Market provides Latinos with foods and flavors of home

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

FAIRFIELD - The 28,000-square-foot market, centered in a plaza with empty storefronts and small shops, encompasses products that define the Hispanic culture.

A taqueria, meat market, bakery, music store, jewelry, clothing, Giros, banners and fresh juices pack the vast space that caters to a clientele comprising 75 percent Hispanics.

It is known simply as Mexico Meat Market, a store that is more than a slice of the Mexican heritage.

"You can get whatever you want because you find a big selection in this store. Everything is fresh and affordable, that's why I shop here," said Amelia Rodriguez, a petite woman whose shopping cart is already filled with an array of fresh vegetables.

Since it opened in the old Albertson's site on North Texas Street two years ago, Rodriguez has frequented the place at least three times a week, searching for sensible bargains and fresh meats and vegetables.

"Do you know how much these lemons cost at the other market? They're two for $1. Here, they're four for $1," she added before smelling a lemon.

Rodriguez has lived in Fairfield since 1965, when bare roads and idle conversations once permeated the areas now filled with strip malls and crowded streets of fast-food heaven.

She has seen changes in the area throughout the decades and is relieved a store like this caters to a particular growing population, she said.

"There are a lot of Mexican people here and we like to shop for fresh products," she added.

Serving the customer

An estimated 81,058 Hispanics live in Solano County, according to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau, of which 63,800 are Mexican. This makes Hispanics the leading minority group in the county.

"This is one reason we have a store like this, for the Latinos," said Jorge Pena, owner of the market, in his native tongue of Spanish.

Pena, a man with a reserved persona who breaks into a smile only on rare occasions, arrived to California in 1987 to look for better opportunities, a good future, he said.

His attempt to fulfill the American dream is permeated by working 16-hour days, seven days a week and diminishing any possibilities of having a personal life. He chuckles when he mentions he is single, "I have no time."

"Owning a market is a lot of responsibility. Some days are slow but your employees put eight hours of time and you still have to pay them," the Fairfield resident said, adding he owns the market with his two brothers and one sister.

"One depends on the client and if they don't come in, the economy fails. Es deficil (it's difficult)," he added. "We have to be personable with the customer, you have to treat them right."

Ultimately, however, Pena's purpose is geared toward the growing Latino population.

"We're doing this for the Latinos, to serve our community and to help give Latinos a job," he said. "Hopefully, I will see more Latinos employed in our store for the future."

A slice of home

Myriad Spanish conversations saturate the air of this market, flowing simultaneously with the smells spawned by the taqueria and bakery. And registers continuously sound.

Beneath a hut-like section, reminiscent of the fruit stands that line secluded Mexican beaches, is Esperanza Pena, Jorge Pena's sister, who came to the U.S. in 1994.

She stands behind a long counter, her bright eyes filled with hope and optimism, surrounded by helados or ice creams, aguas frescas or natural juices and baked goods.

"It was my idea to put fresh juices in the market because it's Mexican style," she says in Spanish. "And people really like this section. We sell a lot of juices made of carrots and fresh fruits."

She walks over to the bread section, where two Mexican men spend the early hours of the morning baking goods for customers who love the sabor del pan (flavor of the bread), and opens up a cabinet. The aroma of fresh-baked dough engulfs Esperanza Pena as she points to one particular loaf.

"These are called bolillos and they sell a lot. They are eaten with hot chocolate or filled with food to take to work," she says. They sell three for $1.

Traditional Mexican music plays in the background as Gilberto Pelayo, manager of the market, stocks the shelves with Hispanic products, like Goya and Ibarra.

"You can find mixed products here, from Mexico, America, Colombia, Peru and Central America," he says in a low voice. "We'd like to fill the store with products from around the world. We definitely have the space for it."

Pelayo, who is celebrating a decade in America, also came to this country to succeed, he says. Returning to his native country, though, is close to impossible.

"It's very difficult to return once you've left," he says. "I heard that by 2030, 75 percent of the Mexicans will be here in this country. People just don't want to go back."

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6953 or