If not for the mounds of snow proving otherwise, people shopping on 9th Street south of Washington Avenue, and weaving in and out north of Washington Ave., as well, could easily have imagined that they were in Mexico, and not Philadelphia’s Italian Market.
Little Mexico, actually, would seem more apt when describing this corridor; it separates the traditional Italian shops like DiBrunos Bros. and the Spice Corner north of Washington Avenue from the notorious cheese steak rivals Pat’s and Gino’s at the southern most end of the strip, where 9th Street intersects Passyunk Avenue—a crooked and somewhat elusive spot to tourists because of the way it winds across the city on a slanted angle.
With restaurants like Fiesta Acapulco, La Lupe, Moctezuma, Domingo’s, and the Taqueria—as well as grocery stores like Tepeyag (which offers fresh produce), Las Lomas Bakery, Marco’s Fish and Crab, San Andre’s, and the El Pueblo and Los Amigos Meat Markets—the strip responds to a large cross-section of dining and dietary needs. Then of course there’s Envio’s Despaqueria and El General Store, for clothing and other household supplies. There’s even a bicycle shop. And when it comes to music, there’s a wide variety available at either Trans Mex Musical or Paco Records.
The Mexican side of the market does evoke a certain old world nostalgia but there are still modern services like those offered at Envio’s Internet; there’s a place to get one’s hair done at El Mixto, and romantic gestures can be made in the form of lively floral arrangements aglow with color available at El Detalle, the Mexican Flower and Gift Shop. As for recreation, there’s even a place to play pool and other games at Cristo Rey. And who could resist the sweet aroma wafting from Las Lomas Bakery, which sells traditional Mexican cakes, among other delicacies.
Although bustling with activity today, its corridor was desolate, deserted storefront after deserted storefront only a decade ago.
As many long time business owners like Mariella Esposito of Fante’s have attested, the decline on the southern half of 9th Street began in the mid-seventies and early eighties with the closure of nearby factories, when its workers no longer shopped in the markets to and from work. Changes in the nuclear family, such as both parents working full time hours—and shopping in supermarket chains to accommodate hectic schedules—also contributed to the southern half of the market’s decline.
"The stores opened one by one," explained Dominick Crimi of Cappuccio Meats, of how the present concentration of Mexican run business began gradually. Crimi, like many other members of the association, welcomes the efforts the Mexicans have made in revitalizing the corridor.
According to Crimi, some of the current Mexican proprietors took advantage of the fact that the former Italian hucksters no longer wanted to work the stalls on the northern half of the market. "So they rented the stands, saved money and used that money to open businesses along the block," Crimi explained.
"From Washington Avenue to Geno’s there was nothing," echoed Andres Hernandez who owns Moctezuma and has lived in the neighborhood long before opening his restaurant two and a half years ago. "People were assaulted there [because it was so barren]," added Hernandez.
Hernandez, like several of the other owners along strips such as Margarito Aguilar at the San Andres Market, Marcos Tlacopilco of Marcos’ Fish and Crab, as well as Alejandro Boutista at Las Lomas, felt encouraged to open their businesses along 9th Street because of the growing Mexican presence.
For example, "there were five other Mexican restaurants when I opened," said Hernandez, "now there are four more."
But having their fellow countrymen nearby didn’t make their ventures any less challenging. Take the experiences of Hernandez and Tlacopilco of Marcos’ Fish and Crab, for instance. When both immigrated to the U.S., neither could speak the language beyond a few words.
"I learned English because I wanted to learn it," said Hernandez. But the process for him was slow. After moving to Philadelphia in 1999, he took a front-of-the-house position in at a pizzeria. One of his co-workers, of Puerto Rican descent, was fluent in English. "I would ask him what something meant," said Hernandez, explaining that every day he would make himself learn two or three new words until he eventually gained a solid hold of the language.
The pizzeria was also the place where Hernandez learned about the front-of-the-house operations for a restaurant. Simultaneously, his father, employed as a chef at an Italian restaurant, learned all he needed to know about an eatery’s back-of-the-house operations. His father is now the chef at Moctezuma.
Tlacopilco, also determined to learn English, took courses at the Community College of Philadelphia, in language and in a program offered for Hispanic business owners.
Having owned Marco’s Fish and Crab for the past six years, he has worked there for the last ten.
"This place was my school," said Tlacopilco. "I didn’t know anything about fish before. But here, I learned the names of fish, how to cut them."
Tlacopilco also learned some hard lessons about where to buy the fish. Some of the providers for the Philadelphia Fish market that he initially worked with would try to cheat him. "They would say, ‘you out there, you mean nothing,’" Tlacopilco explained, adding that he has begun to work with fish markets in New York and Maryland.
Although the southern end of 9th Street has a direct geographic connection to the Italian Market, many of its owners aren’t formally involved in the 9th Street Business Association.
"We have some who have joined the association," explained its president, Emilio Mignucci of the DiBrunos Bros. of how Los Amigos Meat, Los Tasquits De Puebla, Moctezuma restaurant, the Acapulco Restaurant, and El Detalle have joined. "We are expecting more to do so in the next year."
"Their presence," Mignucci continued, "has created an awareness for good Mexican food and I feel like this market has given us a platform to learn more about the authenticity of it."
It’s a learning process that Hernandez can corroborate. "When Americans come in here asking for hard shell tacos, we have to say, ‘no, hard shell tacos are not authentic Mexican food. This isn’t Taco Bell.’"
Instead, Hernandez serves the food of his Aztec forefathers: beans, rice, chicken, beef or pork, and cheese with burrito wraps prepared with or without extra spices.
Though it isn’t as though many of the Mexican owners don’t want to officially join. The obstacle, in many cases, results from language barriers.
A lot of owners just don’t know the language well enough, explained Tlacopilco, adding that he would not only like to join, but has attended some meetings to learn more about the market’s concerns.
Because after all, the market, like the traffic at Alejandro Boutista’s Las Lomas Bakery, which he describes as frequented by "whites, Hispanics, blacks and Asians," truly is for everyone to enjoy because it helps demonstrate Philadelphia’s amazing cultural fabric.