Deep Roots

Pilsen Market 1

Pilsen Community Market: A celebration of diversity where community thrives.

By Franky Piña

Pilsen Community Market celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018. It was founded in Pilsen, a neighborhood in Chicago that has become a historical landmark since it has been a port of entry for a rich diversity of immigrants. At the downing of the 20th Century, Pilsen was inhabited by Czechs, Poles, Germans, Albanians, among other immigrants from Eastern Europe, yet due to a transformation of immigration patterns to the United States, it turned into one of the most representative Mexican neighborhoods of the Midwest since the 1960s.

Assuming an identity marked by color and murals that transformed the landscape, Mexicans started settling in as Europeans moved out to the suburbs. It is said that Pilsen was constructed by the Czechs and painted by the Mexicans. Not long ago, Pilsen was deemed one of “The 12 Coolest Neighborhoods Around the World” by Forbes magazine. The source of its coolness emerges from a cultural Renaissance that is being experienced on its streets, theatres, galleries, restaurants, trendy bars and at its National Museum of Mexican Art. All of it is an expression of an innovative immigrant culture.

Pilsen Community Market

The Pilsen Community Market represents a microcosm of the neighborhood as a whole. At the same time, it is one of the only two farmers markets in Chicago that operates as a non-for-profit organization. Here, art creators, virtuous cooks, hardworking farmers, agricultural laborers and beekeepers sell the product of their work. Nonetheless, El Mercadito has gone further than being a place to buy organic products, food and art crafts. It fosters a much broader social impact by 1) easing the access to healthy and sustainable food; 2) promoting culinary arts and culture; and 3) conducting nutrition, health and art workshops.

Out of the 25 or so weekly participants, 21 are women. The majority are Latinas proposing an alternative economic model to their household economy. Two wonderful examples of success are embodied by Marcelina Hernández, chef and owner of Ivolina’s Tamales, and by María Parra, agricultural worker and owner of Parra Produce.

Pilsen Market 2Besides her perseverant spirit and unique seasoning and recipes, Hernández offers vegan options cooked with organic products, which is her signature. On her behalf, Parra is one of those strong and determined women who loves working with the soil and under the sun. She worked on the fields most of her life, but later involved herself into trading her products.

At different points in time, both Hernández and Parra approached El Mercadito and from a couple of sales carts, their businesses became achieving enterprises. Hernández became the most widely recognized Tamal Lady in town, appearing in prestigious publications. Today, in addition to being a member of the Pilsen Community Market, she has her own restaurant. Parra decided to acquire her own produce business and launched a line of organic products.

One could say that El Mercadito equals the sum of its parts: a business incubator, a space for artistic expression, and a promotor of health, food sustainability and education. However, the Pilsen Community Market is much more than that. It is a place that opens its doors for community to come together and celebrate diversity in all senses of the word. Visit for Pilsen Community Market events and times.

Franky Piña is a cultural advocate, transgender activist and writer. She co-founded literary magazines in Chicago, such as Fe de erratas, contratiempo and El BeiSMan. As an organizer, Piña has promoted Pilsen Fest, an annual celebration of arts and culture. Lately she has been involved with promoting experimental writing spaces and means to exhibit and support the work of women in the arts, culture and politics.


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