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Casa Pena, Hispanic Market - 2002-08-22

English Feature # 7-36642 Broadcast August 26, 2002

The Spanish-speaking population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. Over half of the immigrants who entered this country since 1970 came from the Spanish-speaking countries of South and Central America. Hispanics own over a million businesses in the United States. Today on New American Voices, Oksana Dragan introduces you to Roberto Dennis, who is one of two thousand Hispanic business owners in the Washington area.

Roberto Dennis and his wife Emily own Casa Pena, a colorful Latino market in a quiet residential Washington neighborhood. Mr. Dennis, who is from Panama, met his wife, who is from El Salvador, while both were working in a Washington hotel. When they married, they chose to settle in Washington because they liked the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city. Roberto Dennis didn’t come to the United States to be a shopkeeper.

“When I came to this country I wanted to be a baseball player. That was my first dream. Once I finished college and baseball wasn’t working the way I thought it would, it was time for me to put my feet on the floor [ground]. I came from a large family, there are ten of us. Pop did as much as he could to let us go to college. So I had to help out the younger ones. I started working and sending money back home like all Latinos do. And it helped quite a bit.”

So instead of playing baseball, Roberto Dennis turned to business. He and his wife invested their savings and bought a small grocery catering to the Spanish-speaking community. Casa Pena is a small, cozy market lined with shelves and bins displaying a mixture of Hispanic and American products. There are fresh fruits and vegetables, coffee, tea, a large selection of chili sauces, and a variety of wines and liquors.

“This Latino population, a lot of them are from El Salvador, so we have a lot of Salvadorian products like the cheeses, the crema [sour cream], the chorizo salvadorenos [sausages]. We have all the sodas, the juices, and then we have a lot of Mexican products like the special tortillas, the different adobos [chilis], jalapenos…”

Roberto and Emily Dennis have just added a specialty deli to Casa Pena that sells imported meats, cheeses, and gourmet foods such as Mrs. Dennis’ home-made salsa, which is a big hit with customers. Many of the customers speak Spanish with the proprietors and clerks. The Dennises employ five Spanish speakers to work behind the cash register and deli counter. And customers shop for goods from 8 in the morning until 10 at night to the lively sounds of Latino music.

After working long hours in the market, Roberto and Emily Dennis escape big city life for their quiet home in the suburbs of southern Maryland, where they raise two boys: Roberto, who is 9; and Romar, now 7 years old. Although both boys were born in the United States, Roberto and Emily Dennis try to keep their Latino roots alive.

“We talk to our kids in Spanish. That’s the only Spanish they hear. Where I live, there is pretty much no Latinos, no Latino families; we have like two families. But on the weekends, we bring them to Virginia to their grandmother, my wife’s mom, and there’s a large Latino community for them to keep that Spanish alive and learn more about their culture. We talk to them in Spanish, and they answer us in English.”

Sometimes, though, the boys have their own idea of how to experience Hispanic culture.

“This is where it starts becoming tricky because a lot of the Latino music is this rap Latino Spanish music, and they have the rap in English. So he would try to pick out the rap Spanish music. I say ‘Ok, but we have other types of music, a more cultural music, folkloric music.’ They’re still young, but we make sure every chance we have we rub that into them.”

Mr. Dennis keeps in close touch with his own roots, calling his parents in Panama on the phone several times a week. He himself is no longer planning to go back to Panama. For him, life in America is good because of the opportunities it offers.

“I love this country a lot. I became a man in this country. And what I have, I got it through this country. The thing that I think is fascinating is – as a business person – there are always opportunities to do more. It’s always … we are optimistic.”

Mr. Dennis says that when he retires, he wants to move to Florida, so he can still be in the United States, but geographically closer to his family in Panama.

Next week, the Arab owner of a Middle Eastern market talks about how the events of last September 11 affected his business, and his life.

This story is courtesy of New American Voices intern Meredith Sumpter, a student at the University of Washington, Seattle, who is completing a double degree in International Relations and Business, with a focus on E-commerce.