Asian Shopkeepers And The Economics Of Improving Corner Stores

A D.C. shopkeeper poses by his "Healthy Corners" stand. D.C. Central Kitchen's program delivers fresh produce to corner stores.

The fallout continues over comments Councilman Marion Barry made about Asian-owned stores in Ward 8, calling them “dirty shops.” Barry has since issued an apology, but a coalition of local and national Asian American groups have called for more meaningful engagement.

Part of Barry’s follow-up comments focused on the unhealthy foods such stores sell, and he called for the owners to sell healthier foods and fix up their stores.

Gary Cha, owner of Yes! Organic Market and former president of the Korean American Grocers Association, appeared on Monday’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss Barry’s comments and relations between black and Asian communities in D.C.

Cha spoke with DCentric after the show and reiterated that a common perception of store owners among customers is that whatever goes into the register is profit. But many take home only 6 to 7 percent of sales, Cha said. If a store makes $1 million a year, the owners take away about $60,000 for their families.

“These are people who are barely getting by. I know several of them that to make ends meet, they don’t even have health insurance,” Cha said. “So when we ask them to renovate and do this and that, they probably don’t have the financial ability to do that.”

Stocking up with healthier foods, particularly fresh produce, does require investment by store owners.  Refrigeration units are needed, which can be costly and difficult to accommodate in small stores. Also, small stores may not qualify for wholesale produce prices.

Continue reading

How to Ask Someone ‘Where are you from?’

Where am I from? I was born in Southern California, to immigrants from India, thanks for asking.

Last week, while in an elevator, a well-dressed, slightly-older woman looked at me intently and said, “You have interesting skin,” before asking its origin.

I have dark skin, black hair and large brown eyes.

Despite the fact that this issue has been written about over and over and over again, people still don’t get that asking “Where are you from?” is problematic on many levels. The question may come from a good place, but it often puts the recipient in a bad one. It’s also worth considering who gets asked about their origins and who doesn’t. If you don’t ask everyone where they are “from”, why not? Why is the question frequently aimed at people who have darker skin, immigrant parents and yes, interesting backgrounds, if not to emphasize difference?

Here are some ways to ask someone about their heritage without sounding boorish or entitled:

Use a compliment. Sports Illustrated model Chrissie Teigen is asked about her Norwegian-Thai ancestry daily and doesn’t mind, but she had this advice for the curious: “I usually go with ‘What’s your background, you are beautiful”.

Be direct about what you are asking. On DCentric’s Facebook page, reader Laurie Peverill volunteered that she asks strangers about their “family history”, instead of the nebulous “Where are you from?” She adds, “Assuming that very few of us are actually from here originally, everyone has a great answer.”

Ask other questions first. DCentric reader Jasmin Thana also used Facebook to convey how she is dismayed that “Where are you from?” is often the first question strangers ask her. “Know my name first. Have a conversation with me, then you can ask where my ancestors are from. The question annoys me because they’re trying to put me in a box and if people just guess correctly, the look on their face is like they just won a prize.”

In a DCentric post from April, my colleague Elahe wrote, “All of this isn’t to say that I, or other second-generation Americans, aren’t also proud of our heritage and roots.” But the hope is that one day, people will be content to see the children of immigrants as peers, and not ethnic riddles to be solved.

Latinos Present Opportunities for Crime in Columbia Heights

Flickr via blahmni

Fiesta D.C. 2010, Mount Pleasant

D.C. Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes says that the Metropolitan Police Department is facing “challenges” in and around Columbia Heights, where Latino immigrants are often the targets of a growing number of robberies and assaults:

The reason? “I think people realize they might be carrying cash, also they might not report it to police, so I think they become victims of crime more than others…they present a unique opportunity,.” Groomes said.

The area, which law enforcement call Police Service Area 302, is bordered by 16th Street NW, Harvard Street NW and Park Place NW, and it’s 31 percent Hispanic. Groomes characterized the incidents as crimes of opportunity, not hate crimes.

Didier Sinisterra, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs confirmed that the office is working with police to provide information to Latino residents on protecting themselves. .

“We have identified three key locations where we will be doing local outreach to inform people and hand out additional information: Spring Road, Mount Pleasant St and Columbia Heights.”

According to Sinisterra, the outreach efforts received a positive response. “We engage our community, go into local businesses. We let people know about the situation and we encourage them not to carry a lot of cash. We chose Friday because that is when a lot of Latinos get paid.”

OLA is also encouraging people to open bank accounts, so that they aren’t carrying large amounts of cash. This week, they will be in Mount Pleasant on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Josie Rizo, who works on the 1400 block of Irving St NW isn’t concerned. “So far nothing has happened and I’ve been working here for a year now,” she said, adding that she would go to the police if she is targeted by a crime. “I feel pretty safe…In this area especially, there are a lot of people walking around, so that helps.”

Five Ways Hunger Affects the Latino Community

Flickr: Walmart Stores

Last week, Latino leaders from across the country gathered in D.C. for the No Mas Hambre – “No More Hunger” – conference to raise awareness about food insecurity in their community. Here are five ways hunger, which is defined as “physical, emotional and psychological distress arising from lack of access to adequate, nutritious food” affects this rapidly growing group of Americans:

1) More than a quarter of Latinos struggle with hunger — compared to 14.6 percent of the general population, according to Bread for the World, a D.C.-based non-profit that works to end hunger in America and abroad.

2) Latino children are more likely to go hungry than their peers. While one in four American children is hungry, “child hunger is even more prevalent among Latino households — one in three Latino children is food insecure”, according to Vicki Escarra, president of Feeding America, a non-profit working to help America’s hungry through a national network of food banks.

3) Nearly 60 percent of Hispanic families with young children receive food from a program called Women with Infants and Children (WIC), according to the National Hispanic Leadership agenda, a nonpartisan association of major Hispanic national organizations and leaders. WIC provides low-income women and their young children access to nutritious foods, education and other resources.

4) A third of Latino kids use emergency food service programs. The 2010 Hunger in America study conducted by Feeding America found that one out of every three Hispanic children received services from their national network of emergency food providers or food banks.

5) Almost half of all eligible Latinos do not receive food stamps, according to the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.That may be because applying for food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can be complicated, according to a brief from the Urban Institute; “it is possible that Hispanic families more often than others find SNAP inconvenient because they are more likely to be working, as many SNAP offices are open only during regular work hours”.

Unwrapping the Controversy at Chipotle

Courtesy of

The protest at Chipotle was preceded by a march through Columbia Heights.

Thirty-five people marched last week from a local church to the Columbia Heights Chipotle to protest how the restaurant chain fired 40 employees for allegedly lacking forms that prove they’re allowed to legally work in the U.S.

According to the workers, when they returned from a 30-minute break, they found their replacements were already behind the counter. The workers allege that they were not offered any proper notice before or due compensation after the mass termination and “could not even have a lawyer, organizer, or any other person present in order to discuss their demands,” wrote Aaron Morrissey, at DCist.

Courtesy of

Fired Chipotle employee Miguel Bravo, demonstrating on 14th Street.

“We are here to protest the bad treatment of workers. We were fired in a very unjust manner and we feel that’s another form of discrimination against the Latino workers of this place. After they fired us unjustly, they told us they were going to give us a severance payment of $2,000 and now they have refused to follow through with that promise and we are here to demand that they pay us,” Miguel Bravo, one of the workers said at the rally last week with the help of a translator.

Chris Arnold, communications director of Chipotle, denied workers’ allegations that they were treated unfairly. He said the company is responsible for ensuring it is hiring employees without breaking the law.

“The circumstances here relate to a group of about 40 employees, all of whom provided new documents to verify their work authorization status over the span of just a few days. All of those documents proved to be fraudulent. Under the law, we cannot employ any individual who is not legally authorized to work in this country. When we communicated this to the employees, most of them simply walked off the job, others were let go. But there was no mass firing during a break,” Arnold said.
Continue reading

Fired Chipotle Worker Miguel Bravo Speaks

Yesterday, I covered a local protest against Chipotle. Approximately 40 people marched down Irving Street NW to the fast food chain’s Columbia Heights location on 14th Street. Miguel Bravo, one of the fired workers, addressed the crowd. Check back for comment from City Council members and Chipotle’s Communications Director, Chris Arnold.

Fired Workers March on Columbia Heights Chipotle

Flickr: Mr. T in DC

Heading to Columbia Heights to see the the latest protest against the firing of Chipotle workers.

A coalition of leaders, activists, religious organizations and community groups in the Washington D.C. area will soon descend on Chipotle’s doorstep…They intend to gather at 5 pm at The Sacred Heart Church in Columbia Heights, at which point those in attendance will march to the store in a powerful expression of protest against the disgraceful actions of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

According to the article “On May 5th, (Cinco de Mayo, no less) fired workers will team up with everyday citizens to restore the inherent dignity and worth of all individuals in our communities”. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

This will be the second protest for the workers at the Columbia Heights Chipotle who were allegedly fired over documentation issues.

According to, the workers said the firings occurred during a 30-minute break and when they came back from the meeting their replacements were already wrapping burritos. New allegations by the former employees say Chipotle hasn’t compensated them for back wages and won’t meet with City Council Members Jim Graham and Michael A. Brown, who marched for the workers in the first protest.

Check back tomorrow for an update.

Osama bin Laden is Dead: D.C’s South Asian Muslims React

Flickr: Chris.M.G.

Locals celebrate in front of the White House, Sunday night.

Afshan Khoja, a Muslim of Pakistani descent who lives in the DC area, was in tears after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.

“It wasn’t because I was happy about bin Laden’s death, it was because suddenly all the things that September 11th have done to me, my religion and my country, came back to me: The fear of being asked questions while traveling; the immediate requirement to defend my religion not only when people asked why Muslims hate America, but also when terrorists did anything that could remotely be associated with Muslims; the feeling that somehow, I’ll always be ‘the other’ in America.”

Mou Khan, a Bangladeshi-American, also found herself reflecting on September 11th, after learning of bin Laden’s death.

“I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that a plane had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center. My memories are deeply personal, like when a schoolmate I didn’t know called me a terrorist…now, confronted with the news that Osama bin Laden, the man behind the tragedy, has been killed, I find myself conflicted.
Continue reading

“Blackness that is uniquely and indisputably American”

Flickr: Natalie Woo

Billboard from 2009 along California's Interstate 5 freeway.

More on race and perception, though this time, the issue is not what people see– it’s what they know about President Obama’s ancestry. In “For Birthers, Obama’s Not Black Enough“, Melissa Harris-Perry wonders if the President’s lack of connection to “the historical variation of blackness that is uniquely and indisputably American” is part of what makes him suspect to those who doubt his citizenship:

The American slave system disrupted the ability of enslaved Africans to retain or pass along their ethnic identities. Igbo, Ashanti, Akan, Yoruba and Hausa became interchangeable units for sale. While slaves nurtured fragments of cultural, religious and familial traditions, much of the specificity of their African experience was surrendered to an imagined and indistinct notion of “Africa.” Moreover, the law did not initially recognize slaves or their US-born children as American. So enslaved Africans were women and men literally without a country, defined solely in terms of their labor value. Their descendants eventually achieved citizenship, but to be an American black, a Negro, is to be a rejected child who nonetheless clings to her abusive father because she knows no other parent. To be a black American descended from slaves is to lack, if not a birth certificate, then at least a known genealogy—to have only a vague sense of where one comes from, of who one’s ancestors were and of where one belongs.

In this sense, Obama is not very black. He is not a Negro. As a black man, President Obama’s confident and clear knowledge of his lineage is precisely the thing that makes his American identity dubious. Unlike most black people, he has easy access to both his American and his African selves.

First Generation, Second Generation, American

Flickr: Rakkhi Samarasekera

"Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand, glows world-wide welcome..."

One of you kindly asked about my use of the term “second generation” in my last post, about perception and privilege. Here’s what I wrote:

I may classify myself as a second generation, South Asian American of Malayalee Christian descent, but that is almost never what others see.

When I type “second generation”, I’m referring to the fact that I am the child of immigrants, and though no one ever assumes this about me, I was born here, in the United States; I consider my parents “first generation” Americans. This understanding of generations is similar to the Japanese method of classifying immigrants and their offspring (Issei, Nisei, etc).

Others disagree, and think that the children of immigrants are “first”, but where would that leave the actual immigrants? At zero? Second, it is.

Interestingly enough, another Project Argo site, KPCC’s Multi-American (tagline: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California) recently posted about such terms while starting a new feature– the cultural mashup dictionary. Why?
Continue reading