There was a time not long ago when, as you walked down the halls of El Mercado de Los Ángeles, the sounds of mariachis playing filled that traditional shopping spot. On weekends, hundreds of shoppers would hear the mariachis’ trumpets, violins, and heart-felt vocals through the halls and the walls.
That was until “El Mercadito,” as it’s locally known, was forced to close its doors due to the pandemic lockdown of the summer of 2020. No one knew then that the sounds of the mariachis would become a thing of the past.
When COVID first hit in 2020, most people imagined that its effects would last for only two weeks. Instead, as people experienced, it shut down everything for the rest of the year. Almost three years later, El Mercadito is once again fully open but the merchants that lease its stalls struggle with dwindling customer traffic, a looming recession and the rising costs during inflation.
The loss of income during the six-month lockdown was something none of the business owners had prepared for.
“Latinos are never prepared with savings, never prepared for these long-lasting emergencies,” said Ricardo Núñez González, co-owner of a boot shop that specializes in traditionally authentic Mexican attire.
Originally owned by his mother, this family’s business has been in operation for over 30 years, making and importing handmade boots and other clothing products from Mexico. When customers walk into his shop they’re greeted not only by Nuñez, but by the strong smell of leather emanating from the shop. Boots, belts and hats hang from the stall, ready to be sold.
Núñez said that the closure caught many businesses and customers off guard.
Carmen Guitiérrez is the owner of Lily’s Pan de Fiesta, a panadería and pastelería that has been operating at El Mercadito for 27 years. Her shop is the first thing customers notice when they walk up the market’s southeast staircase going to the second floor. The bakery has a line of panes dulces for display, and customers are hit by the smell of mouth watering conchas, orejas and other breads being baked.
Gutierrez said that she opened the business because she wanted to be her own boss.
“I didn’t want to work for other people,” the baker and business owner said. “Since I knew how to make Mexican break, why not offer it to customers?”
González said that during the lockdown she saw her own employees struggle to find a source of income.
“Some had to take other jobs wherever they could find them, cleaning houses or working out of their homes,” she said. “One of them started baking bread at his home and sold it from there. That was their way of making ends meet.”
Added to the losses caused by the closure, some businesses were challenged by the rising prices of supplies brought on by a looming inflation. And the shortages that came after COVID indirectly affected many of the businesses of El Mercadito.
Juan Eduardo Matías owns a Mexican ice cream shop in an outdoors stall close to the parking lot. His shop is one of the first that customers notice on their way to the Mercadito’s first floor. He said his business relies primarily on imports for ingredients and supplies, but that he found himself adapting to these shortages.
“The prices skyrocketed, and we had to switch brands,” Matias said. “It was hard to change to a different material, like cups to keep the ice cold.”
There was some brief recovery for the shop owners immediately after the lockdown. Once El Mercadito reopened its doors in early 2021, the majority of the indoor businesses were moved to the parking lot and vendors saw a boom in sales. Weekdays that weren’t usually active were all of a sudden packed with customers who missed the feeling of walking around, getting the mixture of smells from all the food and goods. More importantly, they were willing to spend the money received from government stimulus checks.
“People had money,” said Tania Flores, who opened a coffee shop at El Mercadito in late 2021. “People had money to come and buy food, even if it was to go. I mean, they were spending money.”
Unfortunately, this sudden burst of traffic didn’t last long. By the summer of 2022, the money people received from the government started to come to an end. The outside stalls were also brought back inside, since crowding was less of a concern, and that brought even less traffic and less profit for the businesses.
“I always say that people are lazy,” said Gonzalez, the baker. They’ll come [to the parking lot to get churros, raspados and such, but they won’t walk in because they’re too lazy to climb the stairs. They only come and eat down there.”
González said that once the vendors moved back indoors, her sales dropped to 80% of what she sold before the pandemic. She also said that she’s doing better than many of her fellow vendors, who sell non-essential items.
“People don’t want to spend money, they say they don’t want to buy anything that is not necessary,’ the baker said. “We’re not doing that badly because people eat every day. They may come in every day and get bread, a bolillo perhaps, the essential.”
Flores, the owner of Cafecito by Tania, migrated to the United States as a child. She said she wanted to open up her coffee shop in El Mercadito, because she grew up in the neighborhood and the place was familiar to her. She envisioned a “modern cafe inside El Mercadito, since we [didn’t] have lattes and espressos and stuff. I wanted to bring it into the Mercadito, and mix it in with the Mexican heritage.”
Earlier this year Flores said that her business was worse than during the pandemic
“Now it’s like, completely stopped,” she said. “Even if it’s a weekend, whether it’s a weekday, it seems the same. And I mean, as you can look around, there’s rarely any people that you can spot. One or two, but yeah, it’s hit hard.”
Things got so bad that Flores was forced to close her shop in early May.
Today, customers who walk down the market’s halls see stalls closed left and right. There’s a decrease in traffic that brings a somber, quiet mood. On top of that, the mariachis that used to work in El Mercadito’s third-floor restaurant have stopped playing, so the silence of the halls brings the mood even lower.
The top floor restaurant has been “temporarily” closed since the lockdown, and several shop owners interviewed said that its closure and lack of mariachis was affecting their business as well. Last month, on Mexican Mothers Day, González said that she missed the days when customers would form a line down First Street to get into the restaurant on that holiday. This year, the halls were as empty as on any regular Wednesday.
While González spoke to a reporter, a customer came up to her to ask why the restaurant was still closed, leaving in obvious disappointment.
Núñez, the boot shop owner, said he has also felt the effect of the restaurant’s closure.
“Many people came to the restaurant for their celebrations,” said Núñez. “Logically, people who came there would also come down here and buy something. It does affect a lot.”
Several of the shop owners said they have noticed some repairs being made in the Mercadito’s top floor, but are unsure of when the restaurant would open. Boyle Heights Beat made several unsuccessful attempts to reach El Mercadito’s owners.
Despite the obvious lull of the weekdays, there is still an obvious boom of traffic on Sundays. Although there are still a number of closed shops, people still take their time to enjoy El Mercadito when they can.