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A Taste Of Home For The Holidays

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

December 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- When Isla's first Christmas catalog went out to the United States 10 years ago, Betsy Parker figured the ceramic handbags, the Taíno-inspired jewelry and the watercolor prints of street life in Old San Juan would appeal to an affluent audience of travelers and art lovers.

It wasn't until the orders began streaming in for Yauco coffee, Cortés chocolate and Isla Vieques hot sauce that the company founder understood her true market: Puerto Ricans on the mainland nostalgic for a taste of home.

"It became clear that we were dealing with Puerto Ricans, and they wanted típica," says Parker, using the Spanish word for traditional fare, as seasonal workers at Isla's San Juan warehouse stuff boxes heading north for the holidays. "They will buy nice crafts, but it has to say something about Puerto Rico or the Caribbean."

In his recent report on Puerto Ricans in the United States, the New York-based political scientist Angelo Falcón identified the burgeoning stateside population as a potentially lucrative new market for island businesses.

Isla and its competitors -- Internet- and catalog-based outfits such as Galerías Artesanales and El Colmadito -- are part of a small but growing community of companies that already are tapping in.

"The pie is big," says Elaine McClintock Montgomery, who founded and now runs Musica Boricua. "There's room for everybody."

In the Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans, a study commissioned and published last month by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Falcón says the size and spending power of the Puerto Rican community in the United States suggests an untapped market.

The senior policy executive for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund lists the indicators: average individual earnings second among Hispanics only to Cubans, total earnings greater than those on the island, and a growing middle class that has maintained an identification with home.

"While in the United States there has been a major discovery of a large Latino market by American businesses, corporations in Puerto Rico need to view the stateside Puerto Rican market in the same terms," Falcón writes. "Particularly given the strong cultural nationalism of stateside Puerto Ricans, they represent a large potential market for specifically Puerto Rican products and services that has not been cultivated in any significant way."

McClintock Montgomery, who is a Puerto Rican living in Alabama, says islanders feel a bond with their ancestral home.

"When you talk about culture, there's something about the Puerto Rican culture that, no matter if you're away from Puerto Rico for three or four generations, you feel culturally attached to Puerto Rico and what it means," she says. "My husband has been away from California for 20 years, but he never goes online looking for a key holder or a T-shirt. That's something that the Puerto Ricans have. They look for the music, the food."

Musica Boricua, which takes its name from Boriquén, the native Taíno word for Puerto Rico, focuses on CDs and DVDs of local sounds. Galerías Artesanales, or Artisan Galleries, presents an extensive collection of arts, crafts, music and literature. El Colmadito (the Little Corner Store) and Isla (Island) offer much of the above, plus a range of foods, seasonings and cooking ingredients, coffees, candies and snacks.

With Christmas, the New Year and Three Kings Day, this is the high season for such businesses. At Isla, Parker has taken on four seasonal employees, to join the five who work year-round, to help her through the three-month period she expects to account for 60 percent of her $700,000 to $800,000 in annual sales.

Irma Cuevas of Kissimmee, whose mother used to take her to San Juan each summer, is a regular customer of both Isla and El Colmadito, buying CDs of salsa and merengue, books and clothing to share with her own children.

"It is part of my heritage, and I want them also to be aware of their heritage," says Cuevas, an administrative assistant at Walt Disney World.

Francisco González Jr., an island native who moved to New York at 16, shops at Isla for candies, jellies and jams, compact discs of música jíbara, salsa, merengue, mambo and plena, and gifts for friends.

"The stuff that I'm getting is things that tie into fond memories, good music, better times -- the stuff we remember growing up," says González, now a 62-year-old grandfather and most recently the recipient of a new "Fania All-Stars Live at Yankee Stadium" disc. "I can still see my great grandparents dressing up, bowing to each other and doing these wonderful, wonderful traditional old dances."

Parker says her products seem to spark such memories.

"Customers get on the phone, they love to tell us where they're from, and do you know it?" she says. "Our workers respond to that. Part of our business is that we are giving them a piece of their heritage. We want them to feel nostalgic when they call."

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