Nogales saw a burst of activity last weekend when demonstrators participating in an “Encuentro at the Border” packed city streets, crowded local restaurants and filled hotel parking lots with cars tagged with out-of-state plates.
“It looked like a busy town,” said Carmen Arochi, the sales coordinator at the Quality Hotel Americana, which served as headquarters for the Oct. 7-10 event organized by the group SOA Watch. The so-called “convergence” brought an influx of nearly 2,000 people to Ambos Nogales to attend demonstrations, workshops, vigils and concerts, according to founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois.
It also brought an economic windfall for some local businesses.
The Americana was booked to capacity with SOA Watch organizers and participants from around the country, a first for the hotel on Grand Avenue, owner Kirkman Lok said.
“It more than tripled our typical revenue,” he said. “And not only are they staying overnight here, but they are also occupying hotel rooms on both sides of the border. And we know that they are also eating in restaurants. And we know that the art gallery sold pieces. So the trickle-down effect on the local economy is tremendous.”
With many businesses struggling to stay open in a sluggish economy, “new dollars” from tourists are essential to revitalizing the community, he said.
The decreasing value of the peso has cut into revenue for local hotels, which get most of their business from travelers coming from Mexico, said Tom Bhakta, owner of the Siesta Motel, next to the Americana. The weekend conference, which filled all his rooms, was a huge boost, even if it doesn’t represent a stable source of business, Bhakta said. He noted that on a normal weekend, barely 10 percent of the Siesta’s rooms are occupied.
El Krazy Tako, a family business just two doors down from the Americana, also saw benefits, said manager Veronica Leon. The small restaurant was swamped with customers on Saturday night, bringing in more than twice the revenue of a normal Saturday.
“They filled it,” she said. “The people who usually come here to eat left because it was so full.”
Restaurant staff worked overtime, with even the dishwasher helping to cook. By the end of the night they had run out of carne asada, chicharon, adobada and more, though many of the visitors were vegetarians, Leon said.
Waitress Kathleen Flores described people asking strangers to share a table so they could squeeze in as many people as they had chairs, adding that her tips that night were great.
“I’m pretty sure everyone in Nogales would like to repeat that, I mean, business people,” she said, though she and Leon admitted that they didn’t know much about what brought their new customers to town.
That’s something that SOA Watch organizer Maria Luisa Rosal said she wants to fix if the group returns again next year for their annual gathering.
“We don’t want to exclude the local community,” she said, but confessed that while they built many relationships with organizations in Southern Arizona, they hadn’t necessarily reached residents in Ambos Nogales.
“Some people were saying, ‘I wish I would have known,’ so that tells us that we need more outreach,” she said. “That would be a positive challenge for us in the future.”
Still, increased business for local vendors and hotels on both sides of the border is a great side effect of the group’s efforts, Rosal said.
It’s that kind of economic benefit and community engagement that helped them gain local support in Fort Benning, Ga., where SOA Watch has staged demonstrations for the past 25 years, said founder Bourgeois.
Better outreach would have helped local restaurant Jardines prepare for the spike in customers this weekend, said owner Alma Martinez. The business was happy to see their sales up, but was also somewhat overwhelmed by the unexpected crowd on what they expected to be a quiet Saturday, she said.
But even if things weren’t perfect, Americana owner Lok was glad just to see that so many people came to this “friendly, quaint” town, and expressed hope that it will help change outside perceptions, he said.
“I think the most important thing is that people are going to see now that Nogales is safe and it’s going to create more popularity and more people are going to come here,” said Claudia Sandoval, general manager at the hotel.
The participants in the SOA Watch gathering “had a wonderful time” and “a positive experience to the point where they want to come back again,” Lok said, allowing Nogales to showcase artists, food, events and the “pedestrian friendly” downtown where people can easily walk across the border.
“Now, next year hopefully we’ll have a larger crowd and we’ll get the community ready in anticipation and roll out the red carpet,” he said.