Issue 05: La Merced, A Market in Mexico City

La Merced

I love to travel. Over the last few years I’ve been to Japan, all over South East Asia, Spain, Portugal and Mexico. In all of these places, I make a point to visit the local markets. For me, this is the perfect platform to begin to explore a new place and a different culture. Markets orient me in time and space. I am confident, always at ease in that arena. Although it is very difficult to choose, I think Mercado de Merced in Mexico City is my favorite.

La Merced is the main food distribution point for the 8.5 million residents in Mexico’s city center. There has been trading and markets in this vicinity since the Spanish collided with the Aztec empire in the early 1500’s. The entire neighborhood gradually developed into one giant market, and in 1863 the first permanent buildings were constructed.

Today, La Merced consists of a series of sheds the size of airplane hangers. Whole areas within the market specialize in certain foods. Stand after stand will sell only poultry, beef, or pork; sausages or seafood; cheeses or dried peppers and prepared moles. There are dozens of people selling nothing but tomatoes and tomatillos, or green onions or garlic. Cactus paddles are symmetrically stacked six feet high. Until you get up close, they are easily mistaken for coils of garden hose. Each specialized section is grand enough to be a well-sized market on its own.

Between these stands are vendors selling everything from rope and hardware supplies, to potions, creams and hexes, hula-hoops, and crepe-paper piñatas. Aisles are so narrow that all product is delivered on hand trucks called “diablos”. They earned this nickname because the curved handles are thought to look like the horns of the devil. But perhaps they received the moniker due to the devilishly hard work of moving anything through La Merced.

Products come to the capital from every region of Mexico. There are tropical fruits, coconuts, and chiles from Chiapas, Tabasco, and the Yucatán. Seafood, vanilla, and coffee, along with tequila, come from Veracruz and Jalisco. Pork, coconuts, avocados, and wild mushrooms come from Michoacan. The perimeter of the market is lined with stalls selling prepared foods. Small fondas, or market restaurants, offer inexpensive breakfast and lunches that feed the laborers and shoppers alike. You can get carnitas or eggs and chorizo served with fresh tortillas, soups, and masa snack boats filled with savory beans, onion, cheese, and cilantro. As you walk through La Merced you can smell the arrachera, beef skirt steak, grilling over smoky charcoal. Red and green salsas are on almost every stand, along with the ubiquitous variety of bottled hot sauces.

La Merced is open from six in the morning to six in the evening. The entrance to the market is also a popular subway stop and foot traffic in all directions is heavy. Aisles are packed with buyers and sellers. There is a mad energy and a cacophony of noise and fragrance. The aromas of garlic, chiles, fresh fruit, flowers, and incense smoke drifting from shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary mingle with the metallic scent of fresh blood from recently slaughtered animals. Sounds reverberate throughout as vendors call out to customers. There is fierce bargaining and blaring radios. Television sets and DVD’s loudly broadcast soccer games and popular telenovelas. The market teems with life.

Enjoy the slide show of the sights and sounds of La Merced. Walk with me through the market.


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