La Marqueta, a retail and food market located underneath an elevated train track, is a vibrant space where people come to not only shop, but to sit and share their stories with one another. On the occasions that I have visited, I have witnessed the strong community felt by so many of the people spending time inside. This is, without a doubt, a venue that combines the arts, food and people in a beautiful way.
Historically, La Marqueta has been a cultural staple of the Latino community of East Harlem. When it first was opened in 1936, it was a bustling economic and social center of the neighborhood. Later, it began to decline. Now, after recent efforts to revitalize the market, it houses a variety of specialty vendors and artists and regularly hosts community cultural events.
When I entered, I was greeted by the smell of rising dough wafting through from Hot Bread Kitchen toward the back of the market. In addition to baking their own breads, HBK is a non-profit organization that invites startup food companies to use their kitchen facilities.
On either side of the narrow walkways of the market, artists and vendors stood in their stalls, chatting, laughing, and working. As I strolled through, a stall filled with handmade dolls, jewelry, books and other curios caught my eye. This is where I met Mercedes. She told me that she was a single working mother of three when she began making her dolls. They were an instant hit and after she had created three for her own children, "suddenly everyone wanted one." After a while, however, the work became overwhelming as every tiny face was hand stitched - but genius struck, as it tends to do. “My muse came to me again,” recalled Mercedes, and she began to paint the faces instead.
Today, people stop in to purchase her dolls for their children and grandchildren, as collectors’ items, and even for spiritual purposes. For this, Mercedes explained, she attaches a special panel of fabric at the top of the head through which people can put charms or talismans.
Her stall at La Marqueta has now expanded to other items. Mercedes makes “piece dolls” from the leftover scraps of her bigger dolls, pins and magnets with two-dimensional images of her dolls. When a loyal customer told her “I want one for my baby’s hair,” Mercedes began to make wearable dolls on pins and barrettes.
Mercedes takes a great deal of pride in her craft, but similar to the other members of the community at La Marqueta, she is also very supportive of her fellow artists and vendors. On the back wall of her stall is a shelf she calls the “Artisan’s Bodega Exchange” where she showcases the work of her neighbors - from jewelry to books and much more. According to Mercedes, there is a tremendous sense of camaraderie at La Marqueta, and she feels that the community is in many ways a kind of family.