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

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 Ivy league 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…

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