Making Ends Meet by Shopping Mexican

In this economy, every dollar counts. So when I took in a student for nine days, I was faced with a dilemma: I needed to buy fresh food at a cheaper price.

I couldn’t possibly feed him spaghetti every night. He wanted organic yogurt, fresh berries, and fresh fish. Granted, Idyllwild has two good grocery stores, and an organic market to boot, but I needed all that for less than $10 dollars.

So that’s when I began shopping at a Mexican market. I stumbled upon it in Ontario, when I couldn’t get into the Stater Bros. parking lot. It was late, and I had just dropped someone off at the airport, and was tired of driving around.

I needed blueberries, cherries, raspberries, yogurt, and some pastry for breakfast, and fresh fish and broccoli spears for dinner. Luckily, my student boarder slept very late, and only needed two good meals each day.

Fiesta Foods beckoned me inside with its bright lights, lively music and welcome signs written in Spanish and English. Just inside the door were bountiful baskets of cherries, mangoes, and apples at affordable prices.

Before I went in, I paused for a minute. Years ago, I had shopped at at a Mexican market in my Chicago neighborhood. I loved its fresh produce, inexpensive prices, and the chance to practice my Spanish. I shopped there for weeks, until a weird incident kept me from going back.

Walking on my way home from the Mexican market one afternoon, I crossed paths with a middle aged Mexican man who was standing there drinking coffee. As I passed by, I smiled at him and said, “Buenas Dias.”

Seconds later, I felt the sting of hot coffee on my back, the smell of sour creamer, and the sound of footsteps running in the distance. Without any warning, he had thrown hot coffee on my back!

I was soaked and dazed for a moment. What prompted him to throw his coffee on me? What did I do to him? Was he insane? I looked around for someone to talk to, some reassurance, but no one was there. His empty coffee cup rolled into the gutter.

I picked up my groceries, and walked home, crying. The coffee stuck to my hair and clothes. By the time I had arrived, I realized that I was a victim of a minor “hate crime.” ¬†That Mexican man was mad at me for shopping at the local market. As a “gringa,” I had more money to spend and had other options. I didn’t need to shop there.

As I paused at the door of Fiesta Foods in Ontario, I reasoned that incident happened at another place and time. We were now in California, in the heart of a recession, and any store would be glad to have my business. The $10 bill in my wallet was the deciding factor. Stater Bros. prices just couldn’t cut it.

I picked up rich, red cherries for $1.45 a pound. All of the other shoppers at Fiesta Foods, were Mexican or Mexican-American. No one seemed to notice me as I put the cherries into the basket. Bananas were 59 cents, so I bought three.

Over the loudspeaker at Fiesta Foods, all of the announcements were made in Spanish. After eight years of trying to learn Spanish, I knew what they were saying. I could have moseyed through the store, aisle by aisle, to see what Fiesta Foods had to offer, but it was 9 p.m., and I was pressed for time.

I went straight for the fish market in the back of the store. Women were buying Talapia for $3.69 a pound, but I went for the cod for $1.99 a pound, instead.

The Mexican woman ahead of me ordered a pound of Talapia. There were small pieces, but she got a lot of them. The butcher wrapped them up in paper, gave it to her, and turned around. I waited, but realized that he was busy doing something in the back.

His co-worker, looked at me, and asked him (in Spanish) to wait on me. But he said,”No, estoy ocupado” (He was busy.)

I stood there awkwardly, wanting to bolt, but another part of me wanted to wait to see what would happen. Did they not like me, or were they unsure of their English? Perhaps they were hoping that I would walk away.

Finally, the young co-worker asked me what I wanted. Not really trusting my Spanish after all of these years, I pointed to the cod for $1.99, and said,¬†“Dos piezas, por favor.”

He took two large frozen pieces from the top of the pile, and placed them on the scale with a “clunk.”

“Oh no, it’s going to cost too much,” I thought to myself. But I waited, and $2.65 rang up on his scale.

“Whew, two pieces of fish for less than $3! Where else but in a Mexican market can you get such prices?”

“Gracias, muy amable,” I said awkwardly, as he handed me the fish.

Next, I headed for the help-yourself pastry counter.There were so many pastries in the case that my head was spinning! There were cookies, donuts, pies and turnovers with apple, guava or pineapple inside. Some were round and dusted with sugar, while others were long with fruit oozing through. From past experience, I knew they would taste fresh, and not too sweet. But the best part was they were all only 59 cents each. (Last week, I bought four muffins at Trader Joe’s for $4.99).

After selecting two apple tarts, I grabbed some vanilla yogurt for $2.50 and a quart of whole milk for $1.39.

I was so happy to have all of the items for less than $10. I stood in line and watched as the pretty, bleached blonde Mexican woman ahead of me talked to the cashier. She had greeted her with a “Buenas Tardes,” or good afternoon. I never knew when the cut off time was between “Buenas Tardes” and “Buenas Noches.” I would think that 9 p.m. would not still be considered afternoon.

When it came to my turn, however, the cashier greeted me with a “Hi,” instead of a “Buenas Tardes.”

“How did she know that I wasn’t Mexican?” I asked Alex, the owner of Mountain Top Liquors in Idyllwild, later.

“Are you kidding me?” he laughed. “You look totally American!”

“But I have dark hair and dark eyes,” I countered. Years ago, when I lived in Santiago, Chile, I passed for Chilean–as long as I didn’t open my mouth.

“Look at your skin, and your clothes,” Alex countered. He was Brazillian, after all, and must know these things. “A Mexican woman wouldn’t be wearing a sun dress like that.”

He was still laughing when I walked out the door, confused. Did I want to pass for a Mexican woman? Did I need to? I wanted to continue to shop at Fiesta Foods during this recession, but didn’t want to stand out as an obvious “gringa,” or outsider.

I admit it, I’m a poor artist. Even with four jobs, I fall below the poverty line. I need to shop at cheaper stores like Fiesta Foods, or eat a lot less. And at Fiesta Foods, I found a gold mine. The produce is fresh and bountiful, and the fish that we ate later, was delicious grilled. I would buy more.

The yogurt, was the best yogurt that the student had ever tasted. He even took a picture of it with his cell phone, so that he could buy it later in New York. The cherries, blueberries and bananas were fresh and delicious too.

And the apple tart was such a hit, the student wanted me to go all the way back to Fiesta Foods to get some more.

Shopping at Mexican markets has its advantages–for freshness and variety at great, low prices, however, they’re all located in Hemet, or Ontario, which are miles from Idyllwild, so I’d have to plan ahead.

I still fear that I’m looked upon by other shoppers as a “cheap gringa” who can afford more, but shops there to save money. Just the other day, I wore my glasses with one broken arm, so I’d look poorer. No one said a word, but I’m glad that I didn’t run into anyone from Idyllwild.

It doesn’t matter, really. I’ve found a “gold mine” at Fiesta Foods, and I’m going to shop there until the recession is over, or they throw hot coffee on me.

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