By Frank Rojas/LAist
Originally published Nov 18, 2021
Nestled by the side of the 710 Freeway overpass and just a few blocks away from East L.A. College is a small parking lot on Humphreys Avenue.
On any other day of the week cars would be parked behind the gated fence. But on this Saturday pride flags hang from tents as over 60 vendors and East L.A.’s community members show up both unapologetically Brown and queer.
A Jenni Rivera impersonator takes the stage in a yellow and blue mariachi gown as an audience sings along as it finds shade from the tents on this particular hot October afternoon. But not even the heat could stop attendees from coming out to support queer locally owned businesses.
For the past four months, the Queer Mercado has been a space for East L.A.’s queer community to connect and support local LGBTQ+ businesses. It has also allowed the community to invest in their neighborhood as a means to offset ongoing gentrification.
“I feel like as queer Latinx we might have recognized that we went to the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, the Slauson Swap Meet,” said Jose Richard Aviles, a South Los Angeles poet who performed several pieces from his recent poetry book at the mercado.
“And so to reclaim that space for our community, it’s a form of reconnecting to the childhood that we probably couldn’t have experienced as openly as we are doing now.”
East L.A. has a long history of being forced to reclaim its identity. From the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, to the ongoing displacement of community members as outsiders move in. Residents have since found authentic ways to invest back into their community.
Welcome to the Queer Mercado.
How The Event Grew
Diana Diaz is an East L.A. native and school counselor who is a founder and vendor at the Goddess Mercado, a space that helps create economic opportunity for businesses owned by local women of color. Diaz grew up as a street vendor supporting her Mexican immigrant parents’ by helping them make and sell pillows and blankets. She would later go on to manufacture and sell purses at the swap meets as a means to help pay for both her undergraduate and graduate school programs.
Being a part of the Goddess Mercado allowed Diaz to think holistically about the intersections within her East L.A. community.
“I realized, when when I was approached about being at the Goddess, that there is a huge need, not just for Latinas, or Chicanas, but for queer youth in East L.A.,” said Diaz. “There’s so much shame because of machismo, because we’re predominantly Latino. It’s so important to create spaces where we’ve increased tolerance and visibility.”
Diaz had originally considered the name, the Chicano Queer Mercado. However, she realized the term “Chicano” was not inclusive enough for the space and then decided to drop the first part of the title.
With a vision and now a name, Diaz would next need to find a location to host the mercado. She reached out to Rosalba González, the principal of Hilda L. Solis Learning Academy, about using the school’s parking lot. While in conversation with González, Diaz learned that the school was financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with little to no laptops available for students as well as other resources for the school’s youth programs.
Diaz then had a location and purpose that would allow her to invest back into her East L.A.’s youth community. She partnered with In the Making, an East L.A. nonprofit community resource center. The organization works with youth, ages 14 to 24, and allows them to get a paid internship and help them with spearheading business plan ideas.
“I see the power in and the benefit and inspiring our youth,” said Diaz. “I see how much love they give back. It’s a great payoff actually. So the youth is our priority, especially LGBTQ. We want them to feel empowered, we want them to be loud and proud.”
Once Diaz’s mission for the Queer Mercado started to take shape, she reached out via Instagram to Gaudencio Marquez, a queer crocheter and owner of Casa de Larrquez.
“That’s how we kind of like started this,” said Marquez. “I saw sort of the queer community intersecting with the Latino community. There’s an opportunity to be able to create a space for Latinx queer community vendors.”
Marquez then reached out to his good friend of over 10 years, Ryan Montez to help in coordinating vendors and entertainment. Montez had worked as a corporate event coordinator for the past 10 years, but unfortunately lost his job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Queer Mercado would allow him the opportunity to get back at organizing public events as well as reconnecting with his family’s East L.A. roots.
Now that all three were on board, Diaz, Marquez, and Montez finally all met in person at East L.A.’s Orgullo Fest where they finalized their vision and plan for the grand opening of Queer Mercado on July 17.
To their surprise, it was a major success.
“Four months later it [Queer Mercado] has taken on its own world,” said Montez. “I didn’t and never dreamed that it would be this large with over 60 vendors now we’re monthly and a permanent feature. So yeah, it’s been a whirlwind.”
The Queer Mercado takes place the third Saturday of every month, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it’s made up of over 60 vendors with 95% of them identifying as queer and the remaining 5% being allies. Vendors pay a $65 fee with the funds raised going to Hilda Solis H.S. student body and local youth employment that helps run the mercado.
Vendors are not allowed to resell items such as things that can be found on Amazon.
A ‘Safe And Inclusive Space’
It’s a little past noon and the mercado is already starting to get busy with customers as they stroll around and stop by some of the booths.
One, in particular, is set up under a white tent with wooden shelves displaying locally made bath and body products. A white sign with a purple butterfly in the middle of a triangle reads, “Sacred Bathing.”
Marja Oliden is an East L.A. native who owns Sacred Bathing, a business that specializes in natural self-care products that include lavender scented bath salts, rose quartz infused facial toners, and natural herb facial steamers to name a few. Olviden has been a vendor at the Queer Mercado ever since it was originally the Goddess Mercado.
The Queer Mercado has not only provided a space for Oliden’s business, but it has also created a space for both of her daughters who identify as queer.
“It’s a safe and inclusive space for both of my daughters,” said Oliden as her eyes tear up. “And so I think it’s important to have a place like this, especially in their community. You don’t have to go elsewhere like San Diego or West Hollywood, you know it’s here in our community. My father lives down the street from here.”
Oliden’s youngest daughter, Maddy, has also started vending her own herbal tea blends.
Across from Oliden is a blue tent with a rack of plain black, brown and beige sweatshirts. A table is set up with gold chains, hoop earrings and other small pieces of jewelry. Candles are on display with the smells of jasmine, vanilla, and amber. Customers have been buying the seasonal fall candle that has hints of cinnamon, nutty bread, and clove.
Soul Food Candle Company is a queer Black and Latinx owned hand made candle company. Ko Williams and DeMarkus Trinidad recently launched their hand poured soy candles this past August and have found a home at the Queer Mercado.
“I’m originally from Compton and back in the day we didn’t really have these types of spaces, let alone like this representation,” said Williams. “It’s really important right now because machismo is real, toxic masculinity is real and we really need to show our youth and just people around us that there are some intersections to all of who we are.”
This is only the second time Soul Food Candles has been vending at the Queer Mercado, but they have found popularity among customers as they huddle over and look through their products.
The Queer Mercado’s influence has also gone beyond East L.A.
For example, Alex Anthony Cordova is a vendor from Ontario and is the owner and founder of Magic Oil Box, a small business that focuses on aromatherapy products. Cordova first heard of the Queer Mercado through Instagram and has found a home away from home, despite the drive from the Inland Empire.
The Queer Mercado also taps into community resources and information — patrons can learn from local health and wellness organizations, which have booths set up.
[email protected] Coalition, an organization focused on providing services for transgender and nonbinary individuals, was tabling here for the first time. They are hoping to raise awareness with resources, such as legal and and housing services, that are available for the transgender community.
Being Part Of The Community
As the Queer Mercado has grown in popularity with the community — or via social media — and its profile among LGBTQ+ patrons has created a space for them. Some feel more seen.
“It’s important for our community, being a lesbian, a woman of color, a parent, it brings me joy to be able to bring my family to this space,” said Marisa Salgado, who intentionally drove out from Long Beach with her wife and their children to be here. “And for them to be able to celebrate these queer artists and this is a vendor’s community. And, you know there’s generations here.”
Other attendees came across the Queer Mercado by accident.
Jose Fuentez and Christian Sanchez just recently bought a house two streets down from the mercado. The couple stumbled upon the event as they were driving through the neighborhood, when they decided to stop by.
“It’s nice to know that the community is welcoming us,” said Sanchez. “I mean we’ve always been here. I grew up in Boyle Heights, so not far away. So it’s nice to know that we’re actually part of the community.”
The Tradition Of Mercados And Resiliency
Mercados and street vending have long been a part of immigrant communities, especially in East L.A.. They have provided a means of survival and resiliency when coping with the mistreatment, and discrimination, within housing, economic stability and other social factors.
“I think that this idea of a mercado is something that runs deep for us,” said Carlos Santos, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at UCLA. “Because we’ve been pushed out of these formal institutions and formal markets. So we’ve had to figure out a solution, and the Queer Mercado is innovative not only because it sort of builds on this tradition, but it also clarifies it in a beautiful way.”
The Queer Mercado seeks to remain authentic to both its East L.A. and queer community.
It has allowed community members to invest in their own neighborhood as a means to offset the ongoing gentrification that is taking place on the east side. It’s reminding them that they don’t have to leave their community to find opportunities.
“For folks in general, in places like East L.A. and Boyle Heights, these are neighborhoods that are shifting and changing,” said Santos. “That inevitably comes with this identity crisis, this sense of, ‘How do we think of ourselves in space, right? And in the spaces we occupy? And what does it mean to be ourselves in these spaces?’”
As a longtime East L.A. resident, Diaz fears the youth flight that is happening is a result of lack of opportunities in their community. As younger generations leave, outsiders are taking up space and erasing the identity of their neighborhood.
Diaz hopes that the Queer Mercado can also be a space for LGBTQ+ East L.A. residents to feel free in their own neighborhood.
“I used to go to gay pride in West Hollywood,” said Diaz. “Why do I have to travel an hour, and pay all this money and traffic to feel free to wear what I want, to be with who I want, to say whatever I want. Why can’t it be here in East L.A.?”
Another thing Queer Mercado offers the community: It doesn’t have to be Pride month or Latinx Heritage Month to be celebrated.
The next Queer Mercado is this Saturday, Nov. 20 at Hilda L. Solis Learning Academy 319 N Humphreys Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90222
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.