- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

PATTEN, Maine - Thick wads of cash bulge from the work-coarsened hands of men recently arrived in this small outpost near Maine’s North Woods.

The money represents much of these migrant brush-cutters’ insubstantial wealth, and now they ponder how much to spend and how much to send home to relatives in Mexico and Honduras.

Some stock up on staples such as tortillas, chorizo and cheese. Others pore over compact discs and cassettes of Spanish-language music. Many will entrust hundreds of hard-earned dollars to a paunchy man carrying the fattest money wad of all.

Juan Perez, 42, has spent much of the last three summers delivering groceries to migrant workers like these.

The background of Mr. Perez, a native of Guatemala who owns a grocery and Mexican restaurant, is similar to those of his customers.

During 11 years as a migrant laborer, he scrimped and saved until one day he had the $25,000 he needed to start a business. Today he is an entrepreneur whose patrons often trust him like a bank and a preacher whose congregation overlaps with his store’s customer base.

Mr. Perez was 12 when civil war forced his family to abandon its village in Guatemala’s western highlands. They fled through the mountains and after a 15-day journey settled in Tampico, Mexico.

In 1989, Mr. Perez came to the United States, working in Florida’s orange groves and then in construction in Atlanta. Each year, he came to Maine for the blueberry harvest, where he could earn $300 to $400 a week. In 1993, he married a Honduran woman, and three years later the couple and their two daughters settled in Maine for good.

Mr. Perez, a Pentecostal minister, preached to Spanish-speaking laborers, and he and his wife, Doris, got jobs at a fish-packing plant.

“I told my wife we need to work hard and save money, and one day we can make any business we want,” Mr. Perez recalled.

That opportunity came three years ago — May 26, 2000, Mr. Perez proudly recalls — when his Mexican Store opened.

Each year on the anniversary of the store’s opening, Mr. Perez and his wife celebrate the fruition of their dream with a small party where townspeople feast on tostadas, burritos, tacos and tamales.

Harrington may seem an unlikely place for a Mexican grocery to flourish: a coastal village of 882 in a state that is 97 percent white. The town had 17 nonwhite residents in the 2000 census.

But Mr. Perez says locals embraced his Mexican food, and he found an additional niche making deliveries to Hispanic workers around the state.

There was clearly a void to be filled. It is estimated that more than 1,000 workers from Mexico and Central America come to Maine each year, but there are no ethnic stores deep in the woods, where they work.

Mr. Perez saw the business opportunity in a traveling bodega, a grocery with specialty foods such as pan tostado and Mexican candies, phone cards and other goods.

“In Massachusetts, there are many,” he said. “Here in Maine, only me.”

Between May and November, Mr. Perez and his 23-year-old assistant, Juan Antonio Gallardo, load his white Chevy truck each Thursday to travel the state. They make stops in western Maine, along the coast and in northern communities such as Island Falls, Portage, Limestone and Mars Hill — 14 places in three days.

Mr. Perez has logged 38,000 miles on the truck in nine months. One recent Friday, about 20 brush-cutters emerged from motel rooms when Mr. Perez’s truck pulled up.

Mr. Gallardo threw open the back door, revealing boxes with avocados, mangoes and Mexican spices. There were salsa recordings, books on learning English, T-shirts from Honduras.

Mr. Perez knew he had a captive audience, and he flashed a wide smile before asking in Spanish, “What do you want?”

Nelson Munguia, 34, of Honduras, and his three roommates ended up spending about $90 on tortillas, cheese, bread and fruits.

Other men scribbled calculations on the top of a cardboard box. They were preparing to hand over their savings to Mr. Perez, who wires the money to Latin America for a fee.

If a worker sends home $600, Mr. Perez charges a $14 commission — cheaper than traditional money-transfer companies, he said. Mr. Perez also extends credit to workers who need it.

“I do that because it’s my people,” he said as he drove north on Route 11 toward Ashland. “Everything is business, business, business. But you need to help the people.”

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