The Cortez family knows how to throw a fiesta. That was evident Thursday night as 2,000 people brought El Mercado and the surrounding streets to life in a way too seldom seen in San Antonio. The occasion was a memorable one: the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Cortez family business by patriarch Pedro Cortez. Four generations of the family, including Pedro’s widow Cruz, were on hand to lead the festivities.
I wasn’t the only one who felt like he had been transported to a Mexican market scene. Mariachi greeted arriving guests, most of whom were holding a cerveza, margarita, or paleta within minutes of arrival. Smoke and steam and a mix of inviting aromas rose from colorful food stations where servers offered cochinita pibil, enchiladas de pollo, and other savory street eats. Cabritos turned golden on spits over an open fire. Judging by demand, the fiery tacos de cabrito might have been the night’s greatest culinary success.
It was the parade of people that mattered the most. El Mercado was as activated as any Mexican market teeming with people. What would it take to make San Antonio’s Mercado as consistent a draw as markets south of the border? The answer, I believe, lies in a combination of public and private investment with both the Cortez family, other area businesses, and the City of San Antonio, all joined by shared ambitions for a greater near-Westside.
A combination of infrastructure improvements and a newfound commitment to cultural authenticity could make El Mercado the kind of destination that locals and visitors alike frequent, and that leads to crowds like Thursday night’s forming on a more consistent basis.
The state’s recognition of the Zona Cultural in 2015 and Bexar County’s San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, which broke ground earlier this month, represent two key turning points in making possible the once unthinkable. The Weston Urban public-private partnership with the City and Frost Bank promises a revitalization of multiple blocks on the western edge of downtown, as well as the addition of hundreds of downtown residential units. The San Antonio Independent School District’s ambitious, if still developing, plans to transform the Fox Tech High School property into a new campus of magnet, in-district charters and a new central office is another key piece of the puzzle.
The City of San Antonio has tentatively earmarked $36 million in 2017 bond money for the San Pedro Creek project and another $43 million for Zona Cultural improvements, including a redeveloped West Commerce Street that will give pedestrians and others a safer, more inviting passage from downtown to El Mercado. The lack of public parking, we hope, will be addressed, too.
What people experience once they arrive at El Mercado needs to change, too. San Antonio’s downtown residential population will have to continue to grow for some years before there are enough people to make possible a traditional market with meat, fish, produce, fruit, and other edibles, including food stalls. All the great cities I know, from Vancouver and Seattle to Stockholm and Florence to Mexico City and Los Angeles have great public food markets. We should aspire to one day boast the best expression of a traditional Mexican market in the United States.
The quality of goods sold at El Mercado needs to improve. San Antonio is ideally positioned to be the U.S. city where people come to buy authentic Mexican folk art and traditional artesanías. Our family still uses blankets woven on Mexican looms that we watched being made 40 years ago. Even now, they show little wear. Some serve to keep guests warm on cold nights in the Hill Country, other serve as handsome and durable throw rugs. Hand-crafted masks that adorn our walls tell the story of our years living abroad and our travels to other countries. A good market could bring all those things to people here who would like to shop for such goods without traveling to the source.
Many people would happily spend more in San Antonio if we had a curated market supplied by smart buyers with direct relationships with Mexican and Central American artists and crafts workers. The Briscoe Western Art Museum has demonstrated rather convincingly that a Native American craft market once a year will draw crowds. A Mexican and Latin American market could do so year-around, especially if a City-sponsored program brought artists and crafts workers here to demonstrate their talents and techniques as guest artists.
We might not be able to transform El Mercado overnight, but higher quality shops and stalls could be introduced incrementally over time.
Local artists could be brought into the planning process and invited to explore ways to create a more dynamic market for their own works. The City’s well-intentioned efforts to redevelop La Villita demonstrates what a difficult task it is to plan and execute change, especially in places people can’t easily access via different transportation options. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try again. I’d rather fail trying than not try at all, and I feel the same way about our City staff. Credit them for trying, even if the outcome was not the desired one. Let’s try again.
The community of Latino artists and those who support them represent an important and growing constituency in San Antonio’s urban core. Based on my own friendships and contacts, I would say the community is not willing to see Centro de Artes abandoned now that it’s management by Texas A&M-San Antonio has come to represent another marriage worthy of annulment. Walking from Mi Tierra and Viva Villa with colleagues Thursday night, the connection between El Mercado and Centro de Artes seemed seamless because of the human bridge connecting all these places.
The Cortez family’s legacy is a powerful one, and one can only hope for an invitation to the 100th anniversary celebration. The Cortez family story is a unique and authentic weaving nearly a century in the making of individual character and aspiration, hard work and good service, ambiente familiar, and a generational love of food, art, tradition, and family. That’s a sturdy foundation upon which to build.
The goal should be to honor the long-ago dreams and determination of Pedro and Cruz and fully realize the possibilities as San Antonio revives some of its most historic Westside places and spaces.
Top image: A composite of multiple portraits made of employees that have worked at Mi Tierra for a number of years. Photographs by Scott Ball.