Hard-working Waltham grocer serves world of clients

The Boston Globe
July 25, 2010 Sunday

(See the official Globe link for art that accompanied the printed story.)

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 889 words

Though he credits his deep faith in God as a main ingredient of his success, Angel Cruz doesn’t gloss over the decades of work and long hours he’s put in to make his market in south Waltham a go-to spot for the area’s Latinos, Ugandans, Haitians, and Jamaicans.

“My parents taught us that if you want something, you have to work for it,” said the 59-year-owner of Cruz Market on Felton Street. “Nothing comes from the sky.”

Next Sunday, a Waltham-based community group, Latinos En Accion, will honor Cruz as its “Person of the Year” as part an all-day Latino festival, which will include a parade. He will be feted on Waltham Common shortly after 12:45 p.m.

Neida Ortiz, with Latinos en Accion, said Cruz has been instrumental in guiding the group in their outreach efforts. He has helped the organization navigate government bureaucracy, and, most recently, has provided vital advice in its outreach to the city’s Spanish-speakers to encourage their participation in the US Census.

“He said, `Talk to the people. Talk to people one by one. Tell people how to fill out the form,’ ” said Ortiz. Unlike other cities with large Spanish-speaking populations, Waltham didn’t receive forms printed in Spanish, she said, noting that it’s imperative for the government’s information to reflect the actual makeup of the city.

But overcoming distrust and fear has been difficult, said Ortiz. Cruz’s advice led the group to stand outside local grocery stores and other public areas to talk to people. The effort will continue until December, but Ortiz said Cruz’s advice was spot-on. “It worked. It worked very well,” she said.

Cruz grew up the second of 17 siblings on a farm in Orcovis, Puerto Rico, where his 81-year-old parents still grow such crops as bananas and coffee beans.

He said that, starting at age 7, his mornings were spent milking cows and doing other farm chores. He’d then walk 5 miles to school and then back home, where he would do more chores until 6 p.m. Any homework had to be completed before bed time at 8 p.m.

“At that time, I used to hate it,” said Cruz. Today, he is grateful for the values instilled by his parents.

Cruz came to Waltham in 1971 and worked various jobs, including head custodian at Brandeis University, before deciding to open his own business. With only $1,000 and his reputation, he was able secure food and merchandise on credit to open Cruz Market in 1981, he said.

When the store opened, the Latino population was mostly Puerto Rican, he said. Over the years, more and more people from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Ecuador have moved into the area, as well as Ugandans, Haitians, and Jamaicans.

He puts in long hours at the store – six days a week, 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. He says he wants to ensure that customers are treated right, and he tries to accommodate requests from all of his customers, regardless of their nationalities.

This is reflected in the teeming shelves that line the store’s narrow aisles. Next to the Mexican spices are African dry goods. His alcohol collection is a veritable United Nations of beer and wine – Mexican and African beer, wine from Brazil, Chile, and Spain – and his produce fills calls for traditional food and drink, like the giant aloe leaves that Ugandans use for tea.

When Cruz suffered two massive strokes on the same day in 2006, his customers supported him. Ugandans said prayers for his recovery in his apartment above the store.

Cruz hasn’t been without other trials. During the recession in the early 1990s, business was so bad that he regularly cried, Cruz said, over the lack of money to pay all his debts.

In 1996, one of his seven children drowned in the Charles River on a late-night canoe ride with friends. Angel Cruz Jr. was 22.

But, Cruz said, he kept working and praying through everything. Doctors told him after his strokes that he had zero chance of regaining movement on his right side, and that he’d never be able to walk again. Within six months, he was walking, and he returned to the store as soon as he could.

He said his grandchildren are the joy of this life. Next to his shiny white Cadillac Escalade pickup under a portable carport in his driveway is a Power Wheels Escalade for 8-year-old Govanni; he and 6-year-old sister Amalia often stay overnight with their grandparents.

A few years ago, Cruz bought the store property from his longtime landlord, Philip Collura, who is now retired in Florida.

“He really is an extraordinary person. Most people go along in life and they have no goals. He’s got them and he’s certainly attained them,” said Collura. “He’s a great man and a deserving man. We had a great relationship for over 20 years. I can honestly say he is `mi amigo.’ ”

Cruz said he has no plans to stop working. People have offered to buy the store, but he cares too much about the welfare of his employees and customers to let it go, he said.

For the past three years, Govanni has told him he wants to take over the store. “He says, `Pa, don’t die until I get big because I want to be able to run this place,”’ said Cruz.

The festival kicks off with a parade at noon and arrives at the common around 12:45 p.m. There will be singing and dancing from numerous Latino populations, including Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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