By Riley Manning
TUPELO – In the parking lot of the Speedy Gonzalez E-Z Stop on Monday, Elquin Gonzalez surveyed the damage inflicted on his store by April’s tornado.
Piles of debris lined the edge of the street. The aluminum roof looked chewed, and sharp angles of the remaining glass jutted out from the store’s window sill.
“We’re OK,” he said, nodding. “You see Joyner, see a whole house torn down, then you see this and say, ‘We’re OK.’”
From the intersection of North Gloster and Green streets, the effects of the storm – crushed vehicles, chunks missing from buildings – are still raw.
The inside of the Speedy Gonzalez is nearly bare, stripped of its vibrant aisles of exotic Mexican treats. Speedy Gonzalez was one of the few places in town to stock Mexican Coca-Cola, said to taste better because of the pure cane sugar in its recipe.
Hands on his hips, Gonzalez scanned the empty room.
“I think it taught us that we are not the owner of all things,” he said. “Everything we have is a blessing, but we don’t know at what moment they will be gone. We are alive. We are grateful.”
Elquin opened Speedy Gonzalez seven years ago, after immigrating with his family from their native Colombia in 2001 to serve as head of St. James Catholic Church’s Hispanic ministry. When he first leased the space, he said, Tupelo was home to only one other Spanish-speaking store.
“I knew a lot of Hispanics in the area from working with the church, and I thought it would be a great idea to open a store,” Elquin said. “I think the building owner was really unsure about opening a Mexican store, but he gave us a chance.”
Elquin is quick to credit the store’s success to his wife Franci, who largely runs the business while Elquin works at the church. Franci said Tupelo’s combination of familial appeal and growing industry had cultivated a large local population of immigrants not just from Mexico, but all over.
“At one point, it became a place for more than just Mexican customers,” Elquin said. “We had people from India and even Africa coming in.”
For these customers, Speedy Gonzalez served a greater purpose than simply a quick stop for tamales. It became a link to the outside world, to home, for such customers.
“There was so much you could do from there,” said cashier Katya Segura. “Even if it was something as simple as having papers or letters translated, they would just stop by and ask for Elquin.”
Segura said immigrants used the store to transfer money to families in their home countries and purchase phone cards to call them.
“It reminds me of places I saw doing ministry in Ecuador or Bogota,” said the Rev. Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James. “These little spots can be a million different things, from a place to get food you can’t find elsewhere, like plantains or yucca, to a place to sit and simply speak Spanish with people.”
For the Gonzalezes and customers alike, Speedy Gonzalez marks a piece of their lives that is now missing.
“Of course I miss it,” Elquin said. “Most of all the regulars coming in for breakfast and coffee.”
“For me, the business was everything. It was my second home, my job,” she said.
Dall said Elquin’s experience in the storm affected those he ministers to, as well as Gonzalez’s ability to be strong for his community in such a vulnerable time.
In the wake of the tornado, Gonzalez was the man many Hispanics – from the church and the store alike – turned to for help. Within two days, Gonzalez had garnered supplies from the Mexican consulate after informing them of the situation. Such aid, he said, proved invaluable.
“They were a huge help, financially,” he said. “I’ve also helped them with things like applying for a loan for a new house. A lot of families have told me they are OK now.”
As for the Speedy Gonzalez, Elquin said reopening was up in the air. The financial situation of the Gonzalez family – Elquin, Franci, and their children ages 8, 10 and 13 – is tight right now. Ultimately, he said, it depends on building owner Tommy Brooks, who said he would see to the building’s repair before negotiating a future for Speedy Gonzalez.
But the biggest encouragement, Gonzalez said, has come from customers who see him at the demolished building as they drive by, and shout, “Hey Elquin, we miss the store!”
“That really gets my heart. We really hope the building owner will give us a chance to re-open,” he said.
One of the few things left hanging in the store is a small cloth, printed with a prayer for the business. Gonzalez took it down, held it out to read.
“We are only administrators of the things God has put before us,” he said, looking up. “Some may be struggling in this tragedy, fighting with God, you know, but we are in good hands.”