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? Donde esta la fiesta? Who's selling Mexican products to Mexicans living in Los Angeles? Almost everybody except Mexicans.

On the streets downtown La Puente, a predominantly Latino and heavily Mexican suburb east of Los Angeles, a tiny carnival operates like those that come to Mexican villages every year during fiestas patronales. The barkers and the ride operators speak Spanish. Mexican vendors run stands with names like Tacos Acapulco selling cucumbers with salt and chile, tacos al pastor, and agua de jamaica. Music stands sell norteno and banda compact discs. On stage, a mariachi baird plays. Most of the crowd is Mexican.

In this little chunk of Mexico recreated on the streets of suburban Los Angeles. about the only thing not Mexican is the guy who runs it all. His name is Ted Holcomb, and he's using tapes to study Spanish.

Holcomb is symbolic of an unrecognized fact of life in Los Angeles: Many of the companies serving the millions of Mexicans in the city are not owned by Mexicans. Retailer Gigante is here. So is furniture company FAMSA. But many large businesses aimed specifically at the Latino market here are more often owned by immigrants from other countries--Koreans, Arabs, Iranians, Israelis--who have built their American dream on Mexican immigrants' dollars.

A decade ago, Holcomb was a shopping mall promoter. Then be noticed that events targeting white suburbanites always bombed, yet the smallest mariachi band drew hundreds, Holcomb studied the market, learned what worked and what didn't, and in 1996 began pulling on Mexican carnivals full time. Business has expanded dramatically, he says. Holcomb now has a waiting list of vendors wanting to sell at his events. He could do one every weekend, he says, but his wife would complain.

"Gringos want to go to Knott's Berry Faint and Disneyland and that's what they're used to. But this is what Latino people are used to," says Holcomb, looking at the street fair going on around him. "At Disneyland, the dad can't sit there and drink beer and eat tacos while the kids go on a bunch of 75 cent rides, and the vendors don't speak Spanish. They want what they're used to in Mexico:"

The restaurant considered the busiest per square foot of any in and around Los Angeles is the Huntington Park branch of El Gallo Giro, a seven restaurant chain owned by Frenchman Charles Bonaparte. Electronics retailer La Curacao started 20 years ago serving Central Americans in downtown Los Angeles. Today it sells furniture and other merchandise in four department stores: two more are planned lot this year. It ships goods to immigrants families in Mexico or Central America. La Curacao's owners are Israelis Jerry and Ron Azarkman. They also own the western United States franchise for Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan fried-chicken restaurants

Cacique, meanwhile, grew from a drive-in dairy into one of the country's largest makers of Mexican cheese, with nearly 600 employees nationwide. Gilbert de Cardenas, a Cuban immigrant, started it in 1973. Now the company has offices on both coasts and is planning a Midwest expansion. "There is a (Mexican) migration going from California to the Midwest," says Maria de Cardenas, the founder's daughter and company spokeswoman. "Wherever they go, we need to be there."

New centre. Strangest, and most emblematic, is Plaza Mexico, a mall next to the 105 Freeway in the Lynwood suburb southeast of Los Angeles. Plaza Mexico is an attempt to recreate the look and feel of a Guanajuato or Michoacan city centre. The facades of the buildings are sheer and painted yellows, blues and greens. On one side of the mall is a replica of the clock on the state government building in Guadalajara, with stone imported from Tlaquepaque. The developers went so far to hire a consulting architect from San Miguel de Allende. Meanwhile, Plaza Mexico regularly opens its parking lot to immigrant events: Semana Jalisciense, the Guelaguetza, and el grito on September 16.

"In Los Angeles, Chinese have Chinatown. Japanese have Little Tokyo. Koreans have Koreatown. Vietnamese have Little Saigon. But there's 5 [million] or 6 million Mexicans in Los Angeles and they don't have a place," says Plaza Mexico's developer, Donald Char, a Korean immigrant. Chae ran the mall when it was an indoor swap meet. Seeing that most of his customers were Mexican, he began three years ago to transform it into Plaza Mexico.

Chae says he has visited Mexico many times to lure large retailers and restaurants up to Plaza Mexico. None have come. One reason, Chae believes, is that retailers are complacent. "There's about 15, 20 of the richest men in Mexico owning all these companies and they have no need:" Chae says. "Since they own the world, they don't have to risk anything."

Mexican immigrants here do own thousands of businesses, mostly serving Mexican consumers. But these tend to be small, mom-and-pop stores: markets, bakeries, restaurants and taquerias, clothing shops and record stores.

A few have grown large. Cintas Acuario, owned by Pedro Rivera, an immigrant from Sonora, has built a music empire on narcocorridos. Liherman Broadcasting, owned by a family front Veracruz, owns six radio stations and a television station here.

Still, they are more the exception than the rule, which seems to be that other immigrants mine the potential market a lot better.

One area where Mexicans have gained a significant foothold is in independent supermarkets. Mexican immigrants own el Tapatio, Vallarta, Northgate and other chains. Still, Mexicans far from dominate even this industry, where detailed knowledge of tastes and culture is most necessary. At least as many independent chains, and most of the region's wholesalers, are owned by Koreans, Arabs, Indians and Iranians who have learned both Spanish and how to make chorizo and tortillas.

"The grocery business is called the immigrant business," say Mike Shalabi, a Palestinian immigrant who owns the 13-outlet R Ranch Markets and speaks fluent Spanish. "It takes so much work. When you come to this country and you have four or five kids and a wife, you can get every one of them a job in a supermaket. I think that's one of the reasons why these immigrants got into this market."

The reasons Mexican immigrants keep their businesses small vary. Mexico lacks business culture that requires its participants to think big. Many don't develop credit histories needed for business loans. Some may be more interested in returning to Mexico than in pulling down the roots that running a large business requires. Others fear starting a business may be as difficult as it is in Mexico, and thus never start.

Another factor, ironically, may be the very size of the Mexican population, which is now so big that they call live in Los Angeles as Mexicans. Insulated in their barrios, many never learn how businesses grow here.

"I'm amazed that other people are taking advantage of our market and we are not. We're still asleep," says Fernando Pedroza, a Mexican immigrant and mayor of Lynwood. "A lot of merchants in Mexico ... never had a very good opportunity in Mexico. When they're here, they think the same way."

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Title Annotation:Entrepreneur
Author:Quinones, Sam
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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