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Photography by Jonathan Olivares

The honking of cars in the parking lot does not drown out the frequent shouts of the vendor calling out, “ ¡Pásele!  ¿En qué les podemos ayudar?” through the halls of El Mercado in Boyle Heights. Customers rush in to buy traditional folkloric dresses with lace embroidery, boots made out of exotic leathers, beaded jewelry and bright ribbons with colors from the Mexican flag.

El Mercado, popularly known as El Mercadito, attracts customers from both the immediate community and farther afield, all drawn to its traditional Mexican items, the sweet and savory aromas of food and the rich smell of   leather. Many describe the plaza as “a piece of México.”

“What do I like the most? Everything. All the little items that they sell,” said Samuel García, 63, who has been a customer since the 1970s. “If you are looking for things from Mexico, why go to Tijuana when everything is here?”

Every time she returns to El Mercadito, Génesis Vargas, 23, remembers her childhood visits to the shops with her grandmother, who liked “buying the little trinkets that they have on sale.”

El Mercado opened to the public in 1968, founded by the Chayra family, which envisioned a tourist attraction like downtown’s Olvera Street.

When Pedro Rosado, now 77, bought El Mercado in 1977, he decided that everything had to be connected to México, from the products for sale to the plaza’s artwork, which portrays different regions of the country. In the Mariachi Restaurant on the third floor, paintings by Mexican artists tell México’s history, from the Aztec empire to colonization to modern society.

“At the market you will find the history of Mexico, the culture of México and, of course, the language and food,’ said Rosado.

Rosado helps local entrepreneurs get a start at El Mercado by letting them use a small space rent-free for 15 days to a month. After that, the monthly rent varies from $275 for a stall to as much as $7,000 for a large space that includes a kitchen. New vendors also pay a deposit of the first and last month’s rent.

El Mercado’s attractions include snacks, such as homemade chips, churros and shaved ice. Its restaurant serves lemony shrimp cocktails, birria (the spicy Mexican stew usually made with goat meat) and other regional dishes. Musicians play mariachi and norteño ballads throughout the week. The large, cavernous dining area attracts hundreds of people, especially on weekends.

Since taking over, Rosado also has expanded El Mercado by constructing more floors and adding parking. He plans to expand the parking lot again, since it gets crowded, especially on weekends.

Now his son, Tony, is shadowing him as he helps to manage the restaurant. Two daughters, along with other family members, also work there.

“The idea is for the next generation to help with what their parents did, take the foundations that your parents laid for you and build on those,” said Tony Rosado.

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Melissa Martínez

A former reporter at Boyle Heights Beat and a 2014 graduate of Roosevelt High School, Melissa Martínez was the first in her family to attend college. She graduated in the Spring from Loyola Marymount...

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