Links to Mexico

Published 9:25 am Monday, October 19, 2009

They sell canned goods, dried spices, meats, cheeses and vegetables, but the Mexican grocery stores in Albert Lea do more than just sell food.

Elia and Francisco Lopez have owned El Tio Pancho on South Broadway Avenue for about two years. Elia said starting such a business is something Francisco always wanted to do and they finally did it.

Elia said the language barrier is a key part of the business. If people come in looking for a certain kind of ceramic pot to serve food or if they’re looking for a certain item, Elia said she and Francisco can look for the product when they go to the market.

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“The Hispanic community can come in here and talk to us,” Elia said.

Before moving to Minnesota, Elia grew up in Texas and lived on the East Coast. She speaks both Spanish and English, and said that has become an important asset to many Spanish-speaking people in the community.

“I can speak both languages — Spanish and English. They’ll come in here saying, ‘I got a letter in the mail, can you help me?’ I’ll translate for them,” Elia said.

Elia said these letters often include bills and crucial family updates. At first she said she was nervous that she’d translate certain things incorrectly, but she tells people she’ll translates to the best of her knowledge.

It’s important to help, Elia said, especially because of the attention the Hispanic community gets because of the immigration issue.

“We try and help as much as we can. I guess we are a big target in the states, being Hispanic. We want to try to help as much as we can and just ease how they feel that they’re being attacked,” she said.

Even though Elia is from Texas, she said the Hispanic community is often closer together because of the scrutiny of illegal and legal immigrants. She said she hopes the store is just a comfortable place for all her customers.

“We just try to make it not like if they were back home, but make it where they can be at ease,” Elia said.

“It’s important just to be helpful,” she added.

In the front windows and on the door of El Tio Pancho, people can post fliers in Spanish. One flier is advertising a dance in Austin, GED prep, Spanish radio, indoor soccer and a lawyer.

Elia said her store is different from the other Mexican stores in town in that it’s more of a mom and pop corner store rather than a market.

The store consists mainly of two aisles with a small refrigerator and small freezer.

Elia said many of the items in the store come from wholesalers in the Twin Cities, and other items are bought at local farmers markets.

Elia said she’s not as steeped in traditions since she grew up in Texas and isn’t Catholic, but said the store still carries religious candles, statues and other items.

Elia said the business isn’t just limited to the Hispanic community as many American people come in to buy different products like peppers and different things.

Francisco also works in drywall construction, but Elia said that’s taken a hit as the economy has slumped. That made it a good time to open the store a few years ago in addition to the business.