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Hispanic influx in Clearwater broadens vocabulary of foods


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

CLEARWATER -- Nahun Martinez left Mexico 11 years ago and spent his days sweltering in the searing heat of North Carolina's tobacco fields.

CLEARWATER -- Nahun Martinez left Mexico 11 years ago and spent his days sweltering in the searing heat of North Carolina's tobacco fields.

He was from Mexico City, and wasn't used to the campesino life. So he got a job in Haines City as a baker, a profession he learned in his home country, and then worked in Tampa as a waiter.

Less than a year ago, he opened his own bakery in Clearwater, the Pasteleria Cinco de Mayo on Highland Avenue. He sells breads and confections such as tres leches cakes, a traditional dessert served at weddings, birthday parties and baby showers.

About 80 percent of his customers are Mexican-Americans, and Martinez says business is good. It's not hard to see why.

His shop is on the edge of a tract where the Hispanic population grew by more than 1,000 people between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The area is bounded by Lakeview Road on the south, Missouri Avenue on the west, Drew Street on the north, and Highland Avenue on the east.

The Hispanic population increased from 207 to 1,387. Hispanic people made up about 4 percent of the population in 1990, compared with 24 in 2000.

This area of about 3 square miles contains many neighborhoods of single-family homes, as well as apartment complexes and commercial streets such as Missouri Avenue and Cleveland Street. Latin influence is subtle. Spanish signs are here and there, but not many. It's easier to spot stores selling everything from natural foods and boating supplies to consignment items. You can find a McDonald's here, but also sit-down restaurants.

One of the latter is the Viva Mexico restaurant on Cleveland Street. Inside, owner Onecimo Pioquinto and his family cater to many of the Mexican-Americans who have come to call Clearwater their home.

He opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays and stays open until 10 p.m., later on weekends. But he wants to start opening at 5 a.m., to accommodate the workers who live in the neighborhood.

"A lot of Mexican guys, they go to construction," said Pioquinto's son Noel, who also works at the restaurant. "They're not married. They need something to eat. Tamales, hot chocolate."

Viva Mexico has plenty of Anglo customers as well, but it's definitely not the sort of restaurant where waitresses serve frozen margaritas. It's the sort of place where a handwritten sign says Se Venden Tarjetas, meaning you can buy phone cards for calling relatives in Mexico. Many dishes come with nopales, a kind of cactus. Pioquinto is proud of his restaurant's mole rojo sauce, and his lamb barbecue consomme.

Many who come through his doors first heard about Clearwater from friends and family who came themselves to work. Most are from the Mexican state of Hidalgo.

Martinez, the baker, knows how that works. He planned to stay only a short time in the United States a decade ago, but when he started doing well, family members joined him. Now his relatives in the Tampa Bay area number 38. He hasn't visited Mexico in years, because just about everyone is here.

The same kind of word of mouth helped expand his business. He started baking as a sideline. "I started making bread in my home and selling it to people here," he said. The more people bought, the more he came to believe he could start his own business.

To Pioquinto and his son Noel, Clearwater is peaceful and has a great climate. But they haven't stopped thinking about their home country, where they still own a house.

In Mexico, Pioquinto said, life is slower, simpler. Here there is opportunity, but it requires constant work.

Here, "you have to live by another style of life," said Noel Pioquinto. Nodding to his father, he said, "When he gets back to Mexico he can feel free."

- Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

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