Walking through the large Barrio Logan warehouse that contains San Diego Public Market, you're greeted by the vibrant colors of fresh, locally grown produce and the spicy scents of culturally diverse foods. Among the few stands that set up shop every Wednesday and Sunday at the market is Saida Soto.
You can find Soto in her makeshift kitchen, her hair wrapped in a scarf, doting over her freshly made tortillas while simultaneously serving a plate of her chile rojo and hollering out directions to her small army of doñas who serve as sous chefs. She never seems to stop moving.
Soto, often sweetly referred to as "the tamale lady," is a longtime Barrio Logan resident. Originally from Colima, Mexico, the 59-year-old immigrated to the United States and established roots in the barrio in the early 1970s. A few years later, she and her family took over New Mexico Café, which has been at Newton Avenue just around the corner from the market since 1942. She's co-owned it for more than 30 years, watching as other businesses in her neighborhood come and go and fighting to stay afloat herself.
When San Diego Public Market was being planned in the largely Latino community, there was resistance. An us-versus-them mentality was fueled by the fear of gentrification, competition and the possible loss of Barrio Logan's rich cultural history. However, Soto believed that the market could invigorate the community and quash Barrio Logan's negative reputation. She spoke to community members to help quell their fears.
"This market is something good for the community, for us," Soto says in her native Spanish. Seated in a bright-orange booth at her restaurant, she explains why.
"It's going to bring a lot of benefits and tourism," she says. "The people who created the market are very organized. A lot of people say, They're going to take this away or add that,' but they don't take anything from us. No one can take away our culture or what is our original cuisine."
It wasn't a one-way street. For the founders of the market, Soto offered an opportunity to bring in the area's flavors and build a bridge with residents.
"Days before we opened the first farmers market at the San Diego Public Market, Saida confided in us that her existing restaurant in Barrio Logan was struggling," says Catt White, the market's co-founder, in an email. "We welcomed her to do a market booth to give her restaurant additional exposure, and also because it made sense for the tamales and tortillas and great Mexican food we wanted at the market to come from one of our Barrio Logan neighbors. We put Saida and her tamale cart right up front to remind people that our Barrio Logan community is a key element of the Public Market project."
Since the market's opening, Soto's had more customers come to her restaurant on market off-days to eat her flavorful tamales, savory menudo and other tasty eats.
Even with her success at the market, Soto works hard to keep her business going, starting her work day at 3 a.m. and often not paying herself a wage.
A big problem for Soto is that the café doesn't have a liquor license. As any restaurateur can tell you, the markup on alcohol can provide a huge boost to a small restaurant's revenue. Soto's applied for a license with the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) four times and been denied each time. She says she was denied most recently because New Mexico Café is across the street from Perkins Elementary School. However, Blueprint Café, which opened four years ago and is just 154 feet from New Mexico Café and Perkins Elementary, has a license to sell beer and wine.
"Sometimes I cry about it," Soto says. "People want to have a beer with Mexican food, and we can't give it to them. It affects my business. I don't understand why we keep getting denied but they didn't. It feels like an injustice. We don't have the money or the connections, and sometimes it feels like discrimination. I don't begrudge them the license. They're very nice people. But why them and not us?"
Jennifer Hill, an ABC spokesperson, says the last record of an application by New Mexico Restaurant Corporation was in 1998, and it was denied in 1999 after about a year of investigation. No information as to why Soto was denied is available because records are purged every three years.
Soto says she re-applied for a license after Blueprint Café opened, but ABC has no record of that.
Hill says many factors come into play when deciding whether to approve an alcohol license, including a business' proximity to schools and homes, crime rates and input from the community.
Soto doesn't have the money to apply at the moment but hopes to try again. In the meantime, she's excited about what the public market can do, not only for her café, but also Barrio Logan.
"The market has been a blessing," she says. "I think it's going to be a beautiful thing."