Our wise elders often recall favorite stores that had “a little of everything,” which is precisely what is offered at the Hispanic grocery stores, known variously as pulperías stores that carry abarrotes (groceries) or mercaditos(small markets). They have everything: food, drinks, candles, medicines, cakes, magazines, piñatas, clay pots, soccer balls and even guitars, to name just a few things.
Jorge Bossio, author of “Historia de las Pulperías,” defines such a store as a place that is “mythical, real, common, an institution and a legend.” He adds that they have been “the refuge of fellow countrymen, a required meeting place for leisure and recreation, a social reference point.”
Martha González, 46, a Peruvian who has been living in Tulsa for seven years, says these Hispanic stores “are a piece of our countries in the United States,” She made her comment while in a shop located on Tulsa’s south side. where she was buying Inca Kola, a soft drink that is popular in Peru, “Something as simple as this beverage makes life easier for us. It is as if for a moment you are transported back home.”
Beef – whose cuts change name from country to country – is the main reason that Elvira Hernández, originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, goes to the Morelos grocery store in southwest Tulsa instead of a larger market. “First, they talk to you in your language, and that is already a benefit,” she said. “But what I like most is that they will prepare the meat just the way Mexicans like it.”
While Hernández was waiting for six pounds of flank steak, her son, Alexis, 4, was enjoying a “Pulparindo” – a spicy treat that combines the acidic pulp of the tamarind fruit with a bit of salt and sugar.
Oscar Pedroza, a native of El Salvador, went to a small market across from Plaza Santa Cecilia in east Tulsa, seeking a fruit that is common in his country and is known as “anona,” which is in the sugar-apple family and look like a cross between an apple and an artichoke. “It is very sweet, and this is the only place where I can get it, but it always sells very quickly,” he said, disappointed upon finding none.
Remedies for ailments can also be found in Hispanic stores. Flor Méndez, a native of Mexico, was in an east side story looking for an ointment with camphor. “It heals muscle aches,” she said as she walked toward the aisle with votive candles, maybe to add some insurance to her treatment.
A piñata and a “tres leches” cake were the only two items on the list for Jesús and Graciela Rámirez, a Mexican couple who were shopping at a Hispanic market in east Tulsa for his nephew’s birthday. “It is easy to come to this store because you find everything here.”
Perhaps shops today do not have the color of before, where one could see cockfights or where serenades were planned, but they keep alive cultural expressions from the Rio Grande to Patagonia.
If you went to the store in search of a nail and did not find it, don’t get mad – you may discover a fruit that you were not familiar with, or you will finally find that record by Pedro Vargas that you searched for so much.
Photos by Juan Miret