One of the vendors at Mercado del Pueblo in Humboldt Park. Credit: Facebook

HUMBOLDT PARK — After months of selling small-batch honey from an old truck on the side of the road, Elias Bustamante and Ariana Romero, the duo behind Chicago Honey Truck, were gearing up to open their own shop early last year.

Then the pandemic hit.

“Businesses were closing down, especially retailers. That made me think twice about opening up a store,” said Bustamante, who lives in Humboldt Park. “I started searching on cafes and restaurants and the rules with them changed. I thought it was a smart thing to hold off.”

But thanks to a local organization and the city, the couple’s journey didn’t end there. They are now selling their products in a new market alongside more than a dozen other local entrepreneurs and makers.

The Puerto Rican Cultural Center has transformed an old laundromat at Division and Rockwell streets into a market called Mercado del Pueblo to help small business owners like Bustamante and Romero launch their careers — and to attract more people to Paseo Boricua, the heart of Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community, during the pandemic.

The organization received money through the city’s INVEST South/West program to open the indoor market, 2559 W. Division St., and invite small business owners and entrepreneurs to set up shop rent-free. It’s an extension of ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo, the outdoor market the organization’s leaders launched in spring 2019.

The Chicago Honey Truck booth at Mercado del Pueblo. Credit: Provided

Nadya Henriquez, with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, said the indoor market is a direct response to the pandemic, which has prevented small business owners from growing their businesses and forced the closure of many established mom-and-pop shops.

“We knew small businesses were hit. Our entrepreneurs were hit, as well. We made it a goal to really help,” Henriquez said.

Mercado del Pueblo celebrated its grand opening last week. The market is open 4-8 p.m. Fridays and 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m Saturdays and Sundays. The majority of the vendors are Latino and Black entrepreneurs who live in Humboldt Park and the surrounding area, and who hope to eventually open their own brick-and-mortar shops.

Cayita Suren, who lived in Humboldt Park for many years before moving to West Town, is selling hand-knit headbands, scarves and gloves at the market.

Suren learned to knit at an early age, helping her grandmother sew undergarments out of a factory in New York. Since then, she’s dreamed of opening her own store, where she could sell her wares and teach people how to knit. She never thought it was possible until Mercado del Pueblo.

The opportunity comes after a summer of extreme loss for Suren. Four of her family members died from complications of COVID-19: two sisters in Chicago and a brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Puerto Rico, where her family is from.

Suren said knitting and selling her creations at the market is as cathartic as it is enjoyable.

“Sitting down, knitting and crocheting, you focus more on what you’re doing. It won’t let you think of all these other things,” she said.

The market is also a way for Suren to keep her sister’s spirit alive. Before she died, Suren’s sister, Nancy, made Puerto Rican food and cakes for the outdoor market. Suren said she would get up at 5 a.m. to help her sister cook and bring the food over to the market.

“It was beautiful,” Suren said. “She would make empanadas, sofrito, fajitas, tacos — she would cook so much. She would bake pineapple turnover cake.”

Now Suren is following in her sister’s footsteps and selling her own homemade creations.

“It’s been a dream come true, them giving me the opportunity,” she said.

The grand opening of Mercado del Pueblo. Credit: Facebook

Miriam Aguilera, a Mexican-American immigrant, sells bracelets, earrings, crucifixes, hand-painted mugs and more at the market.

Aguilera started making bracelets and painting mugs about 10 years ago after her son was diagnosed with autism. She said the doctors recommended she find a hobby to alleviate stress with her son in and out of therapy.

“That was an escape, my therapy, and at the same time it came to empower me because I had to quit my job,” she said in Spanish.

Aguilera, who lives in suburban Cicero, has sold at other markets and in front of a Pilsen church before. But Mercado del Pueblo is her first stable gig, a “great blessing,” she said.

The Humboldt Park market is Aguilera’s family’s main source of income. Her husband recently lost his job due to the pandemic and “Mexican crafts came to rescue us,” she said.

“Now I have stable income,” she said. “I know that Friday, Saturday and Sunday I have a job to go to and pieces to prepare.”

Henriquez with the cultural center said Mercado del Pueblo is unique because vendors can able to sell their products and receive advice and resources to grow their businesses and strike out on their own. The incubator is funded through the city’s Small Business Improvement Fund.

Bustamante and Romero said they got a business license with help from the resource center. They also plan to take marketing classes through the program.

It’s a burgeoning community that can band together to support other entrepreneurs. This weekend, the mercado is hosting a fundraiser for a local artist who is struggling to pay costly medical bills after undergoing brain surgery.

The broader goal is to make the market a fixture for Paseo Boricua and in Humboldt Park, which has lost some of its Puerto Rican identity in recent years as gentrification takes hold, Hendriquez said.

“There’s a lot of history on Paseo Boricua, and obviously gentrification is always a threat to our community,” she said. “Part of being so adamant about protecting Paseo Boricua is so other people, the children of the people who are here right now, can have something in the future and not just say, ‘I grew up in Humboldt Park and there’s nothing left of the Puerto Rican community.’

“It’s so they come back and they still have something they can call home … there’s a lot of history, things that have happened here, amazing artists, a lot of culture and we just want to continue growing it and making it better so people can stay here.”

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_