The sign for the Latinos Mart on Hillsborough Road is strangely dilapidated. Barely hanging on to the roof of the building, undulating where the ‘o’ meets the ‘s’, it threatens to fall on the next unsuspecting passerby. The Hispanic grocery store has seen better days.
The storefront—once proudly painted with a Mexican flag and plastered with posters advertising everything from calling cards to upcoming concerts—is now covered with a thick layer of dust. Peeking in, you can see a row of brightly-colored piñatas still hangs from the ceiling, the register is still in its designated place on the counter, the shelves are still partially stocked with sacks of rice and cans of beans. Now abandoned, it’s anybody’s guess exactly when the Latinos Mart served its last customer, closing its doors for good.
The demise of the Latinos Mart is perhaps indicative of the plight of Durham’s sizable Hispanic community—comprising 12.8 percent of the county’s population in 2008. Economists seem to agree: the recession has hit minorities around the United States especially hard.
“We’ve seen an increase in people looking for jobs and shelters and help to pay their rent,” said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, executive director of El Centro Hispano, a community outreach center in Durham. “The recession has really affected people very hard.”
The city was once a magnet for immigrants because of the strong economy and job opportunities. Hillsborough Road itself is a prime example, with its vibrant Hispanic presence highlighted in the form of several mom-and-pop shops serving a primarily Hispanic clientele. But with the unemployment rate in Durham hovering near 8 percent and the state’s close to 11, times have changed. Some Hispanic immigrants are moving back to their home countries or to other cities and states to find work. Others, however, are sticking it out, determined to weather the recession, holding out hope that the land of opportunities once again can become so.
Driving down the stretch of Hillsborough Road before its intersection with LaSalle late on a weekend night, you may just hear it before you see it: the thump thump thump of the bass reverberating across the parking lot from Maraka Latin Dance Club, and El Tacorriendo Las Delicias (loosely translated as The Moving Taco Delights), strung with Christmas lights stationed adjacent and serving up authentic Mexican fare until the wee hours of the morning. It’s not a hot spot commonly frequented by Dukies who live just a stone’s throw away in the Belmont and the Lofts, but it’s hard to miss. True, the exterior of the club is completely unremarkable in daylight hours, blending in seamlessly with the Salvation Army Thrift Store and National Pawn Shop next door. At night, however, when the taco trucks set up shop and partygoers file into La Maraka, it’s a different story.
But walk inside and you’ll notice that there are fewer and fewer patrons crowding onto the dance floor. On a Saturday night, there are only a handful of people milling around the bar and the four billiard tables.
Nightclub owner Omodo Valencia used to believe he had made a good life for himself in the 22 years he has been in the United States. He moved to Durham eight years ago looking for a place to raise his family. He has seen firsthand the Hispanic community in the area grow and prosper. He has three daughters, the eldest of whom goes to North Carolina Central University and one day hopes to become an immigration lawyer. Dressed to the nines in a Ralph Lauren button-down and a North Face jacket on a Friday night, he’s a savvy businessman who believes in maintaining appearances, not shy about touting the accomplishments of his family. But when talking about his current financial situation, he doesn’t pull any punches—Valencia is worried. And with good reason. He’s owned La Maraka for seven years and things have never been so bad. Business is down 70 percent by his estimates. He’s even had to take out a $30,000 loan from his father back in Mexico to keep afloat.
“If things don’t get better this year with my father’s loan I would have to find something else to do and let my business go,” he says in Spanish, in his stiflingly hot office in La Maraka, decorated with the emblems of the life that he’s made here: cards made by his young daughters, a painting of the Virgin Mary, thick filing cabinets where he keeps his records.
“Things are bad right now,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t have enough money to pay the bills.”
Antonio Rodriguez, owner of the La Vaquita Restaurant on Hillsborough and La Vaquita Taqueria of Chapel Hill Road a mile away, also feels the pinch of the recession. The lure of jobs drew him from Greensboro to Durham four years ago and for a while, business was booming with both whites and Hispanics keeping his grocery store and restaurant busy. Now, Rodriguez is barely making ends meet.
“We’re trembling. Before we made money, but now we only have enough to pay the employees and that’s with cutting salaries. We’re just breaking even. If I let them go, then they’re going to be like everyone else. And it’s worse because my employees are family member’s—brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law,” Rodriguez says.
The economy has already taken casualties elsewhere on Hillsborough Road. The eatery titled simply “The Mexican Restaurant” across the road bit the dust last year.
Many have also noticed something of an exodus among the once-constant influx of Hispanic immigrants taking place. “We keep records at the grocery store and we become aware through the transaction records that there used to be a lot of Hispanic people in the area, moving here and using those services. We just see the same people now and sometimes they move back to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. They leave with their money,” Rodriguez says. “Bye-bye.”
“I, for example, have family who keep asking me to bring them over here, but I tell them right now the crisis is too bad and for them to keep working hard over there and that I’ll help them with anything I can,” said Antonia Topez, Valencia’s sister and the owner of the El Tacorriendo Las Delicias. “Things are too difficult now. Why would I want to bring someone here without a job?”
Still, there is reason for optimism, insists Yholima Vargas, services and arts program director at El Centro Hispano. While she says she has heard many stories of people’s struggles, she has been equally impressed by the tenacity of many others within the community.
“At the end of the day, we have realized how creative people can be,” she says. “They keep knocking and knocking on doors until some open.”
Exhibit A: the booming business of taco trucks that has overtaken Hillsborough Road—three in all on a quarter mile stretch next to Kroger. Serving up items from Jarritos and arroz con leche all the way to your standard tacos de pollo until the early hours of morning, the trucks have become a staple of the community.
Topez tells us that the truck has quickly become the cash cow for the family business, capitalizing on the drunk club-goers that wander outside. Topez used to work at a restaurant, but she said the hours were too long and the labor too intensive. These days, though, she knows survival is the bottom line.
“Lately there haven’t been a lot of jobs, so you have to do whatever you can to keep going,” Topez says. “We’re going to wait things out and see how things go.” Further up the road, sisters Rosa Silva and Margarita Delgado, the owners of the other two taco trucks on Hillsborough, also feel the pain of the downturn. They too have noticed that people are leaving rather than coming in.
“I don’t know the reason why people aren’t coming, whether it is because they moved back to Mexico or because they’re low on money. I just know a lot of people aren’t coming back to buy,” says Silva, who operates out of an eye-catching, oversized red school bus out of the parking lot of Autozone. “Maybe things will get better when it’s a little warmer.” Her sister Delgado, who has owned her truck for a decade, similarly takes the glass-half-full approach to her life and business. She’s raising six kids, aged 1 to 14, and doesn’t have time to think of throwing in the towel.
“I don’t worry very much. There are times when sales go down, but I have to keep going for my children,” she says. “Thanks to God I have this truck and from here I help my children, to raise them, to give them what is necessary.”
When asked whether given the choice, they would return to Mexico, however, all of those we spoke to overwhelmingly said no. All agreed that Durham was a good a place as any to live and raise their children. Many also added that they were thankful for the services available for Hispanics in Durham, where there is both a strong community and infrastructure to bolster the immigrant population.
“A lot of time I stop and talk to the people who just got here and I tell them that America is still the place of opportunities, if one wants to succeed in life,” Valencia said.