Growing up in Cincinnati, the Latino community was so small that I didn’t notice it. It would take trips to other cities to fully realize this void in our cultural landscape. About 20 years ago, I traveled to Chicago quite often and marveled at the size of the Hispanic community, driving around and listening to the dozen or so Spanish-speaking stations. Of the small handful of networks on free, broadcast television, two of them were Spanish-speaking outlets.
But in Cincinnati, to this day, we have one low-powered Spanish-language radio channel and stations like Telemundo or Univision are only available through pay TV outlets.
Cincinnati’s Hispanic community reflects the national population growth trend. In Hamilton County, between the 1990 and 2000 census surveys, the Hispanic population grew from 5,198 to 9,514. The 2010 census reported that Hispanic citizens in Hamilton County now number 20,607.
Besides just out in the community, you can now see signs of the Latino growth in neighborhood supermarkets. Two decades ago, to find authentic Mexican and Latin American ingredients and other food products not made by Taco Bell in Greater Cincinnati, you had to really search.
Today, supermarket chains are eager to cater to the fastest growing segment of America’s population. Walmart has tested Supermercados de Walmart stores in a few markets, but most shops have simply expanded their Latin food aisles to offer more and better authentic options.
An ever-increasing Hispanic population, America’s longtime love affair with Mexican food and Latin American food’s popularity amongst “foodies” have all helped make the “Hispanic aisle” one of the biggest “ethnic food” sections in most grocery stores. (What to call the aisle has shifted in recent years; instead of “Mexican,” stores have switched to more encompassing names like Hispanic or Latin American.)
As you’ve probably noticed, the Hispanic food aisle is the only one that comes with a wide selection of candles.
These prayer — or Novena — candles usually feature a saint or other religious figure, to which the consumer prays for various good things to happen. The tall, cylindrical candles are $1-$2 and designed to burn for seven days (to get the most out of your prayer). I used to regularly scoop up four or five every few grocery trips to decorate my drafty, dark apartment.
I recently visited a Kroger to check in on the state of the Hispanic aisle and grab a few “Made in Mexico” items to sample. The section included several shelves of spices and dried peppers (shopping tip: many are cheaper than what you’ll find in other sections).
Of course, I had to grab a candle, so I chose the one with the cool cape-wearing skeleton holding a scythe. Turns out she’s Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. Some Catholics think those who pray to Santa Muerte are evil and probably linked to Satan. I thought it’d make a nice Halloween decoration.
I also randomly grabbed a few food items, and almost all of them offered a different, distinct flavor I’d never experienced. In honor of the current health trend of drinking coconut water, I picked up Goya’s brand, which modestly proclaimed itself “naturally hydrating.” It’s also loaded with potassium (and is, some say, a good hangover cure). I got the “with pulp” version, so each gulp had a crunch thanks to the coconut flakes. Still, it was incredibly refreshing.
Speaking of trends, Mexican Coke — Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico — has something of a cult following in the United States. There is allegedly a distinct difference between Mexican and American Coke due to the Mexican version’s use of cane sugar instead of corn sugar. I found a different brand made similarly, Jarritos Mexican Cola, which is kind of the Mexican Pepsi in terms of sales. In terms of taste, it’s closer to Faygo. Thicker than domestic brands, you can really taste the sugar, and there’s a mild, almost smoky sarsaparilla aftertaste that is pleasantly unique.
The third drink product I grabbed was a bag of Klass brand horchata, a dry, flavored drink mix. Made differently in various parts of Latin America and Spain by grinding up nuts, seeds or rice into a powdery mix, I bought the rice and cinnamon version. It’s deliciously fragrant and almost sensually flavorful, reminding me of rice pudding with cinnamon on top, only in cold drink form. Sort of like an exotic Nestle Quik, horchata can be made with water or milk (I recommend milk).
My last grab was for a package of Gamesa brand Marias cookies. The cookie was invented in a tiny British bakery in 1874 to honor Grand Duchess Maria of Russia’s wedding (“Maria” was imprinted on each). The cookie caught on, especially in Spain. Marias (or Maries) are very similar to Rich tea biscuits, a dunking favorite of U.K. tea drinkers. The Gamesa Marias are beige and resemble half of an Oreo, but, taste-wise, they tasted exactly like animal crackers. Not bad, but not as exciting as the rest of my haul.
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