The aroma of chiles and cinnamon fills the air, and bags of corn husk for making tamales fill Lino Cruz’s food distribution business on a street here where three other businesses run by Mexican immigrants from the state of Puebla distribute fruits and vegetables from their country throughout the New York region.
Passaic has become a second Puebla for many Mexicans who moved to the city 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Manhattan in search of a better life. Mexican taquerias, bakeries and “quinceaneras” dress shops are spread throughout downtown, which also has a Puebla government office and some of the main distributors of Mexican food in the Northeast.
“I came here because many Mexicans were here, many had family here, so we established our businesses, our lives,” said Cruz, 49, who arrived in the U.S. three decades ago from the state in south-central Mexico.
About 70 percent of Passaic’s 70,000 residents are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census figures, and more than 60 percent of the city’s roughly 22,000 Mexican natives are from Puebla, according to Ana Flores, the director of the office the government of Puebla set up in Passaic five years ago to provide people with documents including birth certificates.
“In many streets you feel like you are in Mexico,” Flores said. “I don’t miss Puebla because one feels like they are in Puebla here.”
Republican Gov. Chris Christie visited Puebla on a trip to Mexico in 2014, in part because 37 percent of the 232,000 first- and second-generation Mexican-Americans who live in New Jersey trace their roots to that Mexican state.
Nearly half the Mexicans in New York City are from there, and Philadelphia also has a large share of Puebla natives, according to figures from the Mexican government.
The origin of the Puebla-Passaic connection goes back about 30 years, when some “poblanos,” a name for people from Puebla, started working at local factories, including the nearby Marcal paper factory in Elmwood Park, local business owners say.
In a supermarket on 8th Street, or “Mercado de la 8,” Genaro Morales, another poblano, arranges boxes and talks to clients. He says that people have driven there all the way from Connecticut searching for a fruit of a cactus called pitaya and green tomatoes called guatomates.
Cesar Aguirre, Passaic’s deputy mayor, owns the supermarket and another Mexican food wholesale business.
“My mother started this business 22 years ago with $100. Now — and I say this with pride, not with arrogance — we have a turnover of several million dollars,” said Aguirre, who was born in the state of Oaxaca, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) from Puebla. “Passaic gave that opportunity to my parents.”
The town has not been immune from fears created by President Donald Trump’s tough talk on immigration, with some business owners saying they are still seeing a decrease in sales.
Flores said that when Trump became president, her office offered workshops and know-your-rights sessions for immigrants. During an event for business owners, finance experts told them how to protect their money in case of deportation, recommending things like adding another person’s name to their bank accounts to transfer money to Mexico.
“People are still worried. However, they have learned how to live with that concern because they know their children still need to go to school and they still need to provide for their families,” she said. “With fear, they still work and manage their businesses.”
Those businesses run the gamut in Passaic — called “Puebla York” or “Puebla Jersey” by some there — from a wholesaler that distributes herbs from Puebla, to the quinceañeras dress shops for girls celebrating their 15th birthdays to a business that specializes in traditional Mexican handicrafts. Five women working in the basement of La Providencia make about 80 pinatas a day to sell.
“Poblanos love to party, that’s for sure,” said Alvaro Enriquez, who runs the store.
Nicolas Aguilar, owner of nonperishable food wholesaler Nicomex and a member of the Passaic Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, says that “more than Mexican products, we sell nostalgia.”
“We all come from hills, from ranches,” said Aguilar, 62, from Axutla, Puebla. “In Mexico, on market days, we would go down to town to buy the products we needed. Now, here, we remind people of those flavors.”