Hispanic businesses move into mainstream

Prineville sees growth in ethnic enterprises

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 19.2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Behind the counter at Mi Tiendita Mini Mart on Prineville’s Main Street, Silvia Vargas moved between the grill, cash register and telephone.

She served one customer, speaking in English and wrapping up some taquitos. Then she switched to Spanish as a woman asked for papel de aluminio, tin foil.

The mart, whose name translates as “my little store,” offers a variety of Mexican goods, from bags of chiles to foreign brands of instant coffee and soap. Signs on the door advertise local English classes. Customers there can also buy phone cards to call Mexico, or sit at one of the small tables to eat tacos and drink Mexican soda.

Mi Tiendita, which has been in Prineville for about five years and under its current ownership for almost two, is part of a small group of Hispanic-owned businesses in Crook County. Local residents and entrepreneurs say the area has several stores and restaurants that cater to the growing Hispanic community, but the market is not as mature as in nearby cities with larger Hispanic populations.

“There aren’t many (stores) here,” Vargas said in Spanish. “It’s necessary to go to Bend and Redmond to buy some products.”

Geraldo Martinez, whose brother owns Mi Tiendita, added that the customer base for these businesses is smaller in Prineville than in Madras, Bend or Redmond. He said the people who shop at the store are evenly split between Hispanic and non-Hispanic. The store offers cooked food as well as groceries, and Martinez said that all customers are familiar with snacks like quesadillas, chimichangas and flautas, which Spanish-speakers call antojitos – “little cravings.”

Carmen Valdez, who lives in Madras and was eating at Mi Tiendita recently, said that the Mexican markets often act as clearinghouses for different types of services in the Hispanic community.

“A lot of Spanish people get information from them – some put jobs, some put food, places to go, dances or everything,” Valdez said. “Pretty much all of it is covered.”

Martinez added that the stores offer a place for Prineville’s Hispanic residents to mingle.

“People have their places here to get together and interact,” he said in Spanish.

The nearby Ranchero restaurant on Third Street in Prineville offers a different picture of Mexican entrepreneurship in the county, which had a Hispanic population of 1,082 in 2000, up from 388 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Joel Carrillo, the owner of the two Ranchero locations in Prineville and Bend, estimated that only about 1 percent of his customers are Hispanic.

Carrillo started his business in Prineville 13 years ago after working at restaurants owned by his wife’s family in Washington state. Now he is planning to open a third location in Redmond, move to a larger building in Prineville and partner with an employee on a new market in Prineville – all in the coming year.

“We want to do a more American-style (store), but the food (Fabiola) wants to make is fresh corn tortillas and fresh Mexican bread for breakfast,” Carrillo said of Fabiola Ruiz, who has worked at Ranchero for 10 years and will run the new market, Monarca. “I’m helping her because I’m sure the community in this area, they need that kind … We want to do that place because it’s something different – something more like a fast food.”

Carrillo said he moved to Prineville because he was “looking for a quiet place to raise my kids, because we believe in the family.”

“We try to work more with the American community because we are so happy,” he said. “Like when people go to a restaurant and they say, ‘Good choice,’ I made a good choice picking Prineville.”

While most of the Hispanic-owned businesses in Prineville are restaurants or grocery stores with Mexican products, those in Madras, Bend and Redmond offer a variety of services for Spanish-speaking customers. Jose Rubio, the owner of Martina’s Market in Madras, said that “there is almost everything here in Madras.”

At 17.7 percent, Jefferson County had by far the highest proportion of Hispanic residents in Central Oregon in 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Rubio said it seems the Hispanic population is continuing to grow quickly.

In addition to restaurants like Rubio’s where customers can call and send money to Mexico, Madras features stores like Los Amigos Clothing & Gift, which carries Mexican styles. Redmond has a variety of Mexican restaurants and minimarts, as well as companies like Michoacan Tires, which advertises over its entrance, “Se habla espaƱol.”

Rossy Gomez, assistant director of the Latino Community Association in Bend, said she has seen more clients recently asking for help in obtaining contractors’ licenses. Gomez’ organization, which was formerly know as El Programa de Ayuda, mainly serves Deschutes County’s Hispanic population.

“I have been living here for eight years, and obviously I see the growth,” Gomez said. “I can see that more Hispanics have their own business now.”

Crook County-Prineville Chamber of Commerce Director Diane Bohle described Central Oregon as having a “burgeoning population of Hispanic entrepreneurs.” Oregon’s Hispanic residents represent $5 billion in buying power, according to the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in Portland, of which the Crook County Chamber is a member.

Gomez said these businesses offer people the ease and security of speaking in Spanish, as well as a connection to home.

“I think one of the best businesses we have here is the radio, Radio la Bronca in Redmond,” Gomez said. “It’s a great opportunity for the Hispanics to get informed and, of course, a lot of Hispanic businesses are using the radio, so I think that pulls everything together for these businesses and for the consumers.”

For Martinez, whose family owns La Tiendita, and Ruiz, who will open Monarca in a few months, owning a market allows them to tap into a growing population – both Mexican and not – in Prineville.

“We were always merchants, and when we saw the opportunity here we wanted to do it,” Martinez said.

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