Smells of tamales and pan dulce dance around the room, wafting through the aisles alongside decorations, canned and boxed foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Prior to starting the business in September 2019, store owner David Cayetano-Jacinto had one goal in mind: Atender a la comunidad latina — serving the Latino community.
According to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data, people of Hispanic or Latino origin account for 3.4 percent of Muncie’s population. This roughly equates to 2220 individuals, making up the second-largest minority group in the area behind African Americans. Despite this, markets like 3 Hermanos are lacking within the Muncie area in comparison to other Central Indiana cities like Anderson and Indianapolis, where there are more than 20 tiendas mexicanas combined.
“Given that there were no other stores like this in the area, the idea was to offer Mexican products to the community,” David says.
Among the store’s offerings are well-known snacks like Takis. The parent company of Takis, Grupo Bimbo, is one of Mexico’s most popular food brands, according to Statista. Additionally, data from Reuters reports the food giant saw a 526 percent surge in net profit during the fourth quarter of 2022. To David, seeing brands like these on shelves locally is important for a multitude of reasons.
“It’s about making our culture known, but also about offering a certain type of service to the Latino community,” he says, “because not everyone drives, and not everyone has the ability to leave 30 minutes or an hour from Muncie.”
However, a Saturday at the shop did not always have cars in the parking lot or lines in the aisle. When initially opening the store, David and the small family team working beside him did it “with a lot of sacrifices,” according to Jovita Jacinto-Ramírez, the aunt and coworker of store owner David.
La tía de todos
On that same typical busy Saturday, Jovita can be found in the aisles adjusting merchandise, filling the fridges with fresh beverages, packing meats or selling pupusas. She describes these activities as “the norm.”
She sits down at the table for the second time after briefly leaving to help customers and smiles for a moment.
“You know, when there’s work, you have to take advantage of that opportunity,” she says, “… but I’m ready.”
3 Hermanos Supermarket was built up from scratch.
“It wasn’t a situation where we were already a business, and we just bought [a store space],” Jovita says. “From the beginning, we were figuring out how to do the job.”
She says the customers came one by one. While there was a lot of fear regarding the success of the business, this slow start allowed the staff to truly get to know their customers.
“We know them all as good people and good customers,” Jovita says. “In the beginning, we all kept thinking to ourselves, ‘Will this work? Will this not work?’ … We had all of our savings in it.”
Those doubts are no longer, she says. Now, Jovita describes the strong sense of community that exists at the store, even among the employees. She says they all work together, and there is no one boss. The customers treat her “con mucho respeto,” something she attributes in part to her familial relationship with David.
“[David] is my nephew, and the customers know I’m tía … so they come, and they say to me, ‘tía, ¿cómo está?’” she chuckles. “Now I’m not just my nephew’s aunt, I’m the customers’ aunt too.”
Filling the gap
When discussing Muncie’s current lack of resources like markets for Latinx populations, Jennifer Erickson, a cultural anthropologist and the assistant chair of the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University, drew connections to the city’s new status as a resettlement city.
In September 2021, the Muncie Afghan Refugee Resettlement Committee (MARRC) was created to help those fleeing Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the country. It ended in October of the following year. The committee consisted of several sub-committees addressing various issues in the community, such as housing, education, and employment.
However, Erickson noted a difference between these refugees and, more specifically, undocumented immigrant populations: the way they are legally classified. Afghan refugees are said to be “humanitarian evacuees,” a legal classification which leads to more access to resources not available for other populations, she says.
“[Afghans] have legal protections in ways that undocumented migrants do not, so they have access to a range of services that undocumented migrants do not,” she says.
In addition to this, Erickson highlighted some of the similarities in inequities that both refugee and immigrant populations face, such as language barriers or reasoning for fleeing their birth countries, such as violence and poverty. She also pointed out an increasing number of jobs available in Muncie, something she said sometimes leads to immigration and refugee resettlement being used as economic incentives for cities.
She stressed the need for economic incentive to be very broad, or in other words, the need for systems to support those workers who are being used to stimulate the economy.
“People are more than workers. They also have families, they have lives, they have needs: educational needs, daycare needs, social service needs, mental health needs,” Erickson says, “and so, to only look at this as ‘oh, we need workers; let’s bring these people here’ is really problematic.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanics are projected to account for 78 percent of net new workers between 2020 and 2030. However, Hispanics are overrepresented in service occupations, with the population making up 27.3 percent of people in food preparation or serving jobs, for example.
While individuals like David fight to make Muncie’s Latinx presence more known and more comfortable, Erickson still sees a lack of systemic progress in Muncie to support various vulnerable populations. She says looking at the bigger picture is key, and it is often what individual activists have the hardest time doing.
“I think sometimes with any activist movement … that wants to work with vulnerable populations, it is very easy to get so immersed in the everyday, urgent crisis of the population that they don’t necessarily have the time or energy or the desire to step back and look at the big picture,” she says.
Erickson recommended working with researchers to help better strengthen systems. Still, she underscored the importance of making sure the responsibility of providing resources for vulnerable populations does not fall solely on the individual.
“I’ve found that in my work, it’s not possible for one organization to do the work …” she says. “It needs to be a whole community. We need systems in place, not individuals, to make Muncie a welcoming place.”
A welcoming place
When asked how he felt about 3 Hermanos Supermarket being the only Mexican market in Muncie, David acknowledged both the benefits and the downsides.
“It’s good, because in one way, there’s no competition on the corner, but it can affect the pricing because if it’s really expensive, some people may go to Anderson or Indianapolis,” he says.
David is thankful to God, the state of Indiana and the Muncie community for the support. Jovita invites everyone to come visit.
“I’ll help you with a lot of kindness and respect for whatever you need, whether it’s food, something else,” she says, “And I say all are welcome, and so are you.”