BOSTON — An important institution for Boston’s Latino community is closing. Hi-Lo Foods in Jamaica Plain has been selling food and household goods from around Latin America for 47 years. The management is retiring and the owners will lease the property to Whole Foods, the upscale supermarket chain. Many residents see the change as another step in Jamaica Plain’s gentrification.
Elizabeth Muriel and her mother, Petra Nunez, drove all the way from Lynn Wednesday to shop at Hi-Lo. There are closer places they could buy Puerto Rican ingredients like yucca and plantains, but they make this trip at least twice a month.
“It’s the tradition I guess,” Nunez says, “ever since we moved here from Puerto Rico.”
Just down the street, Aida Lopez owns a gift shop. She sells specialty items for quinceañeras, the traditional coming-out party for 15-year-old girls in Latin America. She says her neighborhood has changed dramatically since she moved here from Cuba in 1970. A few years ago her Catholic Church closed and is being converted to condos. Now Hi-Lo is leaving.
When she moved here, she said, everyone was Irish or Italian. Then Cubans moved in and Puerto Ricans.
“The Cubans left for Miami once they made some money,” she says in Spanish. “Puerto Ricans went to other cities. And now it’s mostly Dominicans and young Americans moving into the neighborhood.”
Jessica Irizarry comes into the store to order an embroidered ribbon for her cousin’s quinceañera. She’s just heard about Hi-Lo.
“What is everybody going to do? Go to Stop and Shop now? At Stop and Shop, the price is off the roof. Stop and Shop is for people who can throw their money away,” Irizarry says.
But Irizarry hadn’t heard which store would replace Hi-Lo.
“Whole Foods is replacing Hi-Lo’s?” she says. “That’s bull. That is bull. Well good luck with that. That’s all I’m going to say.”
At the other end of Jamaica Plain’s main drag, I caught up with customers at City Feed. It’s a boutique sandwich shop with a small selection of gourmet and organic groceries. Shoppers there were generally excited about the new Whole Foods, although they worried it might compete with locally-owned stores like City Feed.
That didn’t seem to bother Philip Celeste.
“I think it’s great. We need more places to shop here,” Celeste says. He’s not sad about losing Hi-Lo.
“It just didn’t have the products that I wanted to buy. It seemed kind of dirty.”
Celeste wasn’t the only person to call Hi-Lo “dirty.” Long-time shopper Pedro Ramos said he thought Whole Foods would be a major upgrade for his neighborhood.
Hi-lo “is antiquated,” he says in Spanish. The food is of “poor quality” and he claims he’s seen rats there, and the food they sell has expired. He thinks Jamaica Plain is taking a big step forward and the community “deserves it.”
This is a story where I’ve got strong opinions of my own. Dirty or not, I’ll miss Hi-Lo. It’s one of the first places I went when I moved to Boston. I was looking for recao, a Puerto Rican herb, that’s sort of a cross between cilantro and basil, and used in everything from beans to fricassee. That’s when I discovered Hi-Lo sells the largest selection of Mate, the South American tea that Uruguayans and Argentinians suck down like addicts through blazing hot metal straws. I go back whenever I need a fix.
But the best part was hearing Spanish spoken from all corners of the Americas. Walking into Hi-Lo was like getting teleported to Miami. Even in January, it made me feel a little bit warmer.