President, Mercado on Fifth
Corporate Community Liaison, Group O
UW Majors: International Studies; Chinese
Maria Ontiveros is the president of a dream come true. She’s a cofounder of Mercado on Fifth, a popular Quad Cities destination where families, artisans and foodies gather to celebrate Hispanic culture.
“It’s a public space that welcomes the whole community, but Hispanics are the majority,” Ontiveros says. “People feel proud to be Hispanic here; it’s a place for people to connect with their roots.”
Along a block on Moline’s Fifth Avenue, not far from the Mississippi River waterfront, Mercado on Fifth hosts a weekly festival-style market throughout spring and summer, featuring live music, kids’ activities, and locally made eats and treats.
The gatherings began as a longtime wish of Maria’s grandfather Bob, a Quad Cities business executive and philanthropist who died in early 2022. Together, they worked alongside family and community partners to create his vision for an outdoor market in the mostly Hispanic Floreciente neighborhood where Bob grew up.
Ontiveros recalls that the neighborhood had a “hidden home economy,” where residents quietly opened their homes and garages to sell homemade Hispanic foods, such as tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and tres leches cakes.
Thanks in part to Ontiveros, many of those home cooks are now officially in business. While hosting the weekly outdoor night market, Ontiveros also infused the nonprofit organization with business-development resources. She worked with local banks and community partners to offer programs in both Spanish and English, including more than $78,000 in micro-grants for minority-owned businesses, a food-sanitation certification course, and no-cost business workshops.
Mercado on Fifth has supported about 130 small businesses and nonprofits since 2016. Today, vendor spaces at the outdoor markets offer local Hispanic chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs a place to thrive with pride, and, Ontiveros says, to inspire the next generation.
“They’re out at Mercado and sharing with a greater community that wouldn’t have found them otherwise,” she says. “It’s good for young people as well. When teens come to the space, they can show their non-Hispanic friends their culture and have a place where they feel they are the majority.”
Ontiveros has grown Mercado on Fifth’s team and led the way to 2022’s big reveal: the grand opening of a new, permanent facility. With space indoors and out — including a patio, dedicated food-truck lane, walk-up window, and minority-business incubator space — Ontiveros says Mercado on Fifth now can welcome the community year round.
Ontiveros says her personal journey in community service began while a student at UW–Madison. She volunteered in the kitchens of Slow Food UW and at local farms and taught English while studying abroad in China.
Today, Ontiveros is Corporate Community Liaison at Group O, a multifaceted company specializing in supply-chain, packaging, and incentive marketing services. She manages the charitable arm of the firm, which her grandfather founded and grew into what is now one of the largest Hispanic-owned U.S. companies. Ontiveros also serves on the boards of MetroLINK, Visit Quad Cities, United Way Quad Cities, Quad City Arts, Two Rivers YMCA, and the WAA: Heart of Illinois Chapter, which named her Badger of the Year in 2021.
This fall, Mercado on Fifth is introducing a new signature tradition to the Quad Cities: a Dia de Los Muertos parade. The inaugural parade for October 2022 will honor loved ones who passed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We will be a host for communal grieving and provide some closure for that horrible phase,” Ontiveros says, “while also celebrating being alive and honoring a beautiful Hispanic tradition.”