“My mom says I decided to become a lawyer because I’m always arguing,” says Gabriela Mendoza. “But I argue because I’m defending other people! And because I want to make a difference and help people.”
On June 7th, because of her work helping local businesses avoid displacement, Gabriela will be one of the individuals and organizations JPNDC will honor at its Annual Meeting. Shortly after hearing this news, Gabriela sat down to share her story with JP & Me. The first thing she says is that she felt just a little awkward.
“It’s hard to talk about myself because I’m the person who likes the working and doing rather than the limelight,” Gabriela says.
However, she’s in the limelight for this very reason. Gabriela’s work is crucial to Jamaica Plain. Like so many residents, small businesses are at risk of being priced out of their rental spaces no matter how long they’ve been here. The number one thing that can help them is good legal representation, and Gabriela has been at the forefront when it comes to navigating the legal nuances of anti-displacement negotiations. Most notably, she has been spearheading the negotiations for El Embajador, a 25-year-old Dominican restaurant on Washington Street.
Before gracing the Boston area with her presence, Gabriela was a girl from San Pedro, California living with what she calls “a big Mexican family.”
“Throughout my childhood, we lived in both California and Mexico,” she says. “I would see poverty and abandoned children when we would cross the border, and thought ‘what can I do?’ I wanted to help children, so I had to decide between law school and medical school. Law school won out.”
After graduating from Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Gabriela’s drive to become a lawyer led her to Suffolk University in 1994. She stayed in Boston to work in a general practice firm where she handled a variety of cases, and in 2001, opened her own general practice.
Some of her family began moving out to join her and she found herself calling Southern California ‘home’ less and less over time.
Gabriela knew she was part of the Boston community when she was asked to serve on the board of a Latino social services agency. She has since leaned in to her role of advocate for Spanish speakers. It was a culture shock for her, coming to Boston from the West Coast and becoming a part of a “minority.” While speaking Spanish there is normal, speaking it in Massachusetts can raise some eyebrows.
JPNDC became part of the picture when her friend and then-Small Business Services Director Alison Moronta would refer clients to Gabriela on a pro bono basis.
“Small businesses often get roped into contracts for credit cards they don’t want and we’d help them,” she says. “And eventually, we gravitated into helping small businesses who were being dislocated or evicted, specifically those along Washington Street like El Embajador and DeChain Auto.”
For over two years, El Embajador has been fighting to keep its prime location. The struggle began in 2016 when City Realty Management (CRM) bought the premises where the restaurant has been located for over 25 years. CRM began making plans for a mixed-use residential and commercial building. Soon after, the owners of El Embajador and their neighbors, De Chain Auto, started receiving notifications that they would have to move out.
“Now it was Carlos
“We asked, if anything, that they fix minor electricity and plumbing, and demolish the space. We fixed up plans for what the new place would potentially look like. Then all of a sudden, there were crickets. A few months later, we saw they had put up a ‘for rent’ sign.”
CRM told Gabriela that the restaurant took too long to respond so they decided to lease the space to another business.
At that point, Gabriela and Carlos reached out to the City of Boston for help. The “JP/Rox” plan had recently been adopted and throughout the 18-month process, community members had strongly advocated for measures to protect small businesses against displacement. Karilyn Crockett, Director of Economic Policy and Small Business Development, and City Councilor Matt O’Malley have been involved in numerous ways since then.
“At El Embajador, the owner sometimes cooks for you. Some of his staff has been with him for over 20 years,” she says. “It’s very family-oriented and the building can get really full, especially on the weekends. It’s incredibly hard to find a comparable space.”
CRM’s most recent move has been to put the property up for sale, explaining that they decided it was too challenging to comply with the JP/Rox Plan’s affordability requirements. A listing for the space El Embajador occupies that recently appeared on Craigslist and Zillow—for $2.9 million, compared to the $1.6 million paid two years ago—states that “there is a tenant at sufferance that can be moved out by a new owner.”
“The more the community is behind El Embajador, the more whoever buys it will think twice before kicking them out,” Gabriela says.
Gabriela says she has represented several businesses in similar situations—faced with new owners who are doubling or tripling rents, or that have already been evicted. Sometimes they call her or JPNDC too late, the day of the eviction.
“There’s a lot of abuse towards small businesses,” she says. “Sometimes in their excitement, business owners will overlook red flags or simply not realize that they’ve been locked into a lease with increasing rent in short periods of time. They can also enter into service contracts that bind them for years or that automatically renew, even after being re-assured that they can cancel anytime. This is sometimes just because the typeface is so small and they rely on the words of the service representatives! Many of us don’t read fine print but it makes all the difference in cases like this.”
Despite the challenges, Gabriela’s involvement and her close collaboration with JPNDC have resulted in new, manageable leases for a handful of businesses like Erika’s Beauty Salon and Boston Express Multi Services.
“That’s when I find my job the most rewarding—when at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve done something,” she says. “People may come in to my office and feel like their problem is huge because they don’t understand it. As attorneys, we can lay it out for them. When it’s done, they’re excited to be rid of that stress. And when they’re happy, when they get their results, that makes it worth it for me.”
Seeing the impact of her work also reminds Gabriela that Boston is her home now.
“I want to be a part of JPNDC’s work with the community,” Gabriela says. “If I have the skill, I want to share it. If you have a skill and you’re not using it to help people, why have it?”