Fiesta Mart was founded in Houston 46 years ago to cater to the Hispanic population. This store, located at 4200 San Jacinto St. is one of the only grocery stores in the immediate area, serving the residents of Third Ward for decades. I used to buy groceries here.
Fiesta struggled in recent years to maintain its customer base amid mounting competition from larger grocers such as H-E-B and Trader Joe’s which heavily favor higher income neighborhoods when choosing where to build new locations. Lower-income families, such as the ones in Third Ward, have access to fewer supermarkets and other healthy food retail outlets that provide a wide selection of affordable, nutritious foods. Food deserts, areas with no or distant grocery stores, are generally in communities where most residents can buy food only at “convenience” stores, liquor stores, gas stations, or fast food restaurants that sell foods high in fat, sugar, and salt.
The Fiesta Mart located at 4200 San Jacinto had been leasing its site from Rice University, which owns multiple blocks in the immediate area. On July 10 th 2020, Fiesta Mart closed the doors of this location and decided not to operate past its current lease. It cited competition as its main reason for closing.
I spoke to some of the employees at this location just three days before its permanent closure. They told me they were notified just the day before the closure during a staff meeting and were reassigned to other locations throughout the city, if they chose to continue working for the company.
This is Berto. He told me he’d been working at this same Fiesta for about 30 years. I asked him if he planned to take the company’s offer and continue working at a different location. He said, “No, I don’t think I’m going to do that. I think this is the end for me. I’ll probably move back home to Mexico to be with my family.”
Overall, about 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, nearly half of them in low-income areas. According to a report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, nearly a quarter of a million people in the Houston area lack access to healthful food.
Consequently, children growing up in families trapped in food deserts are at risk of becoming obese and developing early hypertension and full-blown high blood pressure that can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Almost 1 in 4 children (23.2%) in Houston/Harris County are food insecure.
Getting to stores that offer a greater variety of foods is often challenging since many families lack cars and many city and state governments have cut back on investments in public transportation. I live right down the street, and the only things left nearby are gas stations, bars, and fast food. The nearest grocery store is an H-E-B on the other side of the freeway from my neighborhood. It’s a far walk, and at any given time of day you’d have to take two buses to get there.
The I-69 underpass is in close proximity to the recently closed Fiesta. Many houseless people in the area take shelter under this freeway. Fiesta used to be a quick walk away from where these people would take shelter. Houseless people in the area would often go to this Fiesta to buy food and water and escape from the Houston heat. It was 103 degrees the day I took this photo.
People scrambled to take advantage of Fiesta’s closing day sales. Eggs, dairy and meat were sold at 50% off. I saw many families stocking up on food as they made their last trip to this iconic Fiesta location.
Within days of it’s closure, Fiesta was boarded up and its gates were closed off. I do not see nearly as many people on the streets nearby anymore. I imagine they migrated to other places to find resources, as they’ve lost their only source of fresh food and water in the area. It feels like a ghost town now.
Rice University is renovating the historic Sears building on Main Street, just across the street from Fiesta. They plan to turn it into Ion, a 270,000-square-foot office and collaboration center designed to house startups, corporations, venture capitalists, and others. Rice Management Company gave a presentation to dissuade Student Association members from supporting a Community Benefits Agreement, a legally binding agreement that calls for a range of benefits to be produced by the development project. Allison Thacker, the President and Chief Investment Officer of Rice Management Company, said a lack of affordable housing and resulting displacement in the Third Ward is not a direct or immediate consequence of the Ion.
I wonder what they’ll do with the property, now that Fiesta is gone. I wonder what will happen to our community.
About the Writer: Gerardo Velasquez is a Mexican-American photographer, born and raised in Houston, Texas. He is best known for his work as an actor in various stage and film productions. He most recently won the Houston Press Theatre Award for Best Breakthrough Performance. When he’s not on stage or on a film set, he takes to the streets to document the happenings of his neighborhood in Third Ward and the greater Houston area. He hopes that through his photography, he can give a voice and face to people often overlooked by our city and society as a whole.