Maria Perez is one of the many vendors in downtown Santa Ana fighting to survive the construction effort putting modern streetcars back onto one of Orange County’s oldest business districts. 

She was strong enough to survive the pandemic. 

But like many of the shops around her, she may not survive the streetcar. 

The $509 million dollar streetcar project, which has spent years tearing up downtown Santa Ana, closing entire street sections to install tracks down the midst of Fourth Street, is killing her business, Chevitas Juice & Bagels, which Perez opened in 2018. 

Perez has never known anything other than work. From her childhood, she helped her mother wrap corn husks around cooked meals, selling on the beach fronts of Acapulco, all while balancing the food on her head.  

In the late 1990’s, she came to the United States and carried on the tradition. 

For over 20 years – before owning her own shop – she walked the hot pavement of Fourth Street, known locally as La Cuatro, with her wired grocery cart, feeding all the merchants who spent their days in their shops. 

The entire street block knows her. 

Through their patronage, they helped her achieve her dream, opening up her own brick-and-mortar shop. 

But aside from feeding businesses for so many years, some credit Perez for the courage to come out of the shadows – to speak out against the changes happening downtown and organize her community during the early construction of the streetcar project.

Closures for work on the project, headed up by the Orange County Transportation Agency, began in August 2019. Major visible protests were triggered as early as 2022 in opposition to what local Latino merchants dubbed a “Train to Hell” – a 4.15 mile route that will run from the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center to as far as the intersections of Westminster Avenue and Garden Grove. 

Perez helped bridge connections between merchants who had never said a word to each other but eventually connected through protests. 

“She got us all together, and we started raising our voices,” said Ana Laura Padilla, the owner of Perlas Restaurant. 

Perez,  like many business owners, doesn’t know if she will make it tomorrow,  and wonders if there’s a hidden agenda to get rid of them entirely.

Maria Perez prepares juice orders for clients on Thursday, March 20, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

She is not alone.

For the past four years, government officials have been hearing from the merchants. 

The help has been minimal, according to business owners. 

And slow. 

“Let’s call it what it is; it’s gentrification,” said Shawn Makhani, a Persian business and property owner that sells fabrics on Fourth Street. 

“Chevitas closing is terrible, actually, she is a hard worker. Every morning she provides food and drinks for merchants, now she has to go, and this is the future for all of us, people who cannot pay rent have to leave, and that is what basically gentrification is, they drive your business out, you don’t have customers, you lose your business and you are out. This is plain explanation of gentrification, and that is what the city of Santa Ana is doing.” 

Shawn Makhani protests in Downtown Santa Ana on April 21, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

At the Santa Ana City Council’s last meeting on April 18, 2023, Perez took the microphone in public comments to announce her store’s closure that would be happening that weekend.

“It is impossible and difficult to swim against the current of the authorities that authored the permits of the train. They didn’t contemplate the economical disaster that it created to the businesses of Fourth Street and in these moments we are an economic disaster provoked by the construction of the train,” said Perez holding back tears, at times to no avail. 

“You did help us, but put your hand over your heart and think about the help that you gave us. Was it fair? The economic disaster provoked upon Fourth Street businesses is the greatest injustice.” 

Perez’s public announcement hit the merchants in an emotional spot, reminding them that despite recent strides like getting the local business tax district dissolved – arguing it led to inequitable local business promotion – the fight continues. 

Her plea, however, was a last prayer of sorts. 

Maria opened her store the following Tuesday, hoping someone would come through with some help. 

But it didn’t seem like anyone was coming to rescue her. 

“I was waiting for a miracle,” said Perez over a phone interview on Tuesday, “we will most likely be closing this week.” 

But for merchants, it’s struck them with the hard truth that any one of them could be next. 

“Honestly, it is so sad; we are all waiting and seeing when we will also have the moment we close our doors,” said Vicky Cerpas, who sells quinceañera and bridal dresses on Fourth Street.

“Maria is a woman who has worked (with) a lot of great dedication, just like us with our business. Her closing is very impactful, and it has affected me deeply,” Cerpas said, adding, “We are on the same boat.” 

More than a dozen merchants gathered last Friday to close down the intersection of Main Street and Fourth Street. 

Their efforts were set against a loud chorus of speeding cars and honking horns. 

Many said they wanted to take a more aggressive approach, planning to close down the intersection of Main and Fourth and walking to City Hall to deliver a list of demands personally. 

They’re also asking for state grant money to be released from its ‘pending’ limbo.

“The City of Santa Ana is planning to use $1.5 million in State funding for another round of grants, but that funding has yet to be received. We don’t have a timeline yet for when that State-funded grant round will be available for businesses,” said Paul Eakins in an email to Voice of OC. 

At City Hall, they were met with police officers telling them they couldn’t make noise inside of city hall and waiting to speak to someone that could offer some insight into their demands. 

Merchants walk to Santa Ana City Hall on April 21, 2023. Upon arrival, police officers inform the protestors they cannot make noise inside the lobby. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One vendor by the street was nearly struck by a car.

 “I knew I would do a lot for my neighbors, but until today I realized I would almost give up my life,” the vendor said afterward.

Paul Eakins, Santa Ana’s Public Affairs Information Officer, walked out to greet the protestors and listened to their pleas for over 15 minutes. 

“We want a meeting with the City Manager, City Mayor Valerie Amezcua, Marc Morley and want to talk about fair distribution of Tom Umberg money,” said Ginette Sanchez, who runs a health supplement and Zumba business on Broadway. 

Sanchez’s remarks were met with nods from the other protestors. 

The downtown merchants handed over a paper with their demands. 

Many were visibly frustrated, asking where all the money had gone when they could expect the next batch of aid, and why they had closed down a public parking resource on 3rd St. and sold it to a private developer.

Merchants speak to Santa Ana’s Public Affairs Information Officer, Paul Eakins, right, on April 21, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Merchants left after making one promise: 

If they did not get a meeting scheduled, they would be back.  

Meanwhile, Maria keeps up her own fight.

She is uncertain about her future.  

But she remains resilient. 

Some days she wakes up thinking a saving grace will fall onto her lap. 

Other times, she sits alone and soaks up the stark reality of her situation:

Money is tight. Supplies and rent have to be paid. 

She debates herself on whether it’s time to go back to the cart.  

Yet this week, a lifeline of sorts appeared out of nowhere.

From the fruits of her labor, her activism.

As always, her work ethic inspires.

Her latest fan turns out to be her landlord. 

“He has seen how hard I have worked and seen the street closures,” she said. 

“He didn’t want me to close up.”

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