Friday, May 2, 2008

"Mercado Corona, a vibrant market with tales to tell"

(Published May 3, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Calle Santa Monica, a few blocks from the downtown cathedral and running perpendicular to Avenida Hidalgo, is choked with foot traffic at midday and smells of roasted meat, spices and strawberries mellowing in the sun. A blue cement awning provides shade for the peripheral vendors at one of Guadalajara’s most historic markets, the Mercado Corona, beckoning visitors inside.

Judging from the dogged faces of shoppers waiting in lines for rice and chili in bulk, none is too concerned that the ground on which they stand has been steeped in a Tapatio insurgent’s blood, swept by a mysterious epidemic, and held the ashes of its thrice-razed market predecessors. They are, instead, picking through bruised mangoes, resting on stools to munch on freshly fried tacos dorados, and gulping down aguas frescas of mango and plum.

The Mercado Corona is ripe for exploring: it’s a less daunting version, with more specialized products, of the Mercado Libertad or the Mercado Abastos. The focus is food. Some cheap clothes, jeans and hair products are for sale, but the Sunday Santa Teresita open-air tianguis might be more suited for browsing those items.

The historic indoor market covers two floors and one city block. Fresh bread – bolillos, pan dulce, and wrapped cookies – is the main spread found along the building’s perimeter, as well as honey sold in plastic jars.

Here on the edge, fruit is also sold, but better prices are found elsewhere. Vendors benignly hound customers with calls of “Que te doy?” and “Que ocupas?” as they make their way indoors.

Inside, a thousand scents converge at once: sour, salty cotija cheese, tongue and pork sides grilling on open comales, bitter dried herbs hanging from nails and sugar-sweet pineapples dripping from their bases.

In spite of considerable chaos around lunchtime when hungry passersby swarm the small indoor restaurants, the Mercado Corona enjoys a consistent peace compared to its existence in previous centuries.

The market, named after the assassinated general Ramon Corona, was patriotically inaugurated on September 15, 1891, only to be burned to the ground in 1910 by revolutionary fires.

After two more reconstructions and two more deadly conflagrations, it occurred to city officials to rebuild with cement, and since 1962, has stoically sat in its current flameproof state.

The original grounds, long before a market was ever conceived, belonged in the mid-1500s to the bishop Cipriano de Nava, who lived in an old house on the land. In 1573 he founded a school for girls called Santa Catalina de Siena, which was converted a few years later to a convent. Years later, the ayuntamiento bought up the estate and there built the Hospital San Miguel.

A strange, unidentified epidemic hit the city just after the turn of the 18th century, and the hospital, filled to capacity with sick patients, needed help. At the same time, a religious order called the Bethlehemites were seeking asylum, and thus commanded care at the forsaken hospital, appropriating the facilities after the epidemic dissipated. A more modern hospital was built elsewhere in the late 1700s and San Miguel was officially abandoned.

The site’s incarnation as a market began in the early 1800s, as a haphazard tianguis began to spring up in the area. Guadalajara’s ayuntamiento decided to build an official market designed in a popular French style, gaining profit by charging vendors taxes.

It was on that very stage where Jose Antonio Torres, the illustrious Mexican insurgent who fought Spanish royalist troops until his capture in 1812, was executed. The particular method was a testament to his crimes against the Spanish state: the Independence hero was hanged, dismembered (each limb carried to a different town), and decapitated, after which officials displayed his head for 40 days. Once Mexico gained independence from Spain, the market was appropriately named “Mercado Independencia.”

Today the only blood shed on the grounds belongs to slaughtered livestock, splayed and pared on cutting blocks behind glass shields. But the spot’s tumultuous story will remain a legacy to a righteous figure in Mexico’s history.

At the heart of the covered building on the first floor, several competing women with giant covered baskets, elevated by stools and crates, broadcast their product with earsplitting repetitions of “Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir! Calientitos! Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir!” The women, selling much loved tacos de canasta with potato, bean, and pork fillings, dish out the soft tacos onto plastic plates which customers douse with thick sauces, shredded cabbage, and pickled nopal and carrots.

Wandering up the sloped walkway to the second floor, visitors pass stands selling baskets of all shapes and small tokens given out at baptisms, weddings and anniversary parties.

Upstairs is an herbarium of sorts, stands and walls piled high with dried plants used as remedies for various ailments. Among them are flor de manita (calms the nerves), cola de caballo (good for arthritis and osteoporosis), and an ostensibly cure-all mix called el boldo consisting of chopped barks and grass, boiled into a bitter tea (aids digestion). Thick, arm-length cactus stems, de-thorned and stacked like bones, are said to benefit patients suffering from cancer.

It is also upstairs where prayer candles and assorted “curative” soaps and oils are found.

For those seeking the best prices for fruits, vegetables and any dried fare – rice, beans, chilis, jamaica flowers, peanuts, and sugar – the streets surrounding the indoor market hold the most promise.

On Calle Zaragoza between Independencia and Juan Manuel one can buy fresh local fruit by the kilo at open-front stores where staff hand-fill orders one at a time. One shop in particular, situated in the middle of the block, is always packed with customers and has the best prices, hands-down. Following the taco stand rule, it’s hard to go wrong: the more customers, the more turnover, guarantees fresher product.

The Mercado Corona is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Most buyers frequent the stands around lunchtime (early afternoon). To avoid crowds and sun, arrive in the morning after produce is delivered; come with a large shopping bag and an empty stomach.