC at the time and she was excited about the victory of building and opening the Plaza Vigil: “Everyone was saying that the Plaza Incubator would fail,” Ms. Olson said, “it succeeded though, and helped the downtown Watsonville to come back, from nothing!”

Supporting Microeconomic Development

Since the beginning El Pájaro CDC has focused on job creation and supporting Latino, Spanish-speaking business entrepreneurs by offering free bi-lingual, bi-cultural business training and technical assistance. In recent years the El Pájaro CDC has focused on expanding its services to a greater population by forming partnerships with local government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Through partnering with local government agencies and non-profit organizations the El Pájaro CDC has been able to expand its services to a larger region and a greater population. El Pájaro CDC is now offering business training and technical assistance to the tri-county region of Santa Cruz, Monterey and San-Benito Counties in collaboration with many partner organizations. For more information visit our Partner page.

Transforming Lives through Entrepreneurship

“The direction of the El Pájaro CDC has always been to help Latino entrepreneurs to become self sufficient through their business,” Sister Susan Olson says, one time Director of the El Pájaro CDC. El Pájaro CDC has helped hundreds of business entrepreneurs over the years to start their own business, expand their business to other areas, or to reclaim their business form devastating events such as the Loma Prieta Earthquake. El Pájaro CDC has formed partnerships with local government agencies and non-profit organizations in order to make a greater impact for equal access to economic development. See our Client Stories page to get a sense of how the El Pájaro CDC is helping individual Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs become financially sustainable.