Hurricane Katrina

Latino influx spikes buying power

Whether looking for Guava nectar, flor de Manzanilla (Chamomille flower petals), chicharrones grande (large pork rinds), a telenovela DVD or a statue of your favorite Mexican saint, residents of South Mississippi need not travel far.

The Latino population in South Mississippi increased nearly five-fold after Hurricane Katrina and with the new neighbors came a demand for the comforts of home.

There are now several grocerias (Latino grocery stores) on the Coast, in addition to many new and more-authentic Mexican restaurants.

Traditional businesses have taken notice, too, adding bilingual menus and signs or, in the case of places like Wal-Mart and many convenience stores, even changing their traditional offerings.

It was not until recently that you could buy tortillas and chili peppers at dozens of local gas stations.

Spokesmen for the Harrison County Development Commission and the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce said they are aware of the rise in Latino-owned businesses and they expect to work with more owners in the near future, but there are no local statistics available on the subject.

Nationally, the buying power of Latinos is expected to rise from about $500 billion in 2000 to more than $1 trillion in 2010, according to a recent study by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

This new demand has spelled a business boom for many established Latino business owners such as Enrique Vega, proprietor of El Rancho Mexican Restaurant on Pass Road in Biloxi.

"It has a lot to do with the language," said Vega, whose business has nearly tripled since the storm, allowing him to make plans to open new restaurants.

It isn't only Latinos frequenting El Rancho, but many Latinos who come do so because the wait staff speaks Spanish, Vega said. Well, that and the food is the best and most authentic on the Coast, Vega said.

The language issue has also helped people like Martin Diaz, whose family owns La Bamba Latin Store in Biloxi.

"People feel good buying a product when they can be understood," said Diaz, adding this sometimes overrides a desire to pay less.

Speaking the same language has also made customers feel more comfortable sending money home, Diaz said. Money-transfer companies have done a booming business on the Coast in the last 10 months.

Both Diaz and Vega said they seek customers other than Latinos, but understand that the largest growth for their business will come within South Mississippi's fastest-growing subculture.

Andy Guerra, president of the Gulf Coast Latin American Association, said the rise in Latino businesses in terms of numbers and profitability has to do mostly with a growing sense of community.

"Like any neighborhood, there's always a local store to get news, information and find out what's going on in the community," Guerra said.