Apr 11, 2013

Piñata Shop Thrives in a Changing East Austin

The Ibarra family picks out pinatas for their Easter festivities at Raquel’s Party Land. Photo by Pu Ying Huang.

By Hannah B. Shea
For Reporting Texas

AUSTIN — East Austin is changing, but Isaias Hernandez isn’t complaining. The native of Guadalajara, Mexico, found a successful career selling piñatas in the traditionally Hispanic neighborhood. But as East Austin has become a hot venue for affluent young residents and trendy businesses that have displaced many Hispanics, Hernandez’ shop is benefiting from the boom.

The 45-year-old entrepreneur is part owner of Raquel’s Party Land, a one-stop-shop for fiestas. He has been in business with his sister-in-law Raquel Hernandez for seven years, and manages one of two locations on East Cesar Chavez Street.

Hernandez said in an interview that despite the recent recession and the influx of whites into East Austin, his business is better than ever. “I accomplished the American dream – I bought a house in America, I run my own business, and my children never come home to an empty refrigerator.”

A 1928 city ordinance forced minorities east of what is now Interstate I-35, and completion of the highway in 1962 geographically made the area the “wrong side of the tracks.” But the influx of new residents in recent years has spurred higher-price development and higher property taxes. According to the 2010 Census, in the past decade, the black population of Central East Austin shrank by 27 percent and the Latino population by 9 percent while the number of whites soared 40 percent.

Hernandez says he doesn’t mind the gentrification. “Our community is becoming a lot safer,” he said. “I feel comfortable letting my kids play outside until dark.”

Hernandez believes that the new demographics in East Austin are increasing business. “People from everywhere come here – black people, white people, Hispanic people… everyone loves a fiesta.” Indeed, the appeal of Raquel’s is so broad that it has expanded to three additional Austin locations west of Interstate 35.

Elliot Tretter, a lecturer in the geography and environment department at the University of Texas at Austin, says that with the recent wave of new residents and consumers in East Austin comes a need for different kinds of businesses. It is not unusual to see a taco stand on one side of Cesar Chavez Street and a coffee shop selling $7 lattes on the other.

Although Hernandez says that his business is better than ever, other East Austin businesses have suffered because of the influx of the “new minority.” Many Eastside businesses operated by Latinos or African Americans have disappeared, according to residents.  Many churches, Tejano bars and businesses geared toward minority groups have seemed to fall off the map. Meanwhile, Forbes in 2012 listed East Austin as No. 7 on a list of “America’s best hipster neighborhoods.”

Andy Martinez, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says that East Austin is going through a rejuvenation, demographically and in its business landscape and climate.

“Some businesses are just immune to the economy because they are about family, and the Hispanic community is family-oriented,” he said, referring businesses like Raquel’s. “If they are going to party, they are going to find a way to do it.”

Martinez says that the East Austin community is certainly not what it was 20 years ago. But with an average 150 people moving to Austin daily – with many ending up in East Austin because of its affordable housing, according to local real estate brokers — the community is evolving into a  business-savvy area with a booming housing market and a mix of mainstream and ethnic businesses.

Martinez believes  some small businesses on the East Side may fail because so many owners spend too much time working in their business instead of on their businesses.

“Small business owners here are great at what they do,” he said. “They’re bakers, mechanics, service providers.”  As their businesses grow, they need to focus also on developing new strategies and approaches to reflect changing business challenges.  “They have to step back and work on their business. They need to take a look at the forest and not the trees.”

The Hispanic Chamber recognizes one small business each year that distinguishes itself.  The award winner this year is Joe’s Bakery, on East Seventh Street, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Joe’s manager Regina Estrada, whose grandfather opened the business 50 years ago, attributes some of the success to being innovative adjusting to a changing market by developing a website and social media capability.  The site features vintage family photos, a live Twitter feed and mouthwatering pictures of traditioinal pastries and other menu items.

Staying true to the neighborhood has also been important, she said in an interview.  “We’re not in it to be millionaires; we’re in it because we do what we love.”  Her favorite duty is greeting customers, including many who are second- or third-generation clients of Joe’s.

Hernandez said that Raquel’s has done well in East Austin’s changing business environment because piñatas have crossover appeal. They are a reminder of the rich Latino history in Texas, where Cinco de Mayo has become an increasingly popular celebration.

Hernandez came to the United States when he was 15, and after struggling to find a promising job in Los Angeles, moved to Austin, where his sister-in-law opened the first Raquel’s Party Land in the late 1990s. Hernandez believes that Raquel’s stands out in the community because the stores will custom-build any piñata. Two people at Raquel’s make the piñatas, which take a week to finish. Party-goers usually admire the craftsmanship before smashing the piñata in a matter of minutes.

“Michael Jackson… Michael Jackson was the craziest piñata that we ever made,” said Hernandez with a grin as he held up a picture of the life-size bust of the singer ordered for a birthday party. “It was a challenge but we did it and it looked just like him.”

Raquel’s new neighbors include Progress Coffee and Texas Coffee Traders, modern shops serving East Austin’s young residents of all ethnicities. But the piñata business remains a staple, and a way of life for Hernandez.

“I believe that I did better than my parents, and I want my children to do better than me,” he said about his life. “I push them in school because I want them to do better than me – but if they fall in love with the piñatas business — why not?”