Behind weekend sounds of music, dance and heart-to-heart chit chat, there’s someone working behind the scene making the local community market uniquely Boyle Heights. Her name is Antonia Rodriguez Juarez.
If you’ve gone to Mariachi Plaza on a weekend, you might know her simply as “Tonie”. A charismatic community presence with her own custom headpiece business among other roles, she’s made and worn many hats over the years.
After 14 years of starting and running the Boyle Heights Community Market, she is looking to mentor and pass the reins to one of her vendors. Boyle Heights Beat sat down with Tonie to learn more about her journey building community on First Street.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BHB: What’s your story and where’s home for you?
Tonie Juarez: I was born and raised in East LA. When I got married my husband had a home in Boyle Heights so I moved in with him. It’s been over 30 years since I moved and when I got here I started doing all kinds of things. What I do here now, I used to do in East LA with the Sheriff’s Department. I’ve always been into building community, especially with the youth because that’s the future, our tomorrow.
BHB: Can you tell me how the Mariachi Plaza market started?
TJ: We started a Certified Farmers Market back in 2009. Unfortunately we lost that certification when we lost all of our produce vendors after they were vandalized by anti-gentrification activists. In order to keep doing things, we became a community market instead.
We started it for the community, because a lot of people here are low-income and don’t have money to go far out to places like amusement parks. We wanted to give people a place on the weekends to come dance, and get kids out to play and have fun. On top of that, local vendors would get an opportunity to come and sell their goods to make a living. It grew and kept growing and we’ve been at it ever since.
BHB: How did the pandemic affect the community market and have any changes been made because of it?
TJ: It’s been rough. We used to have 32 regular vendors at Mariachi Plaza, and half of them died. It’s a real tragedy, all of the people who have passed due to COVID, and there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen because of it.
Right now, we only have around six vendors and four groups selling food. We’re trying our best to get back on track and get back to the magic in the market. We know it’s gonna take some time, but we’re not giving up.
BHB: Take us back to when the first market began. Why did you choose Mariachi Plaza as the venue and what does First Street represent for you?
TJ: I live on First Street and the first business that I started here was on First and Fickett. I went through a bad depression in 2005. I found myself crying at Mariachi Plaza trying to figure out what I was going to do because I had just lost all of my five flower shops in Montebello. I lost all that and I even lost my house.
I sat there with a close friend and we were trying to figure out what I should do to bounce back. He goes “Why don’t you start a farmers market” and he takes me to Third & Fairfax [in West Hollywood] and I said “hell no, I can never do something like that” at first, but I kept looking into it and started seeing myself doing my own.
I chose Mariachi Plaza because on Boyle and First, there were beautiful signs of our culture with the mariachis, but on First and Bailey, now known as Vicente Fernandez Street, there was nothing and I just knew it’d be the perfect place.
We started in 2009 and there would always be huge crowds of people dancing, smiling and having a good time. We got to know each other, meet new people and just enjoy the presence of other people. That sort of community helped me feel better and get back on my feet. Mariachi Plaza to me represents a gathering place.
BHB: What does Boyle Heights represent for you?
TJ: Boyle Heights is where I call home.
Listening to the stories of people living here, I’ve noticed that a lot of them come from Mexico and other places outside of the US and they found home in Boyle Heights. They have history, and they know a lot about the community over the years. The community and its people are where I get a lot of my inspiration.
I live right next to two Japanese families and one of them that I spoke to told me about how there used to be a Christmas parade up until 1942, and that she would love to see it come back. That’s why I started organizing it, and even though she passed we’re still doing it to keep that history alive.
The stories, the history and the community are what makes this place so special.
BHB: How would you describe yourself?
TJ: Crazy. People always question why I do all that I do. I honestly just like seeing people happy. Most of the time when it comes to events and the market, I use a lot of money out of my own pocket to get things organized.
This community is why I do what I do. I live in Boyle Heights, I have business in Boyle Heights, the people here have helped me so much so why not give back. Creating a gathering space for people to come together and enjoy themselves makes me happy. That’s what helped me through a rough point in my life, and that’s what I want to provide for all of my neighbors. I just want to see people enjoy life.