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Latino, yes, but with new tastes

Cities are rejecting new 'amigo stores' as more Mexican Americans go mainstream. But some consumers and retailers resent the change.

May 28, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

It was as if the developers were talking about tacos, and the Latino politicians were talking about apple pie.

Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano and other city officials listened as the developers said they had studied the demographics of the city and could bring in a retailer known for offering credit to undocumented immigrants and a shopping center with a "Latino feel."

To Lozano, it was another case of developers typecasting his suburb, which is about 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He didn't want to see more of what he calls "amigo stores."

The meeting ended like a bad date, with handshakes and excessive courtesy. But afterward, Lozano made it clear he was not happy.

"We want what Middle America has as well," said the second-generation Mexican American, recounting the meeting. "We like to go to nice places like Claim Jumpers, Chili's and Applebee's. . . . We don't want the fly-by-night business, the 'amigo store,' which they use to attract Latinos like myself."

Call it "immigrant" store fatigue. It's happening in cities that are overwhelmingly Latino, with Latino political leaders and with large immigrant communities.

For decades, these cities attracted working-class and immigrant-centric retailers: check-cashing businesses, Latino supermarkets, discount gift stores, bridal shops and Mexican western wear stores. Some are independent, and some are chains such as La Curacao, an appliance and electronics retailer that offers credit accounts to immigrants who lack the documentation for conventional credit cards.

Until relatively recently, cities like Baldwin Park, South Gate and Santa Ana had few options beyond "Latino" retailers. But this year, Baldwin Park -- a city of 70,000 in the San Gabriel Valley -- enacted a moratorium on new payday loan and check cashing stores. The city is now partners with Bisno Development Co. on an "urban village" of mixed-income housing, theaters and mainstream restaurants such as Claim Jumper, Applebee's and Chili's.

To make it happen, the city is considering a plan that could require the use of eminent domain power to clear a 125-acre area.

That would result in the loss of more than 80 homes and more than 100 small businesses.

The huge project has prompted charges that the City Council, composed of Mexican Americans, is ashamed of its culture.

"I'm proud of my roots," said Rosalva Alvarez, as she stood in her beauty store on Maine Avenue, which is in the redevelopment area. "I was born in Mexico and raised in this country. I agree we need some change. But what they want to bring here is totally unrealistic. Applebee is good, but a Kabuki? And also a Trader Joe's? Come on, I don't even go to Trader Joe's."

Some opponents say that one councilwoman had told critics to "go back to [Tijuana]."

"I don't know where they got that," said Councilwoman Marlen Garcia. "What I said was 'We're striving to insure Baldwin Park doesn't look like Tijuana.' "

As he wiped down the counter of his Via-Mar Family Restaurant, Mexican immigrant Audon Diaz, 36, wonders if one day he might be pushed out too. It took him eight years just to get established, often having to repair the busted street lamps in the parking lot himself.

"It's like they want Baldwin Park in the style of Capistrano or like Hacienda Heights," Diaz said. "The restaurant industry is pretty hard to make it in. Eight years, and I'm barely hanging on. It's like the city wants to make it hard for you."

But Mayor Lozano is undaunted.

As he rode through the streets of his city, past the rows of low-slung mini malls with signs in a mix of English and Spanish, Lozano complained that downtown Baldwin Park had too many discount gift stores, too many beauty salons, too many Mexican restaurants and way too many pawnshops.

Lozano and his allies believe that mainstream retailers now fit better with Baldwin Park, where many of the residents are second-, third- and even fourth-generation Latinos with little interest in stores aimed at immigrants.

Now that the city has choices, he said, it should send a clear message to "amigo store" promoters, like those who introduce themselves with business cards decorated with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"They're pitching their 'Latino' type agenda," Lozano said.

Anthony Bejarano, a Baldwin Park councilman and graduate of Georgetown University law school, is a fourth-generation Mexican American who says he speaks "very little Spanish."

He said that the proliferation of what the mayor calls "amigo stores" forces him to go to other cities to shop.

"I love to go to traditional Mexican restaurants. I shop at Vallarta [supermarket], but I can't get everything I need," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all Mexican restaurants here. When we want Italian, when we want sushi, where do we go? If I want a pair of Kenneth Coles, I have to go to Arcadia."

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Cities like Baldwin Park and Santa Ana used to struggle to get national retailers. Some residents tried letter-writing campaigns to lure Starbucks and others.

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