Inside Victoria’s oldest Latin American grocery store
When merengue music fills the space, you know you’re inside Mexican House of Spice.
(Maritza Sanchez, behind the eponymous wall of spice inside the Mexican House of Spices // Michael John Lo)
The entrance to Mexican House of Spice is tucked inside an alcove between a cannabis store and a tiny dine-in restaurant along the busy thoroughfare of Douglas Street. But once you cross the threshold, merengue music fills your ears and you’re inside Victoria’s oldest Latin American grocery store.
“We bring a little bit of every single country starting from South America, all the way to Mexico,” says shop owner Maritza Sanchez, quickly rattling off the names of imported soft drinks from Colombia to Argentina inside a nearby fridge.
Sanchez moved to Victoria 37 years ago, and says back then it felt the city had, at most, four other families from Latin America. “One of the biggest challenges we had when I was growing up here was that we didn’t have the food [we ate] here,” she says. “Anything for our cooking, we had to go to Vancouver or Toronto to bring it in.”
That changed when she, along with her family, opened up Mexican House of Spice in 2011, after running a small gift shop in Market Square called the Guatemalan Shop and various restaurant ventures for a few years.
Though Sanchez herself is Guatemalan, her mother—who still works in the store—is from the southern Mexican province of Chiapas. The tagline of the store clarifies that this place is about more than just Mexico: “The best quality foods from Latin America, Africa, and Jamaica.”
“Immigrants: that’s our focus,” says Sanchez. “We try to do the lower market price so people can afford a little bit more.”
The store serves Latin communities from all over Vancouver Island, including families that drive in from Tofino just to get their supplies, Sanchez says.
Beyond the staples of masa, tortillas, dried chillies, and queso fresco, the store often brings out specialty one-off goods like King’s bread to celebrate special occasions like Epiphany, a holiday on Jan. 6 marking the end of Christmas that’s widely celebrated in Latin America.
The shop’s baked goods are contracted out to the community. The store tries to give recent immigrants opportunities to use their talents and earn some extra income, such as the community-made pinatas hanging high up top in the high-ceilinged brick store. In the back, Indigenous art is proudly displayed for sale, right above a chest freezer filled with frozen tortillas.
Victoria has become more open to Latin American food in the years since. Sanchez says other stores are beginning to carry masa and other cultural foods that would have been astonishing to see when she first moved here. However, she isn’t worried about the competition.
“Like I said, we maintain our competitive prices,” she says. “People still come here because there are things here that those grocery stores [still] don’t have.”
The biggest danger for the store is rent. It’s gone up by 75% since they first moved in. Sanchez says if anything—God forbid—happens, her brother will take up the mantle and keep the store going, but the Sanchezes don’t plan to leave anytime soon.