Under a battered aqua-and-white umbrella on Mount Pleasant Street NW, Ignacio Nunez serves up a taste of the tropics.
The sweet orange meat of the ripe mango. The firm flesh of the green mango, coated with a mouth-watering splash of salt and hot sauce. The cool clear milk of the green coconut. The peach-colored pulp of the tiny limoncillo. Sugar cane: Chew it until the sweet liquid is sucked out and the stalk reduced to a bunch of splintered fibers.
It's not just a fruit stand. It's a slice of home.
"I come here almost every day because I like this fruit and because this reminds me of my country--even if it is just fruit," said Ricardo Ramos, who is from El Salvador and now lives in Wheaton.
Ramos is a painting contractor who works on Capitol Hill, but he goes out of his way to stop at least once daily--often twice--at Nunez's stand. Today, he buys $9.50 worth of pineapple, oranges and coconut milk for lunch.
"You think of your tradition," said Pedro Sanchez, who makes a point of visiting Nunez's stand every time he comes to Washington from Boston, where he now lives. "If you can't find this, you forget little by little."
Three years ago, Nunez shed his coat and tie and job as a loan officer at a bank in his native Dominican Republic and moved to Silver Spring to join his American bride of Dominican descent.
He created his fruit-peddling business, he said, in order to bypass the rut of a maintenance job that so many newly arrived immigrants fall into. He also has more freedom to control his life than, he said, "when I was a functionary in my country." Now his brother and their wives also run tropical fruit stands, staking out corners in the Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Petworth neighborhoods.
"I feel better," said Nunez. "I can talk to many different people . . . and I know there's an equilibrium here now. There's a definite community and some of my customers never fail me."
There's 81-year-old Maria Berta Lopez, who shows up this day to buy a nice fat papaya--but not before she scolds Nunez for arriving an hour later than usual at his spot near the corner of Irving Street.
Private First Class Rosa Maria Roldan Torres, a D.C. police officer originally from Puerto Rico, takes her break daily at Nunez's stand. She buys the bananas and quenepas.
Kim Pham and her mother, Nha Tran, stop by, as they do often, for an entire box of yellow-skinned Haitian mangoes. They're called xoai in Vietnamese.
Antonia Paulino, originally of the Dominican Republic, gets into a discussion about papaya vs. lechosa. Same fruit, different name, depending on the Latin American country. No matter. She's there for something more.
"It's a little piece of my country," she said. "Even if you're here for many years, you never forget your roots."