LAURINBURG — The Hispanic grocery store “Mi Fiesta” has been giving a taste of Latin America to the Scotland County community since 2006.
The colorful shelves of the Main Street store are crowded with tropical fruits, exotic grains, cookies and other pastries. Sports attire lines the walls, as do religious ornaments, flags, even cell phone cards. Hanging from the ceiling are the piñatas that lend to the store’s playful name.
Store owner Lucio Morales said these typical Latin American products have become very popular among other cultures as well.
“I have costumers from different countries in South and Central America, but I also have a lot of costumers that are originally from this area. People from the Caribbean and even from Africa and Spain also come here,” he said.
Although his job as a farmer in Veracruz, Mexico, allowed him to have a comfortable life, Morales wanted to have the stability of being an employee at a well-established business — but finding a job was difficult in an overpopulated Mexico.
Twenty years ago, he and his wife made the move to the U.S. The native of Veracruz spent his first 12 years in the U.S working at an assembling company where he quickly learned to speak English.
“When I moved here I learned English by taking classes for two years and working with Americans,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult for me to learn. I was very motivated and I had the support of those who surrounded me, they were always very friendly and helpful.”
Eight years ago, Morales decided to quit his job and open his own business so he could have more time with his family. He was tired of his daily commute, and his manufacturing job was made difficult by residual pain caused by two car accidents several years prior.
“At the beginning it was difficult to adapt from having a stable salary to having to make a profit,” he said. “It took me over two years to start seeing the results.”
Although opening a business wasn’t easy, it has allowed Morales to pay for the education of his older son, who is now an adult, and raise his two younger children, who are 9 and 6.
“Laurinburg is a small city so not every month is good, some months are really slow, but in general I think that the store has made a name for itself,” he said. “People recommend it and come back because they know I offer good quality products.”
Morales also chalks up his success partly to the good relationship that exists in Scotland County between Hispanics and other local ethnic communities.
“I think people here are very accepting of Hispanics,” he said. “They like Mexican food and Mexican music, for example, so they even enjoy sharing their events with people from this country.”
Morales also said the products a person buys tell him something about the person’s culture. Caribbeans, for example, come looking mostly for pineapples, mangoes and plantains.
But regardless of cultural differences, Morales has noticed most people like the glass-bottled sodas and the traditional Mexican sweet bread, made with cinnamon and brown sugar.
“I guess many people want the bottled soda better than the canned one because it brings them memories of the past,” he said.
His busiest days are often Sundays, when people come looking for supplies for the week. The store also benefited from the World Cup, with many fans coming to buy Mexican, Argentinian or Brazilian jerseys.
The success he has had with Mi Fiesta has inspired Morales to try to expand his business, possibly a bigger grocery store with more employees and a larger variety of products.
“People are already familiar with my store here in Laurinburg, and I really like this city, I like the people and the fact that it is in the middle between the beach and the mountains,” he said. “So the ideal would be to stay and expand my business here, but I am also open to the possibility of going to a bigger city.”
Monica Espitia, an international student at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, worked this summer as an intern for the Laurinburg Exchange.