How A Peruvian Immigrant Fights Racism & Marketplace Inequality In A Declining St. Louis District.

Updated: Sep 13

#entrepreneurship, #zeebeemarket, #proimmigrant, #antiracism, #mosaic

Julio-Zegarra Ballon came to the US from the country of Peru in 1990. This was shortly after he had graduated college and after he met his American-born wife who had spent three years in the country, initially through an exchange program that became a much longer stay. The couple began their lives together during a period of heightened civil unrest in Peru. The ongoing conflict is between the Peruvian government and the communist party known as the Shining Path. Though recently dormant, this conflict has lasted for over forty years and is technically still going on today. Back in the late 80s, Julio remembers how unnerving this was at the time for the newlywed couple.

"Her family was completely worried every day," says Zegarra-Ballon. "All the news was about another bombing--it was never good." The couple later moved to the US and started a family together. Zegarra-Ballon grew up as one of six siblings in the city of Arequipa. It’s located not far from Peru’s southern border with Bolivia and lies just a few hours inland from the south Pacific coastline. With a population of around one million people, it’s the second largest city in the country.

He now lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri where he owns and operates ZeeBee Market. ZeeBee Market specializes in selling fair trade goods to consumers. Since launching in 2012, the market has grown to two storefronts, with its main location in the city’s South Grand commercial district. It’s been thirty years since Julio first came to the US. He had previously spent some time living in Europe prior to living in the states. For Julio, the experiences of living overseas and in the US have brought his current work into sharp focus. Through his business, he’s able to provide customers with a small glimpse into the lives of people from a vast array of unique cultural experiences.

This is something St. Louis is fervently seeking in order to draw in new residents. At one time, the city boasted a population of nearly one million people. Today, the population is only around three-hundred thousand. The city's white population has remained steady, while blacks have been exiting and are now less than half the population. In order to spur growth, the city launched an initiative through its World Trade Center known as The Mosaic Project. Suzanne Sierra is the Senior Program Manager for Mosaic. As a daughter of immigrants, Sierra recalls having to do her own fair share of networking to find job opportunities.

"We know that immigrants are more likely to start a business than others," explains Sierra. "We want to be sure that when newcomers arrive in St. Louis, they have the support they need." Sierra asserts that it not only makes economic sense to support immigrant entrepreneurship, but that the indirect benefits are also highly valuable. Part of the key to helping ensure a welcoming environment is to tap in to the "collective goodwill" of the community as Sierra describes. This naturally assumes a desire on the part of longterm citizens and companies to want to help new Americans become integrated.

But that assumption becomes challenging in the face of St. Louis' history. When Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer in 2014--the city's racially divided geography resurfaced as a point of study. As with other cities, policymaking and legislation had spurred the practice of housing segregation. A street became the boundary dividing north and south, as if a microcosm of Mason-Dixon itself. Now in 2020, the old divisions are just as clear, yet reaching for the ideal of a rich cultural mosaic could make the difference.

The act of welcoming, according to Sierra, involves a shared human connection. Having seen Julio Zegarra-Ballon work to build those connections has been a source of inspiration. "He has such resilience, along with a determination to give back," says Sierra. Prior to going into business, Zegarra-Ballon had the chance to connect with other people of color through the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative. He credits the experience as the primary motivator for launching his own business. "Had I not gone through that experience, I may not have gone into business for myself. I may not have had the courage to do it." The connections he fostered through the initiative have stuck with him for years. It's part of what led him and his wife to be highly intentional when finding a home in the city. They found an older home to renovate near a once thriving commercial district. It's here that his family enjoys cultivating friendships across lines of race and economics; this stands in contrast to the sprawling isolation of suburban living.

Zegarra-Ballon had gotten a small taste of suburban insularity when living in Indianapolis. Upon moving to St. Louis, he and his wife were determined to disrupt the paradigm of simply going from home to work. "We said 'no' to that right away," he says. Choosing instead to live in a transitioning urban neighborhood, Zegarra-Ballon notes the coded language that others used when cautioning his family on where to settle. "When people would say, 'that's a neighborhood in transition, they're really saying it's a place where a lot of blacks are renting. [The inference] is that it's dangerous. But that's the mentality that needs to change. We need to build the kinds of communities where our children can grow up celebrating a beautiful tapestry of differences."

As a fair trader, Zegarra-Ballon also has a mission to promote equity as a business owner. Though in the wake of the pandemic, he had to pivot like many other entrepreneurs. He had to lay off several workers while diverting resources to his online presence. However, Zegarra-Ballon hopes to increase his web marketing acumen in order to bring greater visibility to the fair trade movement. While years of disinvestment have led to his neighborhood's decline, so has the city seen its own decline through missing out on a unique opportunity. Revitalization will come through spreading welcome for people of color along with connections that improve the collective goodwill.

Please note: this article is published by GigRoots in coordination with Welcoming America. Welcoming America is leading a national movement of cultivating inclusive communities. They work with non-profits and local governments, providing tools and resources to help make cities places where everyone can belong. Through their network, we’ve spoken with local leaders and business owners actively contributing to strengthening their communities.

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