LIFESTYLE

Philadelphia's iconic Italian Market transformed by influx of Mexican migrants

Many people first glimpsed the Italian Market on 9th Street in Philadelphia when a has-been boxer named Rocky Balboa used to go running past the pasta shops and butchers. But in the last decade, the area has been transformed into a Little Mexico.

On weekends, the Capitolio Park, a playground in the market area, teems with Hispanic children playing right across from Geno’s Steaks – a restaurant famous for its authentic cheesesteak sandwiches as well as for having refused, some years back, to serve anyone who didn't speak English. 

Down the street customers can either shop for Italian sausages at DiBrunos, one of the earliest Italian establishments in the corridor, or they can visit Tres Amigos, a Mexican butcher shop that sells fresh chorizo and fried pork rinds.

Inside Tres Amigos, Tom Wyatt, an at-large candidate for City Council, pays a visit.

“The story of this market is the story of immigrants. It’s the same wonderful song but just a different verse,” Wyatt said about the Mexican business owners who have opened up stores in the corridor.

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The Italian Market is the longest continuously-running outdoor market in the United States, but in the late 1980s, it began to go into a long economic decline.

“It was built by Italian immigrants who wanted to earn, but since then those generations have found different ways of employment,” Councilman Mark Squila, whose district covers the market area, told Fox News Latino.

Nearly 30 years ago, they started leaving behind empty storefronts.

“Thank God [other immigrants] came around, or the block would be empty,” says Joe, an Italian-American business owner in the market who declined to provide a last name.

Mexicans and other immigrant groups, chief among them Vietnamese people, have moved into the area and are continuing its rich immigrant tradition.

“I’ve spent many years living and working hard here. I already belong here,” said Gabriel Ramos, who left Mexico 10 years ago and now manages a vegetable stand on the same street where that “Rocky” scene was filmed.  

According to the Census, the Mexican population in Philadelphia has grown by 148 percent since 2000 while the total population for the city has only grown by 1 percent. 

More than one in three students at the nearby Andrew Jackson elementary school on South 12th Street is now Hispanic. Along with that population growth, retail shops and services that cater to the Latino community – like money transfer shops, bakeries and tortilla factories – have opened their doors.

“I don’t call it the Italian Market no more,” says Juan “Ace” Delgado, a community-relations officer who patrols the area and helps Mexican business owners apply for licenses and services.

Councilman Squila, despite incidents such as the one at Geno's, believes that the biggest problem immigrant business owners face is not discrimination but rather poor access to government services. He blames language barriers for that and works to help people increase access and adherence to sanitation services and licenses and inspection requirements.

Mexican businesses and traditions continue to grow and take hold here.  

For the past nine years, the Carnaval de Puebla has been held every May not far from the Italian Market. It is one of the biggest Poblano carnivals organized outside Mexico. The daylong carnival brings together live bands, dancers with elaborate costumes of historical figures and, of course, mole Poblano to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, where Mexican liberals won a victory on May 5, 1862, over the French forces backing Emperor Maximilian.

As the procession winds down toward the Italian Market, residents sit down on the stoops and watch the parade.

“I love it. It’s good to see something different for a change,” says Laura Verdi who has lived in the area for over 60 years.

Milady Nazir is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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