Marisa’s Fashion is a model for west-side Hispanic-owned businesses

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City are becoming the staple in the local economic landscape. The rise of such businesses began in the early to mid-1980s and has become prevalent due to the influx of people migrating from other states and other countries. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019 says Hispanics or Latinos are the largest non-white ethnic group in the city.

Despite their growing numbers in Salt Lake City, the presence of Hispanics is not as commonplace compared to places like Los Angeles or Houston. While Hispanic-owned businesses in those cities are typical in their local economies, their impact went unrecognized in Salt Lake City until recently.

Marisa’s Fashion was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City. The store is located at 67 W. 1700 South.

“Marisa’s Fashion is one of the first Hispanic-owned stores in Salt Lake City,” says Refugio Perez, a local business owner and entrepreneur who started the clothing and general retail store 40 years ago. After arriving from California and receiving settlement money from a work-related injury, he started Perez Enterprises and created Marisa’s Fashion from it, naming the store after one of his children.

“It is the only one that is still in business out of an initial group of five stores that were established,” Perez says in Spanish.

The store located at 67 W. 1700 South has had the support of the Hispanic community from the beginning. Although at the time the Hispanic population in Salt Lake City was small, people around the Wasatch Front and other states knew of Marisa’s Fashion and came to shop there.

“We started to grow quickly because there weren’t that many places and people were limited as to where they could shop,” Perez says. “We had people from as far as Ogden, Park City and Wendover [Nevada] coming to our store so it worked out for us and we were able to grow our business.”

Refugio Perez is the founder of Perez Enterprises. He started Marisa’s Fashion in the early to mid-1980s.

Marisa’s Fashion grew as a result of demand but also from knowing the responsibilities of running a store. One of the challenges in today’s business world is lacking that knowledge. Perez says some Hispanic entrepreneurs today go in ambitiously without being aware of basic operational skills.

“Nowadays, someone starts a business and they do it without knowing the basics of how to start or run a business,” he says. Aside from the legal and financial responsibilities, staying on top of technological advancements in the digital age is essential in today’s market.

“There have been a lot of professional Hispanic businesses of late and that’s why they are important tools for success,” Perez says.

The longevity of Hispanic-owned businesses is determined by the ability to overcome obstacles. Perez says it has not always been easy staying on track, especially in times of a national crisis.

“9/11 really affected us,” Perez says. “I felt at that time that the State of Utah was the last to get hit economically because of what happened in New York.” An analysis from online small business website The Balance says the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused a recession at the time to worsen. Perez decided to hand over responsibility of Marisa’s Fashion to his brother as a result.

“I told him that if any of the businesses survived, I’d prefer it be his and that’s what happened,” Perez says. Since then, the business has carried on in Salt Lake City’s west side. Economic downturns and other setbacks aside, Hispanic-owned businesses like Marisa’s Fashion and Perez Enterprises continue to grow and establish themselves permanently in the area’s commercial landscape because of the economic and social influence they have.

Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.”

In his welcome letter to the 2019 Hispanic Small Business Summit, Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.” Statistics website Statista reports the buying power of the Hispanic community in the United States is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by the end of 2020. (That figure was calculated before the impact of COVID-19 in March 2020.)

“Latinos are contributing a lot not only with their businesses but with their taxes and it’s something that I think governments should really pay attention to,” says Moises Olivares, a Realtor and author based in Los Angeles, in a Facebook chat. He also says Salt Lake City can learn from cities like Los Angeles by expanding the perception of the Hispanic community as more than just what is propagated through stereotype.

A February 2019 study from the Peterson Institution for International Economics says “Hispanics, especially the foreign born, exhibit higher levels of entrepreneurship than other ethnic groups in the United States.” Despite these findings, Perez from Perez Enterprises says the Hispanic community in Salt Lake City still lacks recognition for its overall economic contribution. 

The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helps Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in the local economy while helping them comply with city regulations.

“People like to spend cash,” Perez says. “We know that helps business, even [non-Hispanic] businesses. If they did not have the economic support from the Hispanic community, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Regardless, Salt Lake City’s west-side Hispanic-owned businesses continue in spite of setbacks, crises or perceptions from others. Weathering the ups and downs of the market, cultural shifts, and technological changes helps businesses like Perez Enterprises and Marisa’s Fashion endure for as long as they have.

“When one is patient and is secure in the knowledge that they have to keep at it and keep going,” Perez says, “it becomes important so we can keep fighting and not give up to the last breath.”

Editor’s Note: Read more stories about local entrepreneurs, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the impact of the Hispanic community in Utah.