Everyone Goes to the Mercado

Tony Nelson

It's 3:35 on a Saturday afternoon and, as usual, the Mercado Central is packed. Brown folks, white folks, old and young, are squeezed into booths in the cafeteria. People are yelling in Spanglish and slurping fruit smoothies. "Sabor?" a middle-aged server asks a twentysomething patron at La Loma, one of about 50 businesses housed in this labyrinth at the corner of Lake and Bloomington in south Minneapolis. "Fresa," responds the young woman, who is wearing a crocheted skull cap, a little yellow T-shirt with glitter splashed across the front, and jeans so tight it look like her thighs might suffocate.

A few steps away at the panaderia, or bakery, the sweet treats glimmer in all their azucar glory behind Plexiglas. There are huge sugar cookies without frosting, huge sugar cookies with frosting, two kinds of fruit turnovers, sugared donuts, square cakes with more frosting than cake, and a circular cake with a brown Barbie decked out on top.

"No, no, Ana!" a middle-aged man says to his two-year-old daughter, as she extends a tiny, intrepid hand toward an enormous turnover. The father, wearing a baseball cap with two American flags and TEXAS! across the top, barely catches her arm before disaster strikes. "What have I told you?" he scolds her, picking her up and balancing her on his hip. "You'd think she would've learned not to put everything in her mouth after the hot sauce at Grandma's house burned her out," he tells his wife. The wife just shakes her head.

Next door, Libreria La Paz, a Christian bookstore, is bustling. The main attraction is a curious new acquisition--a "magical mirror." "What is it, Daddy?" a four-year-old girl asks. Her father peers in to investigate and is met with his befuddled reflection in the mirror. He fiddles with the side of the plastic contraption and finds a switch. Light shines in the center of the mirror, and the Virgin Mary appears, demurely holding her golden heart in the center of her chest. This image is reflected back into the mirror over and over again. "You see?" the man tells his daughter. She nods, mesmerized. "Daddy, I want it," she says emphatically. "No, you already have your chocolate-chip cookie," says her mother. Two teenage boys walking by see the light. Enthralled, they crowd in toward the family to get a closer look. "Mira," one tells the other, and the family moves out of the way to let them experience the miracle.

Around the corner, very frilly, very pink, and very white dresses are hanging from the ceiling at Creaciones Lupitas. It looks like the place where all those American Idol outfits go to die, but in truth it is just the one-stop shop for the small girl/princess in your life. A small girl and her mom sift through piles of ribboned, buttoned, sequined, and frilly formal wear. They are searching for the perfect outfit for her first communion.

Back in the cafeteria, families are packed into the tables, eating barbecued pork tacos, chicken enchiladas, and gourmet Mexican sandwiches, and nipping at the ubiquitous Jarritos. Restaurants--Cafeteria La Loma, Comales y Cazuelas, Manny's Tortas, and Taqueria La Hacienda--line the narrow hallway.

At one table, a three-year-old crawls over his mother to steal a bite of a cilantro-covered taco. She easily dodges him and gives him a withering look. Two seats over, a man eats a taco with one hand and holds a cell phone in the other, almost shouting into it. Two older women and their preteen girls are finishing up tamales at the next table. One of the girls holds the latest Harry Potter book in her lap. "Mom, what does 'travesty' mean?" she asks between bites. "You see that?" The woman points to the barely touched corn husk. "That's a travesty."

Across the hallway, Dulceria La Piñata is enjoying an unexpected late-afternoon rush. A boy holds a star-shaped piñata. "Tomorrow's my birthday," he says proudly. "I'll be 11 and we're going to break it open for all the candy." Brightly colored streamers pour out of the star's end, and an image of Batman flies out of its center. "I don't really like Batman," he says, "but the star is cool."

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