A Taste of Home: How Ethnic Grocery Stores Create Community

Mike Moen | California News Service
An estimated 52% of immigrant-owned businesses were started by people using their personal savings, according to the Immigration Research Library. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

With the holidays here, the pace has picked up in ethnic grocery stores across the country, as immigrants shop for the foods and spices that remind them of family and home.

For many immigrants, the first place they feel welcome and accepted is not necessarily where they live, but the place they buy the ingredients for their first home-cooked meal, reunite with people from their culture, and revisit their grandmother’s cooking or their favorite childhood street food.

Michelle Chen, a journalist who has studied markets across the United States, said they are far more than just a place for food and ingredients.

“Beyond the actual inventory and the specific retail offerings, often these stores are a gathering place for people,” Chen observed. “They have a particular cultural role in the community just because they’ve been there for so long and they sort of help anchor the community.”

Chen also has firsthand experience with how markets operate, as the daughter of immigrants who run a Chinese goods store.

While her work has spanned the country, Chen singled out one place, called La Palma, a so-called “Mexicatessen” in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she said the owner worries about his store’s future in the current economic climate. She noted if La Palma closes, a cultural gathering place will go with it.

“The owner told me that they’re probably one of the final businesses that is still left from the era in which they were founded,” Chen recounted. “The store actually began in the 1950s, and there really aren’t that many stores that have that vintage in the Mission District. They’re sort of a cultural landmark in that sense.”

The first migrant grocery stores opened in the 19th and early 20th centuries on the East Coast to serve the influx of people arriving from other countries.

Michelle Chen wrote the original version of this story for Yes! Magazine.
Broadcast version by Mark Moran for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboratio

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