Posted on September 15, 2004

Shops Offer An Exchange Of Cultures

Jennifer Miller, Rocky Mountain News (Co.), Sep. 14

There are eye-popping cowboy boots sitting on shelves at Jeff Yoo’s MexMall store in Aurora. Crocodile skin. Iguana skin. Ostrich.

The prices top out at $1,200.

Yoo, however, feels more at home in a pair of sneakers.

“I would never wear that and never thought about people coming in and spending that kind of money,” he said.

But they do.

The exotic boots, furniture and music are drawing Hispanic customers to Yoo’s mercado.

Yoo is one of several Asian business owners in the Denver metro area adapting to the influx of Hispanics by stocking mega stores with wares geared toward the culture.

Aurora’s Hispanic population for an area surrounding Yoo’s market increased from about 1,024 in 1990 to 11,946 in 2000.

About 42 percent of the people in that area are foreign born, with most having arrived within the past 10 years, according to census figures.

The trend benefited Asian business owners, who say it’s easier to break into the Hispanic market than to try and sell to the mainstream. And Hispanics, particularly Mexican and Central American consumers, enjoy the stores’ resemblance to markets in their native countries.

Even traditionally Asian supermarkets in the west Denver area known as Little Saigon have been seeing more Hispanic customers. Many hire Hispanic employees to help translate.

Asian supermarket owners say that 15 to 20 percent of their business is from Hispanics coming into their seafood markets.

While locals say that, for years, many Hispanic immigrants were coming from central Mexico, there seems to be an increase of people from that country’s coastal cities.

This cross-cultural blending may be a picture of Denver’s future, said Khan Vu, whose family owns Asian Supermarket on Alameda Avenue in west Denver.

As many Asians in west Denver have become successful and moved to the suburbs, more Hispanics keep moving in.

“We’re getting more diverse every day,” Vu said. “Right down here is a flavor of what’s to come.”

A feast for the eyes

“It’s because of the price,” Cecilia Martinez said, explaining why she browses the MexMall for shoes.

“When I go to places like Sears, it’s so much more expensive,” said Martinez, who is from Mexico.

In these stores, you won’t find Barbie, but rather Denise, Nina or Gracy Danselise.

The stores are a feast for the eyes, with bright-colored tops and jeans, Virgin Mary key rings and piñatas.

But the biggest moneymaker is a check-cashing store.

“Money orders to them are an integral part of everyday life,” Yoo said, speaking of newly arrived immigrants. “They don’t have checks or believe in banks. They don’t believe in a system that (in their country) went belly up. People line up to buy money orders.”

Yoo said he doesn’t “know the culture truly,” but schedules meetings with Hispanic employees to learn.

“Hispanic people are hardworking and like to spend money,” he said. “They’re one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. Why would you not cater to them?”

Struggle in west Denver

It has not always been smooth sailing for these kinds of businesses, said Dong Kim, who was sipping coffee recently at one of two Hispanic indoor flea markets that he owns on Federal Boulevard.

The day was bright, but business looked grim. He sat next to two empty booths. To his left rested a blazer on a plastic bust, remnants of a bridal shop vacated in January.

To his right, he could see a bevy of mattresses stuffed inside a dark booth that was a bar.

Business is slow in the once bustling center he opened in 1991 after leaving Korea with little knowledge of English.

“Sixty percent of my regular Hispanic customers have left to another state,” said the owner of Federal Indoor Flea Market and Federal Mexicana Mall.

“There are no jobs and (because of the drought) the landscaping business is dry,” he said. “We need the Mexican people for survival. Now is a hard time for survival.”

But Kim will stick to the business. He said he keeps trying to think of things that will appeal to west Denver’s plentiful Hispanic community, which grew from about 9,500 in 1990 to a little more than 16,500 in 2000. About 33 percent of the population in that nook of town is foreign born, according to census data.

Kim owns an auto-sound business inside the flea market, which many Asian store owners say is a big hit with the Mexican community.

A dream unrealized Jung “Jeremiah” Kong, owner of La Plaza Mexicana flea market on East Colfax, came from Korea with $450 in the ‘80s.

He pictures opening a 100,000- square-foot Hispanic mega mall in Denver that would include an events and health center and mariachis.

Kong said he has been proposing the project, an estimated $6 million deal, to Denver officials for three years — without luck.

“Bankers and city government don’t have an interest in concentrating on the Hispanic market,” he said. “We’ve been talking how many years? To be honest, I’m so tired.”

Kong said Hispanics must realize that they are being “underserved.” For an estimated population of 750,000 in Colorado, it’s strange that they don’t have their own cultural events center, he said.

“That’s a big population, and nobody cares about them. I’m the Oriental guy and wasn’t planning on it. I’m not going to be their godfather, but someone has to take responsibility.”

Ilene Yokoyama-Reed sees things a little differently.

The director of the minority business office for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade is armed with papers, facts and figures.

Denver knows the Hispanic market is crucial, she said.

“I recently gave a speech to the Denver Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “They had a special program, specifically on marketing to Hispanics. Denver’s minority population promises to have the same impact in the next 50 years that the baby boomers had in the past 50.

“People would almost have to be an ostrich not to see the potential.”