Turning a Taste for Home into a Win-Win for Trade

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 5, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Oscar Espinosa knows that the shortest path from an immigrant to his homeland passes through his stomach. For 13 years, the Nicaraguan worked baggage and cargo at Washington Dulles International Airport, first as a handler and then as a manager for Taca, the Salvadoran airline with daily flights between Central America and nine major U.S. cities.

Espinosa well recalls the shock on the faces of customs officials when they came across unusual and sometimes unauthorized products stashed in passenger luggage -- fruits, fried chicken, marinated beef, uncooked hens, even live crab, mostly foodstuffs meant to satisfy the longing for tastes and aromas left behind.

When he was laid off after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Espinosa decided to start his own business. What that would be wasn't immediately clear. But one day a former colleague said the magic word -- cheese -- and everything clicked.

"In a plane with 136 passengers, 142 brought cheese," Espinosa joked to me. Among Central American immigrants, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans in particular, no other product was more popular. Even pilots and other crewmembers were ferrying cheese to the U.S.

Espinosa and his colleague launched their business -- De Mi Pueblo -- five years ago with an order of 1,200 pounds of cheese. Today, the Springfield, Va.-based company imports 100,000 pounds a month and its product line now includes other products such as beans, cream and rosquillas, a Nicaraguan corn-based cracker.

De Mi Pueblo is a prime participant in the so-called nostalgic trade, an increasingly important economic activity resulting from migration in a globalized world. While immigrants in the past could usually only dream of finding food products from home in their neighborhood store, today such discoveries are becoming more the rule than the exception.

This trade of goods to satisfy immigrant demand is quickly evolving from informal couriers to full-fledged importers. According to Manuel Orozco, expert on the economic impact of migration at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, the nostalgic trade from a country such as El Salvador, with a large share of its population living abroad, now represents 10 percent of its total annual trade, or $300 million.

While that figure pales in comparison to the $3.7 billion sent last year by immigrants to their families back in El Salvador, it is a measure of a transnational activity with a potential for broad economic impact in communities here and abroad.

Importing specialized products often means creating economic opportunity for small, local producers in otherwise neglected areas in developing countries. This activity also encourages small businesses in ethnically diverse areas in the United States. "This dynamic generated by immigrants has an effect over job creation both in the country of origin and the United States," said Orozco.

Espinosa is proud to say that his business has hired nearly an entire village worth of rosquilla makers. De Mi Pueblo provides training in quality control to the rosquilleras, the all-women producers in a small Nicaraguan mountain town. It has also provided the women with the packaging equipment they could never have afforded on their own.

In the United States, De Mi Pueblo employs six people full time, four in Springfield and two in Miami. Today their products reach more than 100 retailers throughout the Washington, D.C., region.

Nostalgic goods retailers can be large and well-established grocery stores, but others are street vendors such as Salvadoran immigrant Francisca Ventura, who sells cheese, rosquillas and tamales in the ethnically diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington. Through the support of a community organization and the District of Columbia mayor's office, Ventura now shares an open market with 16 other immigrant vendors.

Nostalgic trade satisfies an apparent emotional need, perhaps a longing for home and, as such, it often trumps traditional business logic. Mexican immigrants, for instance, prefer Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, said Orozco, even if it is more expensive. Also many immigrants continue to favor products found at ethnic stores, such as popular chicken bouillon cubes, despite the fact that they are produced by a U.S. company and are easily found in any major supermarket, if only with different packaging.

According to Espinosa, Salvadorans insist their country's cheese is better than Nicaragua's despite the fact that today it is all produced in the latter. He calls it product "chauvinism." Orozco sees it as a manifestation of national identity, which is particularly acute among immigrants. "To put it in words somehow," Orozco said, the fact is that for immigrants, "sense of belonging is chewable."

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company