HARRINGTON – Spanish-speaking people who live and work Down East, especially those who come for the annual harvest of wild blueberries every August, have a home away from home at the Mexican Store.
On U.S. Route 1, the grocery store and restaurant boasts a cook from El Salvador and owners who hail from Honduras and Guatemala.
The combination of countries and growing number of Spanish speakers in the area has made the Mexican Store a diverse ethnic hub in Washington County.
Doris Ayala, from Honduras, and her husband, Juan Perez, who is from Guatemala, have operated the store for four years. Ayala spends her days chattering away in Spanish, putting her customers at ease.
She is less confident in English, but speaks well enough to greet and assist non-Spanish speakers stopping in for provisions or meals of Mexican food.
“Everybody comes here,” Ayala said proudly.
The Mexican Store was bustling one recent weekend. Many Spanish-speaking blueberry rakers flowed through the door with paychecks in hand, to wire money home before heading elsewhere for migrant work.
This is the second year the store has offered the ServiMex and Girosol services for workers to send money home between harvests. It costs $13 to send up to $1,000 to Mexico or Central American countries.
Previously, workers went to Ellsworth to wire money using Western Union. The trouble was, many couldn’t speak English or didn’t have transportation to Ellsworth. The Harrington store has made their lives here, transient or year-round, a bit easier.
The store stocks staples such as corn tortillas, beans and spices alongside phone cards and Spanish-language videos.
The store expanded in February to include a bigger kitchen and more tables for the restaurant portion of the business. Ayala and Perez moved from a minimall, called Timkin Pike Plaza, to a stand-alone building nearby.
Most of the store’s clients are Mexican, reflecting how nearby Milbridge has become a magnet within Maine as a year-round residence for a sizable number of Mexican and Honduran families.
According to the 2000 Census, Milbridge’s population totalled 1,279 and was 92 percent white, making it Maine’s third-most-diverse community after Limestone and Portland.
Hispanics started to settle in Milbridge and to a lesser extent in surrounding Down East towns, about four or five years ago.
After the blueberry harvest ends in August, they find year-round employment at the Stinson’s sardine factory in Gouldsboro and seasonal work at the sea cucumber plants in Milbridge (Cherry Point Products) and Addison (Treasures of the Sea), as well as the Worcester Wreath factory in Harrington.
In Harrington, where Ayala and Perez live, the town numbering 882 residents had only 17 nonwhite residents in 2000. The couple’s two daughters, Karina, 11, and Thania, 10, have been the only Hispanic pupils at Harrington Elementary School for four years.
But that will change this week with the enrollment of Ayala’s 9-year-old sister and 7-year-old niece. Ayala’s older sister moved her family to Harrington in May.
Ayala and Perez first came to the area in 1991, finding work in the blueberry fields. Tired of chasing fruit harvests between Florida and New Jersey, they settled in Milbridge in 1996.
In 2000 they started the store after a Milbridge neighbor encouraged them to open a business catering to the Spanish-speaking population. Ayala minded the seasonal store while Perez continued to work in the Milbridge sea cucumber plant.
The couple decided to keep the store open year-round in 2002. Ayala supplements the store revenue by preparing 45 or 50 box lunches a day for Christmas wreath workers in November and December.
Ayala, 35, tends the store seven days a week while Perez, 43, drives a truck to Boston every two weeks to stock up on specialty foods.
He resupplies The Mexican Store, but also drives weekly to Caribou and Presque Isle, where he sells food products to migrants working in the broccoli fields or the forests.
“We may want to try a store there, too,” Ayala said of the Aroostook County locations. “But not right now.”
She is busy enough. The store opens at 9 a.m. and closes when the last customer leaves. Often that makes for 12-hour days.
“It’s difficult, not always easy,” she conceded. “But it’s good.”