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San Antonio Express-News

Taste Of Puerto Rico: San Antonio Restaurants, Stores Catering To Community's Growing Presence

by John Gutierrez-Mier

September 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 San Antonio Express-News. All Rights Reserved.

In a city awash with tacos and enchiladas, searching for monfongo or tostones can be a difficult, but not impossible, quest.

There may not be many places in San Antonio that offer those dishes, but several thousand residents in the city's loosely knit Puerto Rican community know where to find them.

"There's a booming community here in San Antonio, and our culture is becoming more popular all across the United States," said Jose "Papote" Rodriguez, owner of La Marginal, a popular eatery on the North Side.

As the music and flavors of his homeland sizzled during a recent noontime lunch rush, Rodriguez said common bonds - language, values and, more often than not, religion - make San Antonio attractive for Hispanics of all backgrounds.

But Rodriguez, like other Puerto Ricans here, said Hispanics in San Antonio who are not Mexican or Mexican-American are easily overlooked, especially when it comes to citywide cultural celebrations.

And that becomes all the more evident during Hispanic Heritage Month. Created years ago by Congress to honor the contributions of Hispanics to the United States, it runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

Rodriguez pointed to entertainers like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez as examples of a rising interest in the U.S. commonwealth.

In fact, Martin named his Miami restaurant Monfongo after the Puerto Rican dish - a breadlike mix of crushed green plantains, garlic and assorted spices that is fried, then wrapped around pork.

Rodriguez, though, likes to brag that the monfongo he serves is tastier than the signature dish at Martin's Miami eatery.

"A friend of mine ate monfongo at (Martin's) restaurant and said mine is much better," said Rodriguez, who moved to San Antonio 10 years ago from Rio Grande, Puerto Rico .

"When I came here, there weren't very many Puerto Ricans living in San Antonio," Rodriguez said. "It's a quiet city, and along with the good climate, it's a great place to raise a family."

According to the 1990 census, 7,381 Puerto Ricans lived in Bexar County that year, and fewer than 200 in the surrounding counties.

New figures from this year's census are not yet available, but the numbers have surely increased in the past decade, perhaps dramatically.

Tommy Ortiz, director of the Texas office of Puerto Rico 's Federal Affairs Administration, said he's heard estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 Puerto Ricans live in San Antonio and the surrounding area.

His office is based in San Antonio to promote commerce and tourism for the island.

"There's certainly a large number of Puerto Ricans who live here," Ortiz said, adding that the city's substantial Hispanic population is the reason the Puerto Rican government decided to open the office in 1996.

Besides acting as an economic liaison between Texas and Puerto Rico , it is a clearinghouse for information on Puerto Rican civic and cultural groups here, including the Club Damas de Puerto Rico , created in 1978 by Carmen Lopez and several of her friends.

Lopez and her husband, Victor, were born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to San Antonio in 1963 when he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston.

The couple enjoyed the city so much, they settled here and raised a family, but made a point to instill in their three children a lifelong pride in their Puerto Rican heritage.

"We spoke Spanish at home, and by going back to Puerto Rico twice a year, they were able to learn about their culture," said Carmen Lopez, vice president of the club she helped form.

A social, cultural and civic club, Club Damas is the city's oldest Puerto Rican organization. Each November, its 60 members organize an invitation-only gala to commemorate the Nov. 19, 1493, landing by Christopher Columbus on Puerto Rican soil.

"I've been here for a very long time, but I'm still Puerto Rican," Lopez affirmed.

Rodriguez occasionally organizes a more public festival, with a heavy emphasis on Puerto Rican food, music and culture, called Latin Fest. It draws Puerto Ricans from as far away as Houston and Dallas.

When the talk turns to the statehood -or-independence question, most attendees seem to favor statehood . In referendums, voters on the island have continued to back the status quo.

Angel Rivera, owner of El Boricua Food Market, carries hard-to-find culinary ingredients in his North Side store.

He opened the store seven years ago, and it serves as a meeting place for much of the city's Puerto Rican community - although its numbers have long grown past the point where everybody knows everybody else.

"People come here and talk about the island," said Rivera, who also sells shirts, key chains and other souvenirs with the Puerto Rican flag stamped on them.

His advertising budget is nonexistent. He said good portions of his customers are military personnel stationed at the area's Army and Air Force facilities.

"People come here from Germany, Alaska and Japan and tell me they had heard about my store before they got here," Rivera said.

One of his regular customers is 288th District Judge Frank Montalvo, who was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico .

Montalvo said Puerto Ricans feel at home in San Antonio because it is a "welcoming community."

"What I find so special about this city is that I always feel welcome," he said. "Everyone here is able to celebrate their own culture. And everyone here is willing to share that culture."

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