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Nopales—green cactus paddles—stuffed with cheese and mushrooms sizzle on the grill. Burritos made of handmade tortillas stuffed with potatoes and green chile give off their spicy aroma. Pozole made with red chile-spiced broth and hearty kernels of white corn steams in large pot. The pre-Hispanic elements of the Mercado’s menu—cactus and corn and tortillas and beans, among other foods—are the foundation of a health initiative here aimed at promoting a healthy, traditional diet to a community deeply affected by obesity, diabetes and other health issues.
Reconnecting locals to their Mexican roots—starting with food—is the Mercado’s mission, says Rubí Orozco, who last year redesigned the menu at the Mercado’s cafeteria and daycare.
“There is a forgetting” that happens when people cross the border, she says. “The longer people are here, the worse their health outcomes are.”
The Mercado serves a neighborhood that has been through hard times. The Chamizal, as the neighborhood is known, never recovered from the shift of the clothing factories to Mexico (and later China) with the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Many of the women who worked in the industry lost their jobs and families are still struggling.
The Chamizal is one of the poorest zip codes in the U.S. Some 70 percent of residents do not have a high school diploma; 67 percent live in poverty. The median income in the area is $11,362, which reflects the kind of employment available: temporary or low-paid jobs or work in the informal economy.
Health is an issue. Twenty-four percent of El Paso adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A study of youth in the Chamizal neighborhood showed that a third are at risk for being overweight or obese.
As people immigrate and create new lives in the U.S., they often opt for the convenience of packaged and fast foods; the healthy ways of the past are left to memory, Orozco says.
That’s where the Mercado comes in. Orozco started by drastically changing the menu at the daycare, which serves 40 area children. She switched from a menu built on heat-and-serve, packaged foods to a menu dominated by fresh produce and notable for its use of Mesoamerican foods like amaranth, cactus, beans and herbs.
Reconnecting with Mexican tradition is critical, says Lorena Andrade, who runs the Mercado’s daycare.
“To us, as workers and as people in the community, when the women were getting laid off, we always said, ‘We don’t advance because of our culture, because we’re too Mexican,’” Andrade says. “With our health, they tell us the same thing: We have high blood pressure because we eat Mexican food.”
Andrade believes in debunking that myth.
“We think that the closer we go back to our heritage the healthier we will be,” she says.
In addition to healthy food initiatives, the Mercado is working to create employment opportunities by creating a space to sell the artisan wares of locals as well as indigenous groups native to northern Mexico. Pottery, clothing, baskets, jewelry and other goods are sold at stalls in the Mercado’s artisan market adjacent to the cafeteria.
The Mercado, which was founded by the local nonprofit La Mujer Obrera, has its problems, to be sure. The Mercado currently runs on grant funding, which comes and goes, and it is not yet self-sustaining. The hours are erratic. Sometimes the market has plenty of produce for shoppers; often it does not. And yet for a community struggling to find hope, cultural connection and economic opportunity, the Mercado holds promise.
“For some people, it’s like the link to Mexico,” said Sandra Iturbe, a local midwife who spends many weekends at the Mercado. “The food tastes like my mamma made it, and I like what the organization stands for. I believe in their mission.”
About the author:
Lauren Villagran is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.
The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.