Store offers Latinos a little taste of home

Foods: Hispanic shoppers craving chicharrones and canela sauce welcome an Oakland Mills store's ethnic offerings.

January 21, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Angela Ortiz goes to the Sam's Mart in Oakland Mills because it has the best fried pork skins in Columbia.

"When they're the only ones you can find, of course they will be the best," said Ortiz as she bought several bags of the skins, known as chicharrones in her native Mexico.

Even though about half of the county's nearly 7,500 Hispanics live in Columbia, Sam's is the only area grocery store with a significant concentration of Latino food. And even Sam's has only three small aisles of items such as tortillas, sweet canela sauce and plantains.

While more common foods can be bought in supermarkets, many items are hard or impossible to find. Hispanic residents have long said that they need a grocery store, but local leaders say the community does not have the buying power or organization to attract a large Latino market in the near future.

"It's something that the area needs, but it will be very difficult to do," said the Rev. Jorge Fonseca, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana de Columbia.

From the outside, there is no indication that the Sam's Mart is Columbia's chicharrones capital. But instead of the usual generic background music played in most convenience stores, a salsa beat is always heard at the Oakland Mills Sam's. And in the back of the store are cans of skinned cactus, rows of Latino spices and preserved mole sauce - a dark brown, richly flavored syrup.

"Almost like home. Except we don't have Twinkies there," said Ortiz as she walked down the aisle, putting cans of hot sauce into her basket.

Ortiz lives in the Shadow Oaks Apartment buildings, which are walking distance from the Sam's Mart, so going to the market is not much of an inconvenience for her. But immigrants who live in other parts of Columbia and do not have cars have to carpool to Sam's.

"We come here every few weeks to get enough things like this. ... It would be nice to have something closer, but this is our only option," said Alejandra Ruiz, a Salvadoran native who lives in Elkridge, as she got several packets of dried corn skins to make tamales.

Chaudhar Kalid Mattmood, the store's Pakistani-born manager, acknowledges that he does not understand the music or the recipes favored by his Hispanic customers. But he estimates he sells about $2,000 worth of Hispanic food items a week, making them his most profitable products.

"I'd like to have even more, but we're almost out of shelf space," he said.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia said that Hispanics had about $580 billion worth of spending power in 2002, making them the third-biggest-spending ethnic group behind whites and blacks.

But the study also pointed out that Hispanics are mainly concentrated in the West, South and in New York, and that Hispanic buying power is noticeably weaker in the mid-Atlantic states.

Many local Latino leaders say they are not hopeful that there will be a large Hispanic grocery store soon.

"At this point, the local Latino population doesn't have the organization to have a large grocery store," said Murray Simon, president of Conexiones, a group trying to help Hispanics get better access to education.

Furthermore, many area Hispanics travel outside Howard County to do their grocery shopping. "At lot of people know to go to Silver Spring or Laurel for food," said Alexandra Simon, an administrative assistant with the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, a Columbia group that works with immigrants.

But to Columbia immigrants with a yen for tortillas and hot sauce, Sam's Mart is still their window to familiar tastes in an unfamiliar environment.

"It doesn't snow like this at home, so anything to remind me of Mexico is welcome," said Cristian Rivera, who moved to Columbia three years ago from his native Mexico.

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