I should have known better than to pull out my notebook too soon. Big journalism faux pas. Still, I ended up leaving with free coconut candy from Guatemala—striped like a flag, it’s the manager’s favorite. I think speaking a little broken Spanish and showing my curiosity paved some common ground.
For this article I explored the Latin markets that dot our valley, reminding some of distant homelands and some of the American melting pot. I wanted to dip my toes into this pot, this culture within our culture, to find out its secrets and its treasures.
Here are some of the things I found: brightly colored piggy banks, freshly butchered pigs’ feet, chicken feet and cow tongues, sweet potato jam, large bags of dried mate (used to make a traditional South American drink), guava and banana pastes, plenty of piñatas, a Spanish library, plantain chips, pineapple empanadas and a few new faces for me to meet, even if I couldn’t communicate freely with them.
Another thing I found more of was myself. Since elementary school I’ve been enamored with Latin cultures. I spent a whole year listening to Spanish pop and remember singing “A Puro Dolor” at a talent show when I was eleven or twelve. I’ve also been known to salsa dance and enjoy all types of Latin foods. But sometimes I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Maybe it’s because I only speak enough Spanish to get me past hello and a few phrases, not enough to truly feel connected. Yet, I still believe that people can connect beyond language.
Stepping into the markets, I felt a bit like a foreigner. In La Pequenita, a small market in Orem focused on South American goods, I was the only person not speaking Spanish. Still, I enjoyed perusing the unfamiliar grocery items like the banana and guava pastes and bags of mate. It felt as if I had stepped through a magic little door into another land.
La Pequenita was actually the third shop I visited. The first, where I think I made the manager nervous by writing down interesting drinks I saw like Inca Kola, was Mercado Latino, a hot pink building on University Avenue in Provo.
At the cashier counter in Mercado Latino, glass covers a variety of currency from Central and South America demonstrating all of the countries represented in the shop’s merchandise. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Uruguay are just a few that I noticed. The manager, an older lady with curly hair and glasses, hails from Vera Cruz, Mexico.
We started to chat, and though she didn’t want me to include her name here, the manager started to tell me more about the shop. She said it has been around since the 80’s and she believes it to be the oldest Latin market in the area. While we talked, she knitted a shawl with a ruffled edge. A quiet flow of customers came in and out. One little girl with roller skates convinced her father to buy her some sort of candy I had never seen before. A little after checking out the shop’s Spanish bookstore, I was given a candy of my own.
Next, I headed north to Carniceria Vallarta. From the outside it looked a little dilapidated, though I liked the mural of a beach on the storefront. Inside, the shop was nicely organized and the upbeat Latin music playing made me want to dance.
This time I made sure to introduce myself and reveal what I was up to before starting to poke around. I’d learned my lesson and things went much better. Lordes, an employee with a happy smile, told me a little about the shop, which specializes in Mexican products. They have their own butchery, bakery, and freshly-made cheese. I ended up leaving with an apple empanada. I couldn’t resist the baked goods.
My adventures in Latin markets didn’t turn out as I’d expected. I suppose I expected to be welcomed with open arms. Instead, I felt some distance and even a little suspicion toward me. Maybe this was just because I was a writer with pen in tow or because language barriers made it hard for me to explain that I had no ill intentions. But maybe this was because the people I met were used to facing suspicion themselves in this country. Maybe, they too, had hoped for a warm welcome that never came. After this experience, I want to work harder to connect with my community—all of it. I want to work to be a bridge builder of the heart.
By Sierra Wilson