Adventures in Nuevo Hampshire

FOR German Ortiz, spring is the best time to enjoy his favorite south-of-the-border snack: jumbo roasted ants.

Ortiz, a realtor and family man in Bedford, never lost a taste for “hormiga” ants, a prized snack food in the Santander region of Colombia, where he was raised. Every year, the large ants — each one is about half the size of a person’s thumb — are “harvested” live from the ground in March and April. Then they’re roasted in quantity over a slow heat, sometimes with a touch of brandy.

In Ortiz’s part of Colombia, hormiga ants are considered a great delicacy. So when friends make trips back home, Ortiz has a standing request: Bring back ants.

“They taste like peanuts,” he says. “For me, it’s an addiction. You eat one and you cannot stop.”

Welcome to the surprising world of New Hampshire’s growing Hispanic community, which doubled in population during the 1990s and continues to grow. Like other immigrant groups before them, their colorful traditions are an increasingly visible part of Granite State life.

Though Hispanics are in all parts of the state, the majority has settled in the Merrimack Valley, with heavy concentrations in Manchester and Nashua. In recent years, a network of stores, restaurants, and churches has sprung up in both cities to serve the new community’s needs.

For non-Hispanics, it’s now possible to experience an authentic slice of south-ofthe- border life in New Hampshire without venturing as far as Massachusetts, never mind Mexico.

The easiest way for non-Hispanics to get a taste of Latin culture is to, well, taste something. That means skipping Taco Bell and seeking out one of the several authentic eateries that have opened in New Hampshire in recent years to cater to the new immigrant population.

Manchester boasts several, including El Mexicano (197 Wilson St., 665-9299), which serves the city’s Mexican population, and Don Quijote (362 Union St., 622-2246), which specializes in food from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations.

At El Mexicano, owner Jose Rodriguez welcomes everyone, including fast food refugees who come in looking for a ground beef taco. Rodriguez, from the Guanajuato region of Mexico, worked in Los Angeles before coming to New Hampshire. He opened El Mexicano in 2001, when he found no local source for authentic Mexican food — chile rellenos, tamales, or chicken served with tangy green chile.

Today, the tiny place (four booths and a room with a pool table out back) is open seven days a week and is a popular gathering spot for the city’s Mexican population. A recent visit found bouncy folk/pop music on the sound system, Spanish language soap operas on the TV, and the screeching of two parakeets adding to the din.

At Don Quijote, authentic Cuban sandwiches are served (roast pork, ham, and cheese served with mayonnaise and garlic sauce), as well as more elaborate dishes such as seafood paella, a concoction of lobster, octopus, shrimp, conch meat, mussels and scallops, cooked in traditional yellow rice.

In Nashua, several modest Hispanic restaurants now line Canal Street, including Rincon Colombiano (the Colombian Corner, 34 Canal St., 595-1670) and Taqueria El Mexicano (40 Canal St., 886-8998). Though small and short on glitz, such places are often a source for cooking that’s closer to the real thing than more well-financed restaurants aiming for larger crowds.

If you’re not ready for a full meal, sample Latin food through the ever-growing assortment of Hispanic products found on the shelves of New Hampshire stores. In Manchester, you can try Inca-Cola (a favorite Peruvian soft drink carried by the Asian Market Center, 550 Elm St., 669- 2183), or browse the aisles for Hispanic grocery items at the Vista Foods market on Valley Street; the fresh produce usually includes yucca and plantain plants.

You can also visit the growing number of “bodegas,” or small stores that cater to a Spanish-speaking population, such as Rincon Latino in Manchester (370 Union St., 626-4554). Here you’ll find music CDs and other specialized Hispanic goods you won’t find at the malls. In Manchester, bodegas are concentrated on Union Street; in Nashua, many are found on West Hollis Street.

Shopping also gives you a chance to practice your Spanish. A recent visit to Vista Foods found cans of Habas Verdes (lima beans), Vegetales Mixtos (mixed vegetables), and Remolachas en Tajadas (a tough one: sliced beets).

If you can’t read the products, then take a Spanish course. Though much of the Hispanic community’s language needs are geared toward teaching English as a second language, there’s no shortage of courses in the other direction taught by native speakers.

For information about community Spanish courses in southern New Hampshire, try Manchester’s Latin American Center (669-5661), a service agency that acts as a clearinghouse of information for the Hispanic community. The bilingual staff is friendly and eager to please. For a less intense exposure to the language, tune into the weekly Spanish program, heard Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. on Manchester’s WFEA-AM 1370. It’s hosted by Carlos Gonzalez, a member of the city’s Statehouse delegation, who delivers commentary and interviews in half-English, half-Spanish. Gonzalez, a Republican, ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to unseat Manchester Mayor Bob Baines in 2003.

Or, you could go to church. The Diocese of Manchester is actively reaching out to serve the growing number of Spanish- speaking Catholics; where once inner city parishes in Manchester and Nashua offered masses in French and Polish, you’ll now find them said in Spanish. Here’s a tip: Check out the always-colorful celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe in early December.

In Manchester, the designated church for Hispanic Catholics is St. Anne on Union Street, but due to a crumbling ceiling the masses were moved last year to its twin parish, St. Augustin on Beech Street. Father John Gallagher, fluent in Spanish, leads a weekly Mass at noon.
In Nashua, the church for the city’s Hispanic community was the imposing St. Francis Xavier until it was closed in 2002; today, it’s St. Aloysius of Gonzaga on West Hollis Street. Masses in Spanish are Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m.

And in another place where prayer comes in handy, a Mass is offered in Spanish during racing season at Rockingham Park in Salem; it’s Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. In Manchester, Spanish churches exist to serve other denominations, including the Iglesia Pentecostal y Misionera (502 Chestnut St, 622-7608) and Iglesia Bautista Hispana (184 Amherst St., 624-4607).

Another place to experience the diversity of Hispanic culture in one place is at Manchester’s annual Latin American Festival. Now in its fifth year, the one-day outdoor festival attracts thousands of people from all over New England. No date has been set for 2004; it’s usually held in August in Veterans Park downtown.

The festival is a good place to meet New Hampshire’s new Hispanic immigrants, many of whom come here after finding life unsatisfactory in larger American cities or other Hispanic centers such as Lawrence, Mass. Though the state has welcomed the new immigrants, there are the inevitable misunderstandings:

Two years ago in Manchester, school officials banned the soft drink Malta Goya, popular among Hispanic teens, under the mistaken belief it contained alcohol.

And then there are the ants, which Ortiz tried to share with his co-workers at a Manchester real estate agency.

“I brought them into my office,” he says. “One guy tried them, but the other people thought they were disgusting.” NH