From the street, Norma's Supermarket doesn't look like a store at all. It's located in one side of a double-shotgun house that blends seamlessly with the others along the 4200 block of Canal Street in Mid-City. Only this one has a banner hanging between its front columns advertising "tienda Hispana" (Hispanic store) and listing services like temporary ID cards, car registration, tax preparation and money transfers.
Norma Lopez is the owner, and she and her husband Marcelino tend to a steady flow of customers who come with a wide range of needs. While Norma helps one man in the front room translate official paperwork from English to Spanish, a customer in the next room peruses cans of beans and bags of rice stacked on freestanding metal shelves. Two rooms back, boxes of fat, stubby carrots, avocados and furry taro roots lean against a mantelpiece. A refrigerator case chills bags of Honduran-style crema and tubes of chorizo. Racks of Spanish-language DVDs and magazines share a corner with Western-style shirts and pastel-colored cowboy boots, while a selection of small gifts like perfume and wristwatches sits in a display case. There is a polite, orderly bustle to the place, though it appears that if all this inventory and shelving were pulled out, the house could be rented as an apartment tomorrow.
Since Hurricane Katrina, and especially in the last year, new grocery stores are proliferating, stocking Hispanic food brands and Latin-American produce, offering street-level business services like money transfers, and they're patronized primarily by Latino men. Some of these groceries are new businesses opened by immigrants themselves, while others are expansions of existing Hispanic groceries or are the result of New Orleans-area groceries changing their business models to serve a new consumer base. They're cropping up fast and in close proximity to one another in areas where the post-Katrina Latino population boom is large and obvious, like Kenner, Gretna and Mid-City. Others have opened within the past three years in Metairie, Jefferson, Marrero, Harvey and Westwego, among other areas.
"You're seeing a classic trajectory for immigrants," says Beth Fussell, a sociologist at Washington State University who has studied Latino migration in New Orleans since Katrina. "These stores are a sign that people in that community feel there's a permanent market for what they're selling, that there's settlement in the migrant community there."
But many of the new Hispanic grocery stores around town do not exude the aura of legends in the making as much as they reflect bootstrap, entry-level free enterprise.
Lopez moved to Louisiana from her native Colombia in 2002, and within a few years had started a business in Kenner preparing tax returns for Spanish-speaking residents. She lives in Laplace, but moved her office to New Orleans in early 2008 because, she says, many new Latinos in the city had relatively few businesses to serve their needs. She added the grocery in July, betting Spanish-speaking people in the neighborhood would prefer to buy familiar foods from her store rather than contend with mainstream supermarkets.
"My English is not good, but I can't imagine how it is for my people coming here without any help with the language," she says. "They have racism from others, and that gets me so mad I want to fight. I understand if you decide to move to North America you need to learn the language, but a lot of them don't have the ability. They come here, I know them, I help them."
For their regular customers, these mercados can serve as touchstones of home, as networking hubs and as relatively safe havens in a foreign, often confusing and sometimes dangerous new city. They also are visible manifestations of a demographic shift that remains difficult to quantify.
According to the latest available census data, Latinos made up 5.7 percent of the population in the New Orleans metropolitan area in 2007, an increase from 4.4 percent in 2000. But those findings are widely contested by people working with or on behalf of Latinos in the area, who maintain the increase is much larger since the storm. A precise measure is elusive, they say, because so many of these people are undocumented immigrants and take pains to avoid contact with authorities.
"If anyone tells you they have a figure for how many Hispanics are here, run the other way because no one knows," says Darlene Kattan, director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana.
But if market forces are any indication, there is new demand in the area for the food products and brands familiar to people from Mexico, Central America and South America. Entrepreneurs are making business investments and stepping up to fulfill some of the basic daily needs of this population.
"It doesn't necessarily mean they'll stay forever, but it means they're seeing opportunity there within the immigrant community," says Felipe Korzenny, director of the Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University. "These businesspeople mostly don't have an idea of what will happen in the future, but they know they have a clientele now."
The dynamic mirrors an earlier round of American immigration, Korzenny says, since small grocery stores were one way in which Italians began to establish themselves early in the 20th century. In New Orleans, small Italian-run groceries were commonplace throughout the city's neighborhoods, and the foods they sold and served eventually became solidly entrenched in New Orleans culture. The prime example is Central Grocery, opened in 1906 on Decatur Street when the French Quarter was home to many Italian immigrants. It has since become an icon of New Orleans food thanks to its muffuletta.
"What you're seeing today with Hispanics, it really is similar to the Italian groceries of the last century, and the Jewish stores and the German stores in some cities," says Korzenny.
Kattan says while these businesses may be well known within immigrant communities, many of their owners are accustomed to keeping a low profile and working on their own.
"We usually don't even hear from them. They're not calling us for help," she says. "Especially the more recently arrived, they don't know about the possibility of help, like the SBA and programs like that. They do it themselves with sweat equity. They work long hours, two jobs, they don't whine and they get it done."
For another measure of how widely the demand for Latino products has spread in the area, try keeping up with delivery drivers for Bimbo Bakeries, a division of a large, Mexican-based grocery supplier. The typical daily route might see their brightly colored delivery vans visiting half a dozen small Latino groceries, plus a growing number of mainstream retailers. They leave behind sliced white bread, tortillas, cakes, packaged cookies and snacks, all bearing labels and logos familiar to many Latino consumers.
Juan Garcia, district manager for Bimbo Bakeries, says the local sales territory was formed in June 2006, less than a year after Hurricane Katrina, in direct response to the surge in Latinos in the New Orleans area.
"All the Hispanic stores are increasing (in number) and we're also getting more orders now at Walmarts and Exxon and Shell [service stations]," Garcia says. "Hopefully we'll see others. We're working on maybe even Target."
Some grocers who served the local Latino market before Katrina are growing to meet demand. Evenor Galdemez has expanded his Jalisco Supermarket from its original pre-Katrina location in Gretna to three stores. His Kenner location opened on the 2000 block of Williams Boulevard in late 2007, but new competition came quickly. Last summer, the small corner grocery Placita opened just two blocks away, taking over what had been a typical suburban convenience store and adding gourds, dried beans, fruits and vegetables, a money-transfer service and Mexican-style baked goods like corn cookies and sweet rolls.
Further along Williams Boulevard, on the lake side of Interstate 10, a commercial area that has long shown a strong Hispanic presence is now studded with new Latino-run businesses, including an abundance of groceries.
One of them is Union Supermarket, operated by veteran grocer Thomas Orihuela. He bought the original Union Supermarket in Mid-City in 1975 and later opened two smaller Union groceries in Gretna and Kenner. The levee failures ruined his Mid-City store, and Orihuela says he didn't return because the lease for the space skyrocketed to four times its pre-Katrina rate. Many stores have sprung up in Mid-City now to fill the void, but Orihuela says he's not sure how they will all find enough business to go around.
"Everyone wants to open a Hispanic store now because they see opportunity, but I don't know if really there are enough customers," he says. "I guess no one knows. I'm hoping some will go out of business, of course, but some will survive."
Less than half a mile from Norma's Supermarket in Mid-City, two groceries — Los Costeña and La Tienda Latina — offer similar inventories within four blocks of each other on Tulane Avenue. Los Amigos Supermarket is open about a mile away on Gentilly Boulevard near the Fair Grounds Race Course, and on South Broad Street, a location of the local Ideal Discount Market chain is making a bid for the same clientele.
Ideal manager Mario Kaki says the one-time convenience store and meat market reopened after Katrina in 2006, revamped to attract Latino customers. Before the storm, African-American customers from the neighborhood made up most of the store's clientele, but now both the customers and most of the employees are Latino. Piñatas dangle from the ceiling over wooden bins filled with jicama, dried peppers and bundles of cornhusk tamale wrappers. Bags of fried pork skin line the butcher counter, where customers can order whole pigs, marinated fajita meats or takeout lunches of tacos or rice and beans.
"The city has changed, and so we changed too," Kaki says.
Whether this demographic change will become permanent is a question of great interest to sociologists, policymakers and businesspeople working in and watching the region. While the emergence of so many Hispanic groceries indicates some are setting roots in New Orleans, the stores are also a resource to help foster that settlement.
Fussell, at Washington State University, says these stores can function as outposts of a home culture for immigrants who often feel very lonely, isolated and scared in their new, foreign environment. Shopkeepers themselves, typically better established in the area, frequently give their customers advice on how to get around and stay safe, she says, and in the process help build a community.
"They're exchanging information and giving companionship and some sense of security," Fussell says. "That's why these stores often are the first stage of settlement, and I think you'll see more happening as [immigrants] feel more comfortable and get more established. As more of them open bank accounts and keep more of their money here, you'll see more and different types of businesses from them."