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Orlando Sentinel

Palabras De Fe (Words Of Faith); Changing Demographics Have Made The Orlando Area A Hot Market For Religious Publications In Spanish

By Mark I. Pinsky, Sentinel Staff Writer

June 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Maritza Garcia says that shopping for books and music at Cristo La Roca can be a spiritual experience. As tropical songs play throughout the small store and children scamper in the aisles, the 38-year-old Kissimmee homemaker explores her faith, collecting material to share with her friends at church.

"I find what I need to lead a spiritual life," says Garcia, who is from Puerto Rico, and is still most comfortable speaking her native Spanish.

She is not alone in her allegiance to Cristo La Roca, which means "Christ, the Rock."

Every two weeks, Jemima Nieto drives from Zellwood to the store in south Orlando to buy books and CDs she can't find anywhere else. Sandra Melendez of Orlando comes to the store for the same reason -- the third generation in her family to shop there.

As the nation's largest minority, Hispanic Christians -- both Protestant and Catholic -- have carried with them a growing tide of religious books and music in their native language.

This burgeoning market will be on display today when CBA International -- the largest annual trade show devoted to Christian books and merchandise -- opens at the Orange County Convention Center.

Up to 13,000 delegates are expected at the gathering, which ends Thursday and is not open to the public.

Fueled by Protestant evangelism, Spanish- language religious materials "are no longer an industry sideline," says Bill Anderson, CBA president. Rather, they're moving into the mainstream and spreading to smaller, heartland cities and suburbs from recognized strongholds in the Sun Belt and big cities.

The Colorado Springs trade group of 2,400 stores began life as the Christian Booksellers Association, but changed its name to CBA in 1996 to reflect sales of music, videos and gifts. A panel Tuesday will train Christian retailers to reach the Spanish-speaking market as their communities change, reflecting the U.S. population shift.

Cristo La Roca began with a 1989 Orlando vacation taken by Maria and Antonio Burgos, owners of a Christian bookstore in Brooklyn. That visit led them to move to Central Florida in 1990, which led in turn to a business opportunity, the couple says.

"When we came to Orlando, we saw the need to open a Christian bookstore to serve the Hispanic community," says Antonio, 64. But business was slow.

"We struggled for four or five years," and nearly closed the doors, he says.

What saved them, says Maria, 59, was the dramatic migration to Central Florida of Puerto Ricans from the island, and from New York, New Jersey and elsewhere around the country in the early 1990s.

"I didn't know so many people would move here," she says. The couple's new, 4,000-square-foot store in Kissimmee is under construction. When it opens, the present store will become a discount outlet for Spanish-language religious merchandise.

There are numerous indicators of the growth of the Hispanic market nationally, some on display this week at the convention center.

The CBA's new Spanish Language Product Marketplace, a special section on the exhibit floor, filled quickly, according to conference organizers. More than a dozen other Spanish-language exhibitors have booths elsewhere in the hall.

Two monthly industry publications, Christian Marketplace and Christian Retailing, include regular and increasing coverage of the Hispanic market. Christian Retailing, which is based in Lake Mary, publishes a separate best-seller list of the top 20 Spanish-language books. Its parent, Strang Communications, also publishes a magazine called La Vida Cristiana, which is sold in many Hispanic Christian bookstores.

Cristo La Roca is one of at least four independent bookstores in Central Florida selling religious books and music in Spanish. Although the stores are owned by Pentecostals, Baptists and Catholics, they have a good deal in common.

All are relatively small, and located in strip centers they share with other businesses serving the Hispanic community. While Cristo La Roca is expanding, others are only marginally profitable, with several struggling for survival, so most carry materials for all Christian denominations. Most of the stores are staffed by family members, some of whom also have outside jobs to support the enterprises.

Selling religious materials to Spanish speakers differs dramatically from selling to English speakers, industry experts say. The reason? Customers' buying habits are affected by the oral tradition of Spanish culture.

Music -- especially "praise and worship" songs, with an up-tempo, tropical beat -- outsells books, except for Bibles. If customers have a choice between a book and a book on tape, says Ricardo Rodriguez, of Libreria Cristiana Vida Nueva, in Deltona, they are most likely to buy the cassette.

The books that do sell are often translations of popular English-language writers and preachers, such as James Dobson, T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn, as well as the Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction. Several writers in Spanish, such as Yiyi Avila and Diana Hagee, wife of evangelist John Hagee, are also popular.

In addition to selling books and music, the stores also serve as community centers. Bulletin boards post upcoming events such as concerts and visits by preachers of interest to the Hispanic community.

English-language stores also do this, but for Spanish-speaking newcomers scattered across Central Florida, this service is especially appreciated.

At Cristo La Roca, a glossy flier advertises a talk in Spanish by Diana Hagee on Tuesday at Iglesia El Calvario, the largest Hispanic congregation in Central Florida.

Despite dips in the economy, sales of Spanish-language materials are growing by 10-12 percent, according to Esteban Fernandez, president of Vida Publishers and chairman of the Spanish Evangelical Publishers Association.

Jim Powell, the coordinator of Tuesday's workshop on marketing to Hispanics, suggests that Christian bookstores carry 5 feet of Spanish-language books on their shelves, and even more of Spanish music, such as popular singer Jaci Velazquez.

Brian Cline, manager of the Lifeway Christian Store in Orlando, part of a chain operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, says his shelf space for Spanish-language products has expanded to 32 feet.

"Ours has grown pretty substantially over the past couple of years," Cline says, including books, Bibles, music and other merchandise. "Our shoppers see there is more of an emphasis being put on these products."

Larry Downs is president of Editorial Unilit, one of the largest Spanish-language publishers of books for Christians. He says that, wherever Hispanic customers choose to shop, they'll ask retailers the same questions: "Am I invited in? Am I loved? Am I accepted?"

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