One of my favorite things about living in Mexico City is the territorial diversity. From the heart of the city stretching to the outlying suburbs, there are an assortment of lifestyles, history, scenery and then some. No matter how much time you spend here – no matter what you think you’ve seen – Mexico always surprises you. In an effort to get to know my new surroundings, I made it a goal to visit all 21 of the Barrios Mágicos (Magical Neighborhoods) of Mexico City. There are some that I visit frequently, like Roma-Condesa and Cuajimalpa; and others that I had never heard of, like Mixquic, that are just a delight to explore. In this adventure, I marked off my tenth magic barrio, La Merced.
Located a short distance just southeast Mexico’s Historic Center, La Merced is primarily known for its gigantic market, the largest in the city (and some say in Latin America).The market’s main goodies are fresh fruits and veggies but as I looked a little deeper, I found items way beyond that! Being an important zone for the capital and their commerce, the area developed into its own charismatic neighborhood. With my tourist guide in hand (very gringo), I set out to discover the history and culture beyond the main attraction.
I started my tour a few blocks east of the market at Plaza Alonso Garcia Bravo. The plaza is a bit hidden by the large tent of vendors, but in the middle is a giant sculpture-fountain of four men in a canoe dedicated to Garcia Bravo. Bravo was a Spanish man who mapped out the outline of the city center we know today. In the plaza, I browsed some knock-off DVDs and ate a Mexican snack before continuing south down the street east of the plaza (which turns into several different names: Alhondiga, Talavera, & Jose Baez — very confusing). I was taken on a lovely journey of neoclassical architecture that continued past the Convento de la Merced –which I somehow literally passed and missed — and on to a pedestrian only walkway lined with benches and interesting statues. For me, this is where I felt the “magic” and culture of the La Merced barrio come to life. It was a very traditional feeling– the candy store on the corner, the intricate wall niches, and the pastel colored buildings with art deco balconies provided an old-fashion atmosphere.
The street is nicknamed Niño Dios after the important holiday, Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), where it is Mexican tradition to adorn and dress baby Jesus figures. Behind the statues meant to preserve the remembrance of this important holiday, I came across several shops filled with every ornament you can imagine to dress your baby Jesus: costumes, cribs, crowns and more! For some reason, this tradition always reminds me of Tallageda Nights when they talk about how they picture their Jesus.
Me? I picture my baby Jesus as an Aztec warrior.
Passing yet another main square, Plaza del Aguilita, where government campaigning was taking place, I was eager to finally make my way to the famous market. To be honest, despite being a staple locale, El Mercado de la Merced only first came to my attention after my Mom told me that Martha Stewart had gone for a visit on her last trip to Mexico City. With that being said, any hesitations I may have had on visiting this mega tianguis were left behind.
From the outside, the bustling street traffic and vendors make La Merced difficult to distinguish. I entered first through the connecting Mercado de las Flores (Flower Market). Figuring I would be captivated initially through the sense of smell, I was mistaken — all the flowers are actually fake! Instead, I was immediately blown away by the sight of all the colors; aisles and aisles of every type of flower arrangement you could think of– mixed in with bows, ribbons, gossamer, and all party decorations. I wanted to buy it all even though I had absolutely no use for it!
Navigating my way through the rainbow of fiesta supplies, La Merced opened up to a super complex of fresh meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits. Neatly constructed pyramids of limes, tomatoes, avacados, bananas and apples towered at every turn, and it didn’t end there. As I rounded the corner, mountains of candy, piñatas, and chiles led my way until I had spent all my money — seriously.
I finally navigated my way to the exit of the market and left with two bags full of the freshest produce accompanied by a deeper comprehension of the Mexican culture. After a visit to the Barrio Magico of La Merced, I was able to understand the importance of key commercial centers such as this one and the impact it has on society and its surroundings. This neighborhood will definitely go on my list of frequently visited areas in Mexico City and it I know that no matter how many times I may go, there will always be a surprise left waiting to be discovered!
A version of this post was originally featured on www.mexicotoday.org