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La Marqueta: The Puerto Rican’s Past, New York City’s Present, And the Multiethnic Future

La Marqueta: The Puerto Rican’s Past, New York City’s Present, And the Multiethnic Future

By Luis Machuca |

Imagine for a moment that you could sink your teeth into a delicacy that has the ability to transcend space and transport you to a tropical island.  That’s the kind of marvelous treasure that La Marqueta has to offer.  La Marqueta is a marketplace and retailer established in 1936 by Mayor Laguardia located under the Metro North train line between 111th and 116th streets and Park Avenue.  Recognized as the ‘heart’ of New York’s Puerto Rican culture, it is strategically situated in “El Barrio,” the city’s historically designated section for the Hispanic demographic.  La Marqueta continues to be visited by Puerto Ricans from around the city and remains a place to partake in some of the island’s traditional foods and produce. Endearingly referred to as a “slice of the island,” this space holds approximately 8-10 vendors that operate out of stalls, and sell everything from pastries and art to hand-crafted jewelry.  Its importance as a New York City historical site is exemplified by its inclusion in literary works that emphasize La Marqueta’s significance as a link to a homeland far removed but never forgotten.

Guillermo Cotto-Thorner’s novel Manhattan Tropics, written in 1951 when La Marqueta was thriving, is a prime example of such a literary work.* Written in Spanish and showcasing the New York City migrant experience, Manhattan Tropics tells the story of Juan Marcos Villalobos, a Puerto Rican émigré who comes to New York to stay with friends of the family in pursuit of the American ideal at the height of the city’s Latinization.  Upon landing in America, he is led about by his friend Antonio who introduces him to the city’s scenery, trying to acclimatize him by showcasing the emerging Puerto Rican foothold in the city’s landscape.  Antonio reveals:

We feel that this part of the city is ours.  Look at the signs on the stores: “La Fe,” “La Mallorquina,” “El Nuevo Gardel,” “El Atomico,” “Las Tres Marias.”  It’s endless […] they’re all puro latino!  From time to time you’ll see a little shop run by a Jew, an Irishman or an Italian, but you’ll notice that even these people know a bit of Spanish.

Although quickly feeling the pangs of homesickness, Juan Marcos is assuaged by the reintroduction to his native cuisine. As is customary in the culture, Finí, Antonio’s wife, prepares a dinner for her guest, the ingredients of which presumably came from La Marqueta. The significance of food and its way of assuaging the nostalgic soul is firmly established in a passage in which Juan Marcos comments after arriving to Antonio’s house:

It also smelt of Puerto Rico.  Chicken with rice, kidney beans, avocado salad, large fleshy olives, slices of fried plantain, guava paste with soft white cheese and black coffee blended their aromas in a symphony of nostalgia for the absent country.  Juan Marcos devoured his meal like a starving man, without looking up from his plate.  He had believed he was very far from Puerto Rico, but now he discovered at a distance of countless miles that he was again on a patch of his beloved turf.

La Marqueta has always been preeminently heralded as a marker of ‘Nuyorican’ (a meshing of New York City and Puerto Rican cultures) identity.  Originally known as the Park Avenue Retail Market, it was founded in order to eliminate mostly Jewish and Irish pushcart vendors on the street and emphasized a push for sanitary conditions and fresher produce (“Brobeck Outdoor Food Markets Are Moving Indoors”). With the dispersal of these groups to other areas of the city and the influx of Puerto Ricans into East Harlem, La Marqueta soon became an economic base for Puerto Rican commercial efforts, at its height accommodating close to 500 vendors (“3 Old World Markets”).  Despite this former recognition as a place for social and festive congregation, La Marqueta has slowly faded into the backdrop of a city inundated with new migrant groups and supplemental commercial centers where one can readily find the once rare specialty products from the island.  Efforts to rejuvenate La Marqueta are presently ongoing with special attention being given by legislators in union with private firms and special interest groups such as La Marqueta Retona.

One of the prevailing feelings that I had while visiting La Marqueta was pride.  I felt as though I was visiting one of the last vestiges of the social, economic, and political clout that Puerto Rican migrants enjoyed for the better part of 50 years.  Prior to the arrival of Dominicans, Columbians, Mexicans and Hondurans to the city in greater numbers, Puerto Ricans enjoyed a dominant presence in New York that worked towards forging their own imprint on the city. La Marqueta was the living proof of Puerto Rican economic sustainability and influence.  I can vividly recall times in my childhood when my mother, who went ritualistically to La Marqueta with my aunt, dragged me along to help her carry the overflowing bags they carted away.  I hated going with them because they seemed to purposely prolong their shopping trip, and I didn’t understand it then, but now I think that it was a way to savor the connection to their homeland for as long as possible.

La Marqueta’s value to the Puerto Rican culture in New York cannot be overstated.  As relayed by Cotto-Thorner in Manhattan Tropics, the Nuyorican often “feels himself under the constant threat of losing his language and traditions.”  It’s sad to visit La Marqueta presently, as a shell of its former illustrious self, recalling what it represented to Puerto Ricans, to New York City, and taking into account the potential promise it still holds.  However, partaking in the exquisite cuisine and the periodic gatherings that still take place at La Marqueta, particularly on Saturdays, can hardly be called a dull experience.  Revitalization efforts are ongoing and will one day hopefully serve to elevate this establishment to its appropriate place as the core of the present- day diverse and multi-ethnic sector of New York City commonly known as El Barrio.

The author’s video tribute to La Marqueta: A Historic Journey

* Thanks to the work of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund and literary scholars such as J. Bret Maney, gems like Manhattan Tropics have been republished in English to join the vast trove of American literary expression. These efforts further our appreciation of New York City’s expansive non-English heritage and promote commemoration of sites like La Marqueta as vital additions to the city’s landscape. The recognition that most literature marries fictional characters with real-world places or events validates our study of literary texts in conjunction with the analysis of sites like La Marqueta.

Luis Machuca is an English major at Lehman College with plans of becoming a vocational counselor.  He enjoys raising his two children and taking advantage of New York City’s many historical sites in order to promote engaging educational opportunities for them.

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