On a Friday afternoon in early June, two young girls dip their hands into the cool water of a blue- and yellow-tiled fountain at the center of a sprawling market. They speak to each other in fluid English, though moments before they chatted with their mothers in Spanish and Mandarin.
Nearby, a dark-skinned boy sits with his parents on the fountain's edge. He licks an ice cream cone and swings his flashy sneakers while his mother and father nibble on taquitos. A man in a blue uniform is careful not to let his broom brush the boy's feet.
Across from the fountain and down an aisle, Ana Lobos organizes Avon creams. The meticulous Salvadoran turns the slender bottles ever so slightly, making sure the labels line up with rows of OPI nail polish and perfumes with names like Odyssey and Sweet Honesty.
Down the hall, Lucia Rios sells chili-flavored lollipops from Mexico, five for $1. Diagonally across from her candy shop, a young woman in tight black pants makes a copy of a key for a man in a cowboy hat. Though she only makes $50 a day, it beats her old job, where she plucked tomatoes and oranges in the scorching heat.
Outside, against the building's yellow and peach facade, a group of teenage boys point and laugh at custom-made DVD covers picturing girls in strapless dresses. The word " Quinceañera " -- the Hispanic version of a sweet 16 or Bat Mitzvah -- is printed in scrolled writing across the top of the cases.
A couple of feet away, a blast of A/C greets people walking past the metal detectors into Laredo Western Wear. The 8,000-square-foot store carries $39.99 Levi's and ornate belt buckles priced from $20 to $15,000. Blue and green alligator-skin boots on display in a glass case go for upwards of $300. A woman dressed in designer jeans runs up a $500 tab. She pulls out her Visa as two men clad in paint-splattered clothes walk into the store.
At one end of the mall, the Atlanta Farmer's Market sells Mexican Annatto seeds, epazote and avocado leaves. Between the market and the Burlington Coat Factory that anchors the other end of the shopping center, there's a hodgepodge of taquito stands, pho restaurants, Latino prayer cards, Aztec jewelry, Jafra makeup compacts, cowboy boots and South American soccer jerseys.
To Atlanta's immigrant population, Plaza Fiesta has become as vital a shopping destination as Lenox Square or the Mall of Georgia. It is also the social hub of several ethnic groups, making it easy, as you walk down the mall's aisles, to begin to mistake north DeKalb County for Seoul or San Salvador.
The 350,000-square-foot mall sits on Buford Highway just north of Clairmont Road, surrounded by carnicerias and noodle shops that serve the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who've settled in communities along the six-lane highway.
Like Chinese immigrants who carved out a distinct enclave in Manhattan's slums in the early 1900s or the waves of Latinos who descended on Southern California in the mid-1990s, Atlanta's immigration population has left a colorful and indelible mark on what had been a dour corridor.
In addition to Plaza Fiesta, Northeast Plaza -- which used to be a traditional shopping center -- houses the International Career Center and a Publix that, before it closed in October, posted signs in both English and Spanish. The Latin American Association's headquarters sit a couple of blocks north, at the corner of Buford Highway and Lenox Road. And as the state prepares to rebuild Buford Highway to make it more pedestrian-friendly, it's consulting the predominantly immigrant population that travels the corridor by foot each day.
A decade ago, DeKalb County was primarily a mix of blacks and whites. But from 1990 to 2000, DeKalb saw an approximate 230 percent increase in its Hispanic population, with the majority of immigrants moving to the Chamblee-Doraville area. Neighboring Gwinnett County, a couple of miles north of Plaza Fiesta, has seen an even larger influx. Its Hispanic population soared from about 8,500 in 1990 to 64,000 last year, which means that 15 percent of Gwinnett is now Hispanic.
The staggering shift in demographics has transformed Atlanta. With the increasing number of immigrants -- and the growing pains that have accompanied them -- it's no surprise that Plaza Fiesta has taken on a larger, politically charged role. In April, Plaza Fiesta's cultural significance reached new heights when it became the meeting place for 50,000 people who wished to speak out against state and national immigration reform.
But Plaza Fiesta didn't turn into Atlanta's immigration hotbed overnight, nor did it transform on its own. It required a push.
In the fall of 1999, Arturo Adonay needed a job. After desperately flipping through Mundo Hispanico 's help-wanted ads, the 30-year-old Mexican immigrant realized he was in trouble. He had been in the United States for a couple of months. He only spoke two English words: "yes" and "no." And he wanted to prove to himself that his move from Mexico wasn't for nothing.
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@ Mark from Atlanta "Politics? What part of yours or mine comments was not political?!"…
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