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Photo: Zairi Mercader
Undergraduate student uses her love for her culture and community by starting a Puerto Rican food business at Penn State campus. Photo: Zairi Mercader

Zairi Mercader, the hands behind the Puerto Rican food business at Penn State

The undergraduate student is pursuing a double major in Marketing & Spanish and stands out for being part of different student organizations.

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Zairi Mercader is a charismatic undergraduate student at Penn State University pursuing a double major in Marketing and Spanish, with a minor in Information Systems Management. 

Mercader was born in Puerto Rico to two deaf parents, who faced many challenges while trying to raise her— witnessing the struggles that people face and how people with disabilities are treated, allowed Mercader to be more empathetic and use her ability to speak to translate whenever her parents needed assistance. Despite their efforts, they were unable to care for her, prompting her grandmother to assume that parental role. 

She credits her grandmother for who she is today, a young woman with values and appreciation for cooking. Also, for persuading her to move from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the age of eight. 

Photo: Zairi Mercader

A piece of Puerto Rico in Pittsburgh 

Upon arriving in the U.S., Mercader started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to help her learn and transition better into American society and school. 

“I ended up really liking it here,” explains Mercader, who recalls always finding opportunities to speak about Puerto Rico. “Projects in school, I would always talk about Puerto Rico. I would always talk about a certain type of food,” and as the president of the Spanish Club she would bring flan or mangú.

She recalls students referencing “that’s a Puerto Rican girl,” when speaking about her, something she is extremely proud of.

When Hurricane Maria hit, Mercader was able to fundraise $3,000 in her high school, which was predominately white. She was able to bring a Puerto Rican feast for the classroom that raised the most money.

“I always wanted to stay and fight for my culture—be within my culture,” explains Mercader. “I just have so much love and passion that I always have to do something along those lines.” 

Photo: Zairi Mercader

Finally Home at Penn State

Mercader was able to attend the institution thanks to a few scholarships and the financial support from her family. At the time she applied, she was interested in being a Political Science and Spanish major, eventually changing political science for marketing.

She was not prepared for the culture shock of attending a predominantly white institution and the student population—which is massive.

However, what reassured her that Penn was the right place for her to attend were the new student orientation leaders and campus tour guides—their excitement, commitment, and the way they made sure she felt included inspired her to be part of this dynamic.

Also, Mercader is the President of the Puerto Rican Student Association (PRSA), Vice President of university relations for Penn State Latino Caucus, and the university relations chair for Women in Business. 

Photo: Zairi Mercader

“Being the president of the PRSA is very important to me because I can represent the Puerto Rican community at Penn State,” Mercader explained. “I can be the face of PRSA and give back to the Puerto Rican community just like they gave back to me—it’s very fulfilling for me.” 

There hasn’t been a moment where she has felt alone. She has had the support of past presidents who have assisted when needed. 

Prior to Mercader becoming president of PRSA, the club was struggling with, and continues to struggle with the divide that exists within the Puerto Rican community. She discusses the division between the Puerto Ricans that are from the island that migrant directly to Penn State, and the Puerto Ricans that were born in the States and may not speak Spanish, but still come to PRSA for that sense of belonging.

“It was nice for me to be president because I felt like I can kind of understand a little bit of both sides,” reiterates Mercader. 

She believes she is able to bridge some of that divide even as vice president of the Latino Caucus by learning about the Latinx community, culture, and history as a whole. According to her, the organization has students from Dominican Republic, Colombia, Salvador, Peru, Mexico, and Paraguay.

Mercader recalls what motivated her to join the different clubs, stating that during her Penn tour, she was advised to join one cultural club, one fun club, and one professional club. Women in Business ended up being her professional club. 

Being part of Women in Business at Penn State has provided professional growth, networking opportunities, and professional exposures to Mercader, who was able to travel to New York and discover she would love to live there someday. 

“Women in Business has helped me professionally and Latino Caucus has helped me just understand and meet a lot of different Latinx students,” emphasized Mercader, who is considering studying abroad some time next year. 

Zee’s Kitchen

Mercader also has used her passion for cooking and love for her community to create Zee’s Kitchen, a Puerto Rican food business at Penn State campus. 

As she told Al Día News, there was a lack of diverse cuisine tailored for the diverse student population on campus. To meet this demand, Mercader decided to start Zee’s Kitchen that would serve Puerto Rican food like coquito, pastelillos, among other dishes. 

She wanted to incorporate “Boricua eats” somewhere in the logo, because she wanted people to know no matter what she made, it’s always going to be Boricua style.

She created an Instagram page for Zee’s Kitchen, allowing students and anyone interested in purchasing food to place an order—prompting her business partner Khalil Frazier to offer delivery at an additional fee. 

Due to her academic pursuits she is only able to cook once a month for Zee’s Kitchen—it is time consuming, sometimes an overnight task to prep everything in time to be sold the next day. 

Mercader is driven, focused, and determined to succeed in life and bring her community with her along the way. Recently being crowned 2022 Latinx Royalty at the Noche Latina pageant, she expressed feeling insecure to participate in the pageant but thought maybe someone in the audience would feel represented if given the opportunity to see her.

“[If someone is in the audience] thinking the same thing I’m thinking, they can see a plus-size woman up there and be like, I can run too—I can represent my culture beautifully,” Mercader attest. “It was very challenging for me because it gave me a little bit more confidence because everyone kept telling me I did a good job.”

Mercader represented Puerto Rico by wearing a cultural dress called a traje de jibarita, brought from Puerto Rico by her grandmother and biggest supporter. During the talent portion, Mercader paid tribute to her deaf parents by signing a mash-up of Marc Anthony’s “Preciosa” and Bad Bunny’s “Desde el Corazón.” 

Photo: Zairi Mercader

In her monologue, she spoke about her parents and the love she has for her culture, and how elated she was to become the president of PRSA.

But despite the many triumphs she goes back to what she knows, her community and relationship with her grandmother and their daily rituals from Puerto Rico, drinking café con leche (coffee with milk)—an act that  symbolizes unity for the Boricua community. 

Recommendations for students

Mercader insists that it is important for students to find their community on campus, especially if attending a predominantly white institution as a minority. 

“It’s very easy to lose yourself,” emphasized Mercader, who recalls the importance of having cafe con leche with fellow Latino Caucus members—something that reminds them of Puerto Rico.

Mercader aspires to be a Latin American Marketing Researcher serving the Latinx community. 

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