Telegraph Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz

As The Oaklandside’s reporter covering small, immigrant- and POC-owned local businesses, I do my best to tell stories about the people behind the storefronts—Oakland entrepreneurs who work hard every day to improve the quality of life for their families and others in the city. 2021 proved to be another long year for these small businesses’ owners, as the pandemic lingered and many scrambled to find ways to stay afloat. 

A lot of local establishments had to contend with fewer customers, supply-chain issues, permitting problems, and overdue rent payments. Still, some longtime immigrant and Black-owned business owners were able to keep their doors open with help from their friends, families, loyal customers, and strong community networks. 

I wanted to highlight just a few of the articles I wrote this year that showcase some of the people who through their businesses and other efforts—whether serving up delicious plates of fried chicharrón and mofongo, or helping refugees resettle in the Bay Area—contribute to making Oakland such a richly diverse and beautiful city.

Puerto Rican restaurant La Perla, a hidden gem in Oakland

Chef Jose “Cheo” Ortiz standing in front of the new, soon to be opened location of La Perla in Oakland’s Dimond district. Credit: Courtesy of La Perla Credit: courtesy La Perla

Jose “Cheo” Ortiz has been making mouth-watering Puerto Rican dishes since his days cooking for the now defunct Borinquen Soul. Now he operates La Perla, a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Dimond district that opened earlier this year. Ortiz and his family began La Perla modestly—cooking out of the small kitchen located inside a nearby convenience store, Two Star Market, on MacArthur Boulevard. But when Ortiz’s food began making waves, he decided he needed a bigger space and eventually signed his current lease at the much roomier storefront location on Fruitvale Avenue.

Ortiz read my family-run business story about Cozy-Wok, a father-and-son-owned Vegetarian Chinese takeout restaurant, and asked if I could write about his family and their grand reopening. So we met in December of 2020 and he told me about his beginnings in Puerto Rico, how he came to settle in Oakland, and what owning a business in the city means to him. 

The article turned out to be a hit with locals and with Puerto Ricans in Oakland—and elsewhere. One Puerto Rican woman from a small town in Texas wrote to me and asked that I congratulate Ortiz on his reopening. “I hope we get something like this here soon,” she said. 

Oakland fortune tellers predict the future in an uncertain time

Tarot card reader and psychic practitioner Alia Curtis at her home in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

Growing up in Los Angeles, I always used to pass by a shop with a big neon sign that read “fortune telling and tarot card readings.” I never went in but I always wondered what kind of people these fortune tellers were: Could they really tell the future? Did their business actually make money?

As the pandemic wore on into 2021 and people’s stress levels (including my own) rose due all of the uncertainty, I got to thinking again about fortune tellers. A friend suggested I reach out to local practitioners in Oakland to see how the pandemic had impacted their businesses. After cold-calling pretty much all of the local fortune telling shops in Oakland that are listed online, I was able to speak with two longtime Oakland fortune tellers who were willing to share how they found their way to this unique business, and how they were faring. 

‘We’re back to being people’: The first night without masks at Oakland’s bars

I knew I wanted to write something about California’s “reopening” day last June, when the state officially lifted most COVID restrictions, including a loosening of mask mandates, social distancing requirements, and capacity limits for indoor businesses. But I was having a hard time coming up with a unique angle.

When the day arrived, I discussed it with our news editor Darwin BondGraham and we decided that I would visit a couple of Oakland’s bars, figuring that’s where people would flock to that night. I posted a question on Twitter, asking people to suggest spots they’d like to see me visit. Most of the picks were located in North Oakland and downtown.

But looking to cover a greater swath of the city, I decided to bar hop instead from one end of Oakland to the other—deep East to North Oakland—before capping off the evening downtown. After finalizing my list, I called a friend and asked if they wanted to tag along and watch me interview spirited Oakland residents talking about how it felt to finally be back out. He said yes, and we ended up having what was arguably one of the most memorable nights of our lives. 

Scarred but resilient: Telegraph Avenue emerges from the pandemic

The gothic Cathedral Building marks the beginning of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

The inspiration for this collaboration came from a Los Angeles Times project, “A Year of Change on Pico Boulevard.” 

Both The Oaklandside and our sister newsroom, Berkeleyside, were interested in documenting the impact of the pandemic on businesses, and we wanted to do it by covering a major commercial corridor in depth. We decided on Telegraph Avenue, which spans large parts of both cities. 

I enjoyed the process of working with Berkeleyside reporter Supriya Yelimeli and The Oaklandside’s photographer, Amir Aziz. In all, we spoke to more than 30 business owners. I enjoyed seeing the final product when it was published—it really popped off the screen, thanks to the efforts of our News Platforms Director Doug Ng, Editorial Director Tracey Taylor, and Executive Editor Francis Dinkelspiel. Honorary mention goes to Sarah Han, our former Nosh editor who helped conceptualize the project in its early stages. 

East Bay Afghan residents process grief amid rush to resettle refugees

U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Credit: Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force via AP

One of my favorites from back in 2020 was a story I wrote about Rasul Salahi, the owner of Rasul’s Rugs on Grand Avenue. He sold Afghan carpets there for 24 years until deciding to close the shop after the pandemic hit. His kids, Ali and Madina Salahi, spoke lovingly about their father and the memories they had of growing up around the business. 

So in late August of this year, when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan once again, I decided to localize the story by checking back in with the Salahi family. I also reached out to Oakland and Berkeley organizations involved in helping Afghan refugees resettle in the Bay Area and connect with mental health services. It wasn’t typical of the stories I generally report for my small business beat, but a memorable one for me, and I hope informative for our readers.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.