Hanging from the ceilings of Santa Fe’s Latino supermarkets are effigies of Winnie the Pooh, Donald Trump, bespectacled Minions and other colorful characters. Shoppers can also purchase candies and other snacks from Mexico, including spicy mango-flavored lollipops and small, pastey sweets called mazapan, made from a blend of peanuts and sugar or honey, to stuff into the piñatas.
The half-dozen markets concentrated below Siler Road have all the ingredients for an ideal kid’s birthday party, which speaks to their role as much more than food vendors. They are community anchors for the Southside, cropping up within the last 25 years as the city’s foreign-born Mexican and Latino populations have grown. They offer comfort foods and cultural products, as well as critical services for people in the fastest-growing part of the city.
Cesar Araiza, who came to Santa Fe 30 years ago from a small village in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, bought the Familia Mexicana market at 4350 Airport Road two and a half years ago, expanding his family’s business sphere beyond the Panaderia y Tortilleria Sani across the street, which he’s owned for a decade. Previously he worked in restaurant kitchens around town, including at La Fonda Hotel and the Lodge at Santa Fe.
Inside the market, a butcher cuts beef into thin fillets in the style of carne asada. Hair products like Moco de Gorila, a type of hair gel popular with young boys, sit comfortably on a shelf next to jars of nopales and above bags of Cheetos that come in myriad spicy flavors.
Araiza’s wife and two grown children help him run the operation, he says, adding to the familial sense he tries to cultivate in his store.
“We know most of the people who shop with us, we let them feel like they’re in Mexico, where everyone says, ‘How are you,’ and talks to each other,” Araiza tells SFR. “If you go to Walmart, they say hi to you, but they never ask you how have you been, if you’ve been back to Mexico, or talk about family. It’s a personal experience.”
Araiza says people in Santa Fe from countries besides Mexico, including Iraq and Kenya, have visited his shop because of the international services on offer. Customers use a special phone at the market to connect with a business through which they can send money back home to friends or family. Most of the Latino markets in town feature these kinds of services.
Familia Mexicana contracts with three different service providers, including Vigo, Sigue, and Western Union’s Orlandi Valuta, all of which work with financial institutions, pharmacies, retailers and other institutions in dozens of countries to facilitate the transfer of funds at a price.
Many of these businesses have a broader array of products that include bill-paying services primarily for low-income people. At Mini Super Delicias at 4641 Airport Road, which also has a butchery inside, owner Raúl Franco says people can come in and pay all of their home bills at once using a service sold by Unidos Financial. The market, which Franco opened in 2007, charges people $1.50 to pay each bill and splits that fee in half with Unidos.
“This is just a convenience. I’m sure they would spend more money if they had to go around, driving around and paying different companies,” Franco contends. He says most of his customers who come to him for the service are regulars and already in his computer system, making the transaction process quick.
Like Araiza, Franco opened his business after he got tired of working in the service industry, and his wife and extended relatives also help him run the shop. Kinship is critical to the maintenance of these small markets, and even workers who aren’t related to their owners can become like family.
Moises Tarango has worked at El Paisano at 3140 Cerrillos Road for almost 20 years. Back then the store was smaller, but offered the wide breadth of affordable herbal medicines and teas that you can still find there today. Tarango’s mother visited the store with her son to buy medicine, and noticed they were hiring. She told one of the store’s owners, Lucia Andre, that Moises was looking for a job.
“I was only 17 years old and I was fresh out of high school,” Tarango now says. “Lucia says to me, ‘I need you to come tomorrow to work.’ I started right there and then, and the rest is history.”
El Paisano, which opened in 1995, is the largest Latino grocery store in town, and its familiarity has sometimes been a liability: Its two locations, one of which is currently not open, have been hit by burglars multiple times in the past few years, including once by a former employee. The store offers similar fare as others in town, but also includes a small tortilla factory in the shop where workers roll out fresh flour tortillas daily. There’s a kitchen that sells burritos, tortas and other Mexican foods at affordable prices. On most mornings, people sit at a small communal table eating bowls of steaming-hot menudo.
In 2011, the City of Santa Fe set up a merchant’s association for businesses on the Southside, which included the majority of the Latino markets. The effort was meant to give the businesses a more unified voice, says city Economic Development Director Matt Brown, but it “fizzled out” within a few months.
In the absence of a city-approved collective, Tarango says the various businesses serving similar clientele have found ways to support each other outside official channels, offering favors when one of them is in need.
“We all know each other, all the Latino businesses around here, and we have great relationships with everyone else, and that’s how we help each other out and we grow,” he says.
Aaron was born and raised in the other Rio Grande Valley. He's just moved to Santa Fe from Brooklyn, and is excited for the breathing room. His two favorite past times are a contradiction: Driving with loud music and sitting silently in nature.