Latinos flock to 'oasis in the middle of Annapolis'

September 16, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

The realization of Juan Rivas' version of the American dream started with a dry throat.

Driving through Annapolis about two years ago, Mr. Rivas noticed lots of Hispanic faces but was amazed when he couldn't find a store that sold Latin products -- like the soda he craved -- that were so easy to get near his Montgomery County home.

His unquenched thirst gave birth to an idea: he would open a market that catered to Annapolis' burgeoning Latino community.

America Latin Grocery has achieved a milestone, surviving its first year. Life is difficult for small businesses: About a quarter fail within two years and more than half close after four years, according to statistics compiled by the Small Business Administration.

One reason for America's success is a ready clientele. Annapolis is home to a rapidly growing Latino community.

Although only 483 people of Hispanic origin were recorded in the 1990 Census, many more have arrived in the four years since it was taken.

"I know it's there. I know it's grown. But I don't know how much," said Alexander D. Speer, Anne Arundel County's demographer. "I know there's more than 483."

Mr. Rivas said that in the past three months alone, he has seen about 200 newcomers.

Most of Annapolis' Latinos, who are drawn to the city because work is plentiful in its restaurants and hotels, live in apartment complexes on or near Forest Drive. America Latin Grocery is nearby, sandwiched between a vacuum cleaner business and a barbershop.

The shelves are lined with the customary staples such as beans, tortillas, crumbly cheese and other foodstuffs from Latin America.

It is a one-stop shop offering products and services, and it saves local Latinos a trip to Baltimore or the Washington area.

You can buy U.S.-made products such as Tide detergent, but he also sells soaps that would be more recognizable to his customers: Rinso from El Salvador and Ariel from Mexico.

There are all sorts of dried chiles. And mortars and pestles to grind dried corn into a doughy masa. And presses to form tortillas out of the corn masa.

You can pick up votive candles with paintings of King David, the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. And then there's the bottle of "Peace Water," a "powerful Indian house blessing" that comes with these directions: "Pour half the contents of this bottle into a tub of warm water, stir the mixture while reciting the 23rd Psalm, concentrate on your desires while bathing."

There's more. One wall is lined with Spanish-language videos for rent, where you can pick up the latest action picture by Roberto "Flaco" Guzman or a comedy starring the late Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas.

A bit farther down are the cassettes, with the latest salsa hits. The biggest seller is the current craze from Mexico -- "banda" music -- which sounds a little like a mariachi backed by a German "oom-pah" band.

Customers can even send packages back home or reserve airline tickets.

Not that Mr. Rivas satisfies every demand. Hilleri Fiesler, 19, who was born in Nicaragua and lives in Annapolis, didn't find the Gloria Estefan tape for which she was looking. But she knows she can always find her favorite tropical fruit, a jocote, which is similar to a mango.

Her parents used to shop in the markets of Washington and its suburbs with their large Latino communities. "But this so close," she said. "It's a good service. Nice people."

Inge Kyriacou stopped by to pick up some tortillas, tamales and three Spanish-language newspapers published in Washington.

"I get them all and read them all, just try and find out if there's something about my country," said Ms. Kyriacou, a native of Ecuador. There's no Spanish-language radio or local newspaper, she noted. "There's no way to know what's going on. So you come here and get a little something."

Not all of America Latin Grocery's customers are Hispanic. Don and Betty Hutchinson of Riva, a community south of Annapolis, came in to pick up some of the green chile sauce they have grown to love.

"We like to try a little bit of this, a little bit of that," said Mr. Hutchinson.

Mr. Rivas said many of his customers are what he calls "Americanos."

"Americanos come looking for books in Spanish to teach their children," he said.

"Sometimes they come looking for cassettes of music in Spanish to teach their children. Sometimes older Americanos come who want to study Spanish because they visit Latin countries."

As did the old general stores, America Latin Grocery has become a crossroads for Annapolis' Latinos.

"This place has turned into a center for communication," Mr. Rivas said. "People who want to ask about certain things, they come here: for a clinic, for a doctor who speaks Spanish, for a lawyer.

"Also, people come here to ask about work," Mr. Rivas said. "Many Americanos come with notes that say they need some workers."

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