Searching for the Elusive Hispanic Community

As a student family, my husband and I really have visited a lot of places in the Williamsburg area.  In fact, even though we live down the street from Colonial Williamsburg, we are probably less familiar with what goes on there than we are with what is available to us in the surrounding area.  This is certainly a generalization, but I think there is something about being married with a child that leads you to become more acquainted with the more practical side of a community, from day care services to church services to options for shopping. The typical student, on the other hand, will probably know less about these kind of practical things and more about the social benefits—i.e. local hangouts (if any ; ), outdoor recreation, and so forth. That said, there is plenty that is unfamiliar to us, apart from the more everyday student activities, such as eating at the College Deli, Paul’s, and so on (since we haven’t done any of those things and would feel slightly uncomfortable doing them with our 2 year old). At any rate, what we did was simply drive North on Richmond Road towards Toano until we found something “unfamiliar”.

What we found was a self-proclaimed authentic Mexican restaurant called Tequila Rose located in the middle of completely empty parking lot alongside a bunch of obscure (at least to me) small businesses.  I had driven on Richmond Road several times and I never noticed this restaurant or even the surrounding stores.  This is actually surprising because I love Mexican food (at least the kind I’m able to find out West) and am constantly on the lookout for something other than La Tolteca. And I’ve driven on this road many times before but never really noticed what was here.  At the same time, I was a little curious, because, in comparison to where I am from, Williamsburg does not seem to have a very robust Hispanic community. So, I was very excited to try a new Mexican restaurant that was outside the more popular touristy areas since, in my mind, that would create a better chance for that food to be “authentic” and directed at the Hispanic community.

Pulling up to the restaurant, we could see through the glass windows, and only one family was eating inside.  When we walked through doors, Hispanic employees greeted us in accented English, which raised my hopes a little with respect to the food. However, the server who appeared at our table after we were seated was a blonde Caucasian with no Spanish accent at all.  Quelling my disappointment, I ordered a Diet Coke and a chocolate milk for my daughter. In retrospect, it’s interesting to reflect on why I was so disappointed in having a Caucasian server since who serves the food does not a necessarily have anything to do with the quality or authenticity of the food.  Basically, I can only conclude that I am biased without any real evidence to support my beliefs.   In fact, my favorite place to eat Mexican food back home was a chain restaurant called Café Rio that was not exclusively staffed by Hispanic workers. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that restaurants where the employees’ nationalities match the food’s serve superior food.

More relevantly, places that match my biased definition of ‘authentic’ food by employing workers of the same ethnicity make me feel a little uncomfortable and out of place. One obvious reason for this is that it is always slightly uncomfortable to not understand what people are saying, which is compounded by different music and television programs. In Tequila Rose, the music was definitely Latin and the ambience was similarly themed.  The colors, music, and food were all what I considered to be ‘authentic’, but the patrons were clearly local customers like us, which may be the reason why I felt comfortable as we ordered our food. Before we left two other families came in, both of which appeared to be locals, or at least their vehicles had Virginia license plates and local bumper stickers. And, based on its outlying location, it makes sense that locals would dominate this restaurant’s customer base. But this also meant that my hope of finding a hidden Hispanic community would likely not be satisfied.  Sadly, this turned out to be the case—the food we ordered (burritos, tacos and enchiladas) was completely average according to my biased tastes.

After the leaving Tequila Rose, I still wanted to pursue this hidden Hispanic community idea.  So, we stopped at a store with a Spanish name that we had driven by several times but never entered, located across from the DMV.  It was formerly a 7 Eleven, but it is now called Bodega (which translates to store in Spanish). Due to its name, I assumed it would be full of Hispanic products—and it was.  But this store also served normal convenient store type stuff, and the workers were both Caucasian, even pretending to speak Spanish in a joking manner at times. We purchased mango suckers coated in chili powder—yum!

Interestingly, the store’s clientele were culturally diverse, with higher proportions of Blacks and Hispanics in comparison to Whites.  For my part, the store had a completely different feel than any store I’ve entered in Williamsburg.  I didn’t really feel uncomfortable, but I felt different in a way I can’t really articulate. Reflecting on why I never visited this store, it became clear that the name itself (Bodega) was a barrier.  I simply assumed that this store did not really desire my business, which makes me wonder what makes me feel comfortable in the first place.  How much is due to my own mistaken preconceptions?  Another piece is how each of these businesses were clearly presenting themselves in a certain way that was not necessarily all inclusive.  Both were targeting those who enjoy Mexican food. The difference is that it is common for Mexican restaurants to target non-Hispanics, whereas stores do not usually do this, at least in my experience.  This could explain why I felt different in the Bodega. Even so, my preconceptions were also faulty.  The Bodega did not exclusively serve Hispanics, and Tequila Rose was not anything special, even with its out of the way location.


About

The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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