Shops for immigrants aren't strictly business

Column by Ann Macari Healey

Ann Macari Healey
Posted 10/18/12

Indira Torres stands behind the counter, mahogany hair neatly pulled back, ready for the steady flow of requests. “How are you?” she asks in …

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Shops for immigrants aren't strictly business

Column by Ann Macari Healey


Indira Torres stands behind the counter, mahogany hair neatly pulled back, ready for the steady flow of requests.

“How are you?” she asks in Spanish as a man in paint-spattered pants, a camouflage Air Force hat tipped back on his head, walks through the door.

“Muy bien, gracias a Dios,” he says. Very well, thanks be to God. He hands his check to Torres to cash.

A young mother pushes a stroller inside and gives Torres $40 to pay toward her light bill. Torres taps in the woman's information on the computer and applies it electronically.

An older man pays for a calling card to Mexico. A young woman adds $3 on a rechargeable phone account. A daughter sends her retired parents, in their 70s and in Mexico, several hundred dollars for living expenses. A son wires his mother — and a sister — also in Mexico, enough money “so that they won't lack for anything.”

This small storefront, in a Latino market that sells the fond tastes of once-upon-a-time lives, has become a one-stop shop that helps preserve the connection between the old country and the new one. It also provides the financial services essential to begin planting stable roots here.

It's like a warm, comfortable home, says Mayra Saldana, a petite 28-year-old Littleton resident who with her parents owns the Littleton store and another in Denver that adjoins a restaurant. “We provide the services where we can send money to their families and, as well, commonly used ingredients for Hispanic dinners.”

Food for the soul in every way.

The businesses, throughout the Denver metro area, nearly shout their services in bold-colored lettering in Spanish to passersby — money transfers, check-cashing, calling cards, money orders. Like Saldana's two places, many share space with restaurants, small neighborhood markets or convenience stores that sell everything from piñatas and cowboy boots to pico de gallo and baptismal candles. One, on Federal Boulevard in Denver, advertises its services in a jewelry store.

The stores are a cultural reference point for many Latino immigrants, says Laszlo Kalloi, community affairs consul for the Mexican Consulate in Denver. He notes that consulate officials encourage the use of traditional bank services, rather than the private businesses, because more financial options are offered. But the neighborhood locations and absence of a language barrier make them feel more comfortable, he says. “They know the system and it's easier.”

Walking through the doors is like stepping into another country, one with mariachi or cumbia music soft in the background, freshly baked pan dulce on trays and Spanish CDs and DVDs on the racks.

The sweet-spicy hot tamarind candy and crispy homemade chicharrones take me back to my growing-up years in Mexico and the other Latin American countries we lived in when my parents worked for then-United Fruit Co., which produced Chiquita bananas. The nostalgic warmth of memories tease my heart for the culture I love deeply, and I can only imagine how it must remind many how far they are from home.

And, yet, maybe not so far, at least for a few moments, with the assistance of people like Indira Torres, 27, who drives six days a week from her house near I-70 and I-25 to Las Huertas Mexican market. She doesn't mind the commute to Littleton. “I am happy here because I know these people. I feel like this is my second home.”

With a kind smile, she deftly works the computer like a magician. She knows how to make the transfer happen, which calling card to suggest and how to exchange cash for money orders to pay the rent. She gets the job — all the jobs — done.

For construction workers. Restaurant waiters and busboys. Mostly men, but some women, too. Mostly from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. But also some from India, Saudi Arabia and Africa. They all come, many weekly, to conduct their financial transactions with confianza, Torres says.


That is why Veronica Vargas, 37, on a recent afternoon, walked in after her restaurant shift to send money to her family in Mexico. Trust — and the language — make it “easier.”

She is one of 10 siblings and also has many nephews and nieces. She tries to help her parents out the most, but “I help them all,” she says. “Not always, because sometimes, I can't. But a little bit.”

These are the stories Torres hears every day as she facilitates the connection from the home in the new country to the home in the old country. Money sent to buy medicine, to help build a house, to make life a little better.

Stories about the bond that transcends the miles — love.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at or 303-566-4110.

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