SUPERMARKET IS OFTEN a symbol of the social life of the community around it. Look at the Georgetown Safeway or the corner markets in Chinatown, and you can get a good idea of how the people in those neighborhoods like to dine and entertain. This is especially true in Washington's Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods. "Grocery stores here are important social centers," explained Olivia Cadaval, a Mexican folklorist who lives in and has studied this ethnic community.
A shopping tour through the neighborhood with Cadaval is more than just a trip to the grocery store -- it's a sociological, archeological and cultural expedition. As she covers the neighborhood, she points out the men hanging out in front of the store or in the parking lot waiting to use the three public telephones, important to people who have no phones of their own. And she mentions that until the Health Department objected, Salvadoran women used to line the streets, selling homemade pupusas, a fat tortilla often filled with pork and cheese; tamal en hojas, pork-filled corn stalks; empanadas and ordinary tortillas. Now the women sell the stores homemade pin atas that hang at the entrances. One spot favored by Cadaval is El Gavilan, 1646 Columbia Rd., one of the oldest Latin grocery stores in the area. Luis Elbrido, the original owner, is a Dominican. When he opened the store 11 years ago, he hung out a sign that simply said, "Spanish Food." Later he added, "African, W. Indian Food," reflecting population shifts on Columbia Road. In the early days, Latin food warehouses were so rare that Elbrido used to take a truck to New York looking for sources. Today there are a dozen or so stores like El Gavilan in the neighborhood, an increasing number bought by Salvadorans and more recently by Koreans.
The stores themselves are a potpourri of neighborhood culture. A rack of colorful votive candles stands just inside the door of El Gavilan. Used for home altars, the candles wish the user good luck, love, happiness and money in both Spanish and English. Nearby are a dozen or so cans of beans and bags of nachos, fried pork skins and yucca and plantain chips; in the back of the store, the meat case includes cuts not traditional to the states: piles of beef hooves, destined as a base for soup with yucca; frozen hens for stew; roosters cooked in homemade pineapple vinegar; oxtails, tongue, goat, kidneys and beef liver. A barrel of baccalhau (dried cod) stands nearby. Occasionally a truck will appear on Mount Pleasant Street selling black clams from Nicaragua.
Cottage industry empanadas from Guatemala and Florida, tamales fresh and frozen, coconuts, stout bananas and long plantains, chuno (freeze-dried potatoes) from Peru and piles of Caribbean roots stand in their respective cases. No longer do Washington's Latinos have to make their own breads. The Salvadoran-owned La Cuscatleca Bakery of Takoma Park, open only three months, already services 40 stores with fresh soft and sweet bread.
More varied than any item sold here is the array of Latin drinks: frozen tamarind or marnanon, a cashew-nut drink from Brazil; bottled Pilsner beer from El Salvador and ginger beer from Jamaica, and ready-to-drink tamarind, papaya and mango juices from Puerto Rico, reminders that these immigrants come from countries where fresh tropical fruits are as prevalent as Coca-Cola is here.
But it is more than the shopping bags filled with the nostalgic foods of their homeland that brings people to shop at El Gavilan and other local groceries like Los Primos and El Progresso. The bulletin board tells them in Spanish about local festivals, and the pile of ledgers at El Gavilan's check-out counter shows that this store has become a sort of bank for people who do not speak English. They visit these stores because they feel a kinship with the owners and because they want more than just a taste of home.