Food & Drink Just another ethnic food? 

SA's Expo Comida Latina serves up food, not politics

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San Antonio's Expo Comida Latina, the first of three industry showcases (the remaining two will be held in New York and Los Angeles later this year) brought together Hispanic food and beverage exhibitors from South, Central, and North America at the Convention Center April 24-25.

Mariachis announce celebrity chef LaLa (Laura Diaz Brown) as she begins her cooking demonstration, while a row over, her father proudly promotes her books. A taco truck serving gorditas from the popular Doña Tota chain faces off with a display promoting an assortment of food products from Nuevo León. There's chips and salsa at every turn, and sweets at every corner.

Everybody, it seems, wants to get in on the action, from fruit processors to paleta vendors, manufacturers of tortilla presses, and masa spreaders - even a Korean brand of ramen noodles. Aisle after aisle, row after row, for two days in April, SA's Convention Center was transformed into a modern Mercado with the arrival of the Expo Comida Latina, an industry showcase bringing together vendors, spokespeople, and retailers, all interested in a slice of the rapidly expanding market for Latino products.

Or, as Elizabeth Gray, vice-president of Houston's La Vaquita Cheese says, "Hispanic food is hot."

All this attention is a relatively new phenomena. Initially, retailers selling Mexican and Central American products in the U.S. aimed for the "nostalgia market." As Mauricio Treviño, president of La Popular brand of Mexican chocolate, says, many consumers in the states bought their product "just to remember they're from México."

Today the chocolate from Monterrey is sold in major chains like H-E-B and Fiesta Mart, and the company is expanding to areas such as Atlanta, and Chicago - where it is promoting round disks instead of the regionally recognized tablets in order to compete with the Nestle-owned Abuelita brand that dominates the Windy City.

Atlanta? Over the course of the conference, the city was mentioned several times as one of the top 10 emerging markets for Hispanic products. In fact, all of the Southeast has experienced exponential growth in its Mexican-origin and other Latino populations. Following the release of 2000 census figures, retailers, politicians, pundits, and virtually everyone else in the nation, realized just how many Latinos are here - not just in states like California, Texas, Florida, or New York but up north, out west, and throughout the South.

According to a 2004 report from the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Hispanics control approximately $686 billion in purchasing power, an amount that has almost tripled since 1990.

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While many at the convention distanced themselves from political discussions, a few exhibitors were willing to discuss the greater implications of a growing market for Latino foods in an Anglo society. "These products have become mainstream," Bernal points out. "Anywhere you go you're going to find Mexican food." Erick Sandoval of Vidavell Flavors, a juice drink from Monterrey now entering the Texas market, adds that Anglos are "very open to trying foods. They like to try it.

Brenda Russell, publisher of El Restaurante Mexicano, a trade publication based in Oak Park, Illinois, views the expansion and cross-over of the Hispanic market as indicators that the nation's mainstream is steadily embracing Latino culture. "It's becoming like the latest `European` immigrant groups," she says.

Russell's optimistic prognosis is only partly accurate. Latinos, like blacks and Native Americans, have experienced - and continue to confront - barriers preventing full incorporation into society. Even in a Chicano-majority city like San Antonio, where Mexican Americans hold positions of power and influence in politics, business, and academia, Latinos still experience high levels of educational attrition and low levels of economic stability as they leave school at rates double that of Anglos and enter predominantly low-wage occupations such as construction, day labor, tourism - or food preparation.

Juan Carlos Leal, a distributor of Mexican candies, sees a connection between last year's media reports of dangerous levels of lead in imported sweets and the increasing size of the Latino population. As they spread, these reports, corroborated by an FDA bulletin advising consumers not to eat the candies `see "Sour sweets," May 6-13, 2004`, quickly took on an alarmist tone, and the confections became metaphorical stand-ins for the perceived dangers posed by immigrants. Ironically enough, the popular Lucas brand of chile, salt, and limon in combination named in the lead-advisory comes from the Mexican division of U.S.-based Mars Candies. Despite the hype, Leal believes that American companies will see their sales decrease as more consumers replace their caramel-coated chocolate bars with sticky-sweet tamarindo and chile candies. "We're growing too much," he says, "and a lot of companies want to stop Mexicans from coming here."

If true, corporate America's fears are misplaced. Several of the vendors may have brown faces working their convention displays and bilingual advertising campaigns, but their ownership and profits remains in the hands of wealthy whites or their elite Latin American counterparts. Witness Caballo Negro, a new energy drink with the taste of sour, flat beer, whose red-white-and-green bottles read "Por la raza, para la raza" - by the people, for the people - but Arley Cambell, the drink's developer, isn't. Cambell heads up Aachwen Environmental, a construction company in northern California, where he spent nine months developing the drink through trial-and-error taste tests with his 160 employees. "The drink is the Mexican guys. The can is the Mexican guys," he says. "I just wrote the check." And, if it sells, he'll also reap the profit.

Regardless, there's no doubt that the faces and flavors that comprise this country are changing. "Besides being good and tasty," Arlington-based Novamex distributor Frank Moreno quips, comida Latina can function as a bridge to the Anglo communities "so that they can know what we're all about: we value our families, we value our culture. Our pride is reflected in our foods."

By Alejandro Pérez



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