A Piece of Culture Vanished

Sign reads: Clients Only. Parking for shopping. (Photo by Kamilla Mercado)

By Kamilla Mercado

The closing and sale of the Latino oriented supermarket, Hi-Lo, located in Jamaica Plain, on January 19, 2011, caused quite a stir in the Latino community. The announcement that it was being replaced by a Whole Foods Market didn’t sit well with many because it changed the character of the neighborhood.

“That’s why we were upset. Not because we were losing a name of a supermarket, [but] because we were losing a place for us where we can get a piece of culture,” says Rosalba Solis, music teacher at the Rafael Hernandez School and a JP resident for 37 years.

A fixture for more than 40 years at its Centre Street location until it closed in 2011, Hi-Lo had itself replaced a “white-bread chain Sklars Market” that catered to Irish and Eastern European immigrants, Paysha Stockton said in her article “Hi-Lo:For Latinos, More Than A Grocery” on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website.

But as the community changed, so did the orientation of the supermarket. Spanish speakers arrived in the 70s and the 80s, remaking the neighborhood and turning Jamaica Plain into a predominantly Latino community.

The supermarket specialized in caribbean cuisine and culture, serving mostly Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Mexicans and other spanish speakers from Latin American countries. Former store manager and Jamaica Plain resident Bill Jordan took a spanish immersion class to help transform  the supermarket to a Latin market.

Soon enough, Hi-Lo became a social center for the Latino community. In the article “Researcher: Whole Foods ‘decimated’ JP Latino culture” from the Jamaica Plain Gazette website, author Rebeca Oliveira paraphrases Dr. Glenn Jacobs, a JP resident and a sociologist.

“He explained that many Latino shoppers hung around Hi-Lo, visiting with with neighbors and talking,” said Oliveira.

Items on shelf at Whole Foods. (Photo by Kamilla Mercado)

Items on shelf at Whole Foods. (Photo by Kamilla Mercado)

Spanish speaking shoppers felt comfortable there because they could speak their own language and buy quality products from their beloved home countries at a reasonable price. JP resident Rosalba Solis says that Hi-Lo was like the glue that held the community together.

Shoppers were used to the market’s simplicity and the welcoming feeling they received when walking in through the heavy metal doors and catching the view of the various flags from Spanish speaking countries hanging from the ceiling.

On Saturday mornings, shoppers would be greeted with the smell of freshly baked Puerto Rican bread. There was the sweet smell of pan sobao, which translates to lard bread in english, a sweet smelling and tasting bread, and there was pan de agua, water bread.

As shoppers pushed their grocery carts down the long aisles, Spanish being spoken from every corner of the store, shoppers would likely have come across two Puerto Rican women gossiping, a Colombian native catching up with his childhood friend, who he hasn’t seen in years, or a 5-year-old little girl calling out “Mami, Mami!,” to a woman scanning the shelves searching for her favorite Goya product.

The closing of Hi-Lo , and the opening Whole Foods opening, caused many protest by an organized group called “Whose Foods”. On June 2, 2011 there was 3 arrests at the first meeting of the “Whose Foods” organization that was held in the auditorium at the Curley K-8 school. Chloe Frankel and Andrew Murray were arrested with charges of disrupting a public assembly and trespassing after hanging up a banner that said, “Displacement: What is Whole Foods going to do about it?” from an area that police made off limits to audience members.

Peter Blaiklock was also arrested with charges of disrupting a public assembly after he attempted to display his banner, which said, “One meeting is not enough,” in the middle of the main seating area.

In the article, “Police arrest 3, abruptly end Whole Foods’ first meeting with Jamaica Plain residents” by Matt Rocheleau, town correspondent for The Boston Globe, Frankel says that she didn’t think that there was a need for her arrest. “We were just exercising our right to free speech,” she said.

Martha Rodriguez, a JP resident for over 10 years didn’t think that the arrests that took place that Thursday night were fair. She says, “It wasn’t fair. They were just holding signs… I think the police were a little too aggressive and defensive.”

There were many outbursts coming from the crowd of 300. Audience members were shouting at each other, there was name calling, and there was many other personal attacks towards the Whole Foods officials sitting on the stage.

Yet, Jamaica Plain residents have very different opinions on the arrival of the Whole Foods. Some residents and business owners in the area think that it’s a good idea.

In the video “Who Belongs Here,” produced by Emily Corwin, business owner Patria Valenzuela thinks that the Whole Foods will help the spanish community start eating healthier. “We need to teach the spanish community to start eating healthy. Whole Foods Supermarket brings many new people to the area and the business helps us to improve our business,” says Valenzuela.

But not all members of the community agree with Valenzuela. Many are concerned about gentrification happening in the area. Saúl Cifuentes works at a beauty supply in Jamaica Plain and he thinks that the Whole Foods doesn’t fit into the character of the community. “ Most residents here are of lower income, and they cannot shop there because it’s extremely expensive,” said Cifuentes in spanish.

Rosalba Solis seems to agree with Cifuentes. “Gentrification affects the people in the community in a large way because it pushes away people with lower income to other places,” she says, “The foods that are coming in to our places in supermarkets are pushed to us in different ways, because those are the supermarkets that are in our neighborhood and if you have to go to a place that is near you, those are the choices that you have, and we’ve been displaced to go and find other places, other venues, for food that [is] not in our neighborhood.”

Solis said that with the Hi-Lo being on sale, “it’s like our culture being on sale.”

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