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Bienvenido, Bragtown

A commercial strip on the old highway into Durham has blossomed into a regional center for Latino businesses.


The Durham neighborhood of Bragtown is changing. Over the last few years, the stretch of North Roxboro Road between I-85 and Old Oxford Highway has become home to one of the highest concentrations of Latino-owned businesses in the Triangle. And what makes this mile-and-a-half long strip unique is the remarkably broad range of goods and services clustered there.

Not only are there authentic Mexican taquerias along Roxboro Road, there's everything from a Hispanic hair and beauty salon to a Latino family video store that doubles as an Internet cafe.

Ten years ago, this particular part of Durham did not contain a single Latino business; today there are almost a dozen, many of which have appeared over just the last two years. North Roxboro Road is fast becoming one of the primary shopping destinations not only for the growing number of Spanish-speaking residents of Durham and the Triangle, but also for many who live as far away as Oxford, Roxboro, Burlington, and even across the border in Virginia.

Roxboro Road is also U.S. 501, once one of the chief traffic arteries into Durham before the arrival of U.S. 15-501 and Interstate 85. It is still a heavily traveled road, and still serves as the most direct route between Roxboro and Durham, which may explain in large part why so many Latino entrepreneurs have opened up shop there. A significant portion of their business comes from the large Hispanic population of Roxboro, many of whom on weekends make the drive for groceries and items they could otherwise find only in their native countries.

For area Latinos, the tiendas of Bragtown are a connection to the familiarity of home; for non-Latinos, they offer a peek into another world without having to leave the Triangle. And as long as the Spanish-speaking population of the region continues to grow, this Durham neighborhood will continue to flourish with Latino commerce and culture.

Just as "Calle Ocho" is known the world over as the center of Cuban culture in Miami, North Roxboro Road may soon be recognized as the center of Latino culture of Durham and beyond.

Following are profiles of some of the establishments that give Roxboro Road its flavor.

Tienda Mexicana Don Jose, 2301 N. Roxboro Road, 220-0525.
The name Don Jose refers to Jose Molina, who opened this, the oldest of what is now a small local chain of Don Jose tiendas, about eight years ago. Tienda Mexicana Don Jose was also the first Latino business to open on North Roxboro Road, the flagship establishment without which the others may have never come into existence. Molina, however, is planning to move back to Mexico soon, and so the original Tienda Don Jose is in the process of an ownership change. Javier Becerra, who is from Michoacan, Mexico, and his wife, Jean Becerra, have been running the store since last October, and soon the structure at the corner of Roxboro Road and Club Boulevard with the red, white and green-painted roof will bear the name Don Becerra.

Inside, the shelves are stocked with all manner of groceries: Corn Masa Mix, cans of black and refried beans, tortillas, Mexican brand soaps and shampoos, pickled pork skins, bananas, guava, freshly baked breads and Conchitas, nuts, dried fruit, Pinguinos (the Mexican answer to Ho-Hos), and, most intriguing of all, the overwhelmingly comprehensive array of Orale brand teas, herbs, and cooking spices, among the more exotic of which include quassia, malabar, cocolmeca, dandelion leaves, borage leaves, and ground shrimp.

But Don Jose's goods are not only for the kitchen. One corner of Don Jose is devoted to video rentals--all in Spanish, whether in origin or dubbed over the Hollywood version--and another to wedding dresses, baptismal clothes, religious items, and a popular style of white children's shoes ordered directly from Mexico. And behind the counter the Becerras do a swift business in phone cards, a necessity for those who wish to keep in touch with their families back home.

Don Jose Records, LLC, 2202 Avondale Dr., 220-5206.
Don Jose Records, another Jose Molina venture, is not only a music store; it's a pool hall as well. The 11 pool tables take up most of the room in Don Jose Records, with one wall devoted to racks of CDs and tapes of Latino music. There are sections for Rock/Pop; Mujeres; Hombres; Banda; Grupos; and Norteño. Other than a handful of artists--Shakira, Ricky Martin, Santana, and Mariah Carey--the shelves are filled with titles one would never dream of seeing at Sam Goody's or even Schoolkids Records.

Mi Pequeño Honduras, LLC, 2201 N. Roxboro Road, 220-3702.
In a building anyone who has lived in this area very long will immediately recognize as a former Hardee's is the Honduran restaurant Mi Pequeño Honduras, or "My Little Honduras." Owner Cecilio Zambrano, who moved here six years ago from Tela Atlantida, Honduras, and opened Mi Pequeño three years ago, says opening and running a restaurant in the United States is much more expensive than in his native Honduras. It is no surprise, then, that Zambrano has not poured much money into changing the interior layout and decor of his restaurant from its former life as a Hardee's. After all, it's the quality of the food that counts.

The most popular items on the menu at Mi Pequeño are "carne asada," or "grilled beef"; "pollo frito," a Honduran-style fried chicken that is served with plantains; and "Sopa de Mariscos," a seafood soup with shrimp and crab, all traditional Honduran dishes. Mi Pequeño also stocks Honduran "Tropical" brand grape and banana flavored sodas and a Honduran beer called Salva Vida, or "life preserver."

In addition to serving food, Zambrano hosts viewing parties at Mi Pequeño when the Honduran national soccer teams plays a televised game, and fans come in droves to eat and cheer on their team. And on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, a local Honduran musician plays and sings traditional music from 8 p.m. until around 11 p.m.

Carneceria La Superior, 2842 N. Roxboro Road, 220-9884.
Brothers Omar, Eleazer, and Roselia Flores moved to Durham from Los Angeles in 1997 hoping to find a less competitive market to open a new butcher shop and grocery store. By January 2001, they had opened Carneceria La Superior, called simply "La Superior" by its customers, at the corner of North Roxboro Road and Bon Air Boulevard. Business has been so good that in a few months they are moving into a gargantuan former furniture gallery just a few blocks north.

La Superior has a grocery store and taqueria, but what people come from miles around for is its butcher shop, which gets weekly shipments of meat from a distributor in Atlanta and cuts it fresh daily. Among the best selling meats are thin, flat beef fajita cuts, chorizo sausage, blood sausage, cow stomachs, liver, tripa (or intestines), and cow feet, which are the main ingredient in a soup called menudo.

Peluqueria y Sala de Belleza "Yoli's," 2832 N. Roxboro Road, 220-2497.
Hair stylist Yolanda Martinez and her husband Alejandro Rodriguez, who runs the mobile taqueria that sits parked outside the hair salon, have been in business a little over a year. Rodriguez moved to North Carolina five years ago to earn the extra money his wife needed for an operation, and she followed him two years later in order to practice her trade in Durham.

Martinez says she will cut anyone's hair, not just Latinos', but most of her clients are Hispanic and come to Yoli's because they can explain in Spanish exactly what kind of hairdo they want without the risk of ending up with a buzz cut when all they wanted was a trim, evidently a common occurrence for those who don't speak English very well. After their haircuts, many of her clients take advantage of the authentic Mexican gorditas, enchiladas, empanadas, tacos and tortas that Rodriquez prepares.

Tienda Naturista El Mundo Natural "The Natural World," 2824 N. Roxboro Road, second floor, 317-4175.
El Mundo Natural, which has been open only four months, is a homeopathic remedy store that specializes in teas, pomades, syrups, oils, and vitamins, the majority of which come straight from Mexico. Owner Rigoberto Rodriguez, who studied natural medicine in Mexico and ran a pharmacy of his own there, and his wife cater mostly to the needs of local latinos who come to the store already having seen a homeopathic physician back home and know precisely what they need.

El Mundo Natural is one of the few places around where customers can find the special Mexican brands of herbal teas, aloe salves, vitamins, and other natural remedies they are more accustomed to using. There are some items on the shelves that are a little more on the mystic side, too: one particular bottle of tonic decorated only with a picture of a black cat and the word Poderoso ("Powerful"), boasts that the user's lover "will never forget me and love me forever."

La Casita Amarilla, 2840 N. Roxboro Road.
There is no shortage of stores along North Roxboro Road that rent Spanish-language videos, but there is only one that deals exclusively in the genre of family films. There is no adult section at La Casita Amarilla, but plenty of kids' movies.

La Casita is not only serving a niche in the market for family movies; it is meeting the technological needs of the Latino community, as well. Inside the store there are two computers with Internet access and a photocopy machine for public use at a small fee. Nidia Salinas, who works at La Casita, says many customers use the computers to communicate with their families back home via e-mail. There is also hot food and coffee for sale in the back, which qualifies La Casita Amarilla as a Latino family video store, Internet cafe, and copy shop all rolled into one, the only of its kind in Durham, and possibly anywhere.

The rest:

Taqueria La Poblana, 2301 N. Roxboro Road, 220-4346.

El Compadre #2 Tienda y Video, 2107 N. Roxboro Road, 220-7776.

Merino's Tienda y Taqueria, 3405 N. Roxboro Road, 220-9771. EndBlock

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