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Nestled between the Duwamish waterway and a dynamic business area is one of South Park’s hidden gems — El Mercadito Farmer’s Market.

Distinctly Latin American music permeates El Mercadito Farmer’s Market, a small area bustling with vendors from many backgrounds. “El Mercadito” translates to “The Little Market” in English.

Visitors need only look to the first stand near the market entrance to see the origins of the space: a neighbor-led effort to provide free food to people facing food insecurity.

The stand is brimming with produce and pantry staples often used in Latin American cuisine, from the tomatillos and chilies needed to make salsa verde to the corn flour used to make fresh tortillas.

But before it was El Mercadito Farmer’s Market, it was just El Mercadito, a market-style food bank led by South Park neighbors. Mónica Pérez, executive director of El Mercadito said the market was created to provide immediate food assistance to people struggling during a pandemic with no end in sight.

“El Mercadito is an act of social justice,” said Pérez, who has been an influential figure in the South Park Latino community for nearly a decade.

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Last month, El Mercadito grew into El Mercadito Farmer’s Market: a new neighborhood tradition with local artists, artisans, small farmers and free produce for those in need.

Vendors like Martha Cabello share foods and creations not often seen in Seattle’s other farmers markets. She sells her crafts, artisanal clothing, accessories, jewelry, and other items crafted by Indigenous women from Mexico.

A few tables down from Cabello is Mayra Sibrian and her indulgent pan dulce. She offers Latin American sweet breads ranging from Salvadorean quesadillas to classic conchas made with cinnamon and anise.

Mayra Sibrian, propietaria de Selva Central Goods, muestra algunos de los panes dulces que vende en El Mercadito. En la parte superior izquierda tiene pan de coco; a la derecha, una concha; y en la parte inferior izquierda, una quesadilla, un rico bizcocho hecho de queso, cubierto con semillas de sésamo. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

What began as an endeavor to alleviate hunger has transformed into a full-fledged farmers market aimed at amplifying the work and passions of people of color. The market is held from 3 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday at the South Park Plaza located at 8456 Dallas Ave. S.

Local organizers understand the ways the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, Pérez said, and the desire to give people in South Park and elsewhere access to resources was “instinctive.”

South Park is a U.S. Department of Agriculture designated food desert, meaning access to healthy and affordable food is limited. USDA’s Economic Research Service defines a food desert as an area where the poverty rate is at 20% or more and at least 33% of the population lives more than 1 mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. Although there are now more grocery stores and restaurants near the area than there were a decade ago, challenges for low-income families persist, Pérez said.

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“We shouldn’t need to leave to find food access. We should have access to it from our own backyards,” she said.

Tomates, tomatillos y calabazas están disponibles para la venta en el puesto de Salsa de la Vida, una cooperativa agrícola urbana que cultiva una gran variedad de vegetales utilizando prácticas agrícolas sustentables y productos de medicina tradicional en Marra Farms en South Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

Coté Soerens, who helped create the market, provided several of the avenues needed to make El Mercadito a reality. Soerens co-founded the Urban Fresh Food Collective, which sponsored El Mercadito in an effort to increase access to fresh food in South Park.

Heightened food insecurity brought on by the pandemic worried her and her neighbors, Soerens said. They moved quickly to provide culturally relevant foods and foster an environment that reduced the stigma of receiving help, Soerens said.

After securing a partnership with Food Lifeline, a distributor for food banks based in South Park, community leaders set up shop behind Soerens’ business, Resistencia Coffee. Soerens noted the irony of Food Lifeline, a prominent food distributor in Western Washington, being in a food desert.

The market had been a “dream” of the collective for years, so to see it standing is an indescribable feeling, Soerens said.

Elena Cortes ofrece tomatillos gratuitos en El Mercadito, un mercado de agricultores que comenzó como una iniciativa para brindar comida latinoamericana y culturalmente relevante a los residentes de South Park. La comida en esta mesa es gratis para cualquier persona que la necesite. La mayor parte de la comida gratuita es donada por Food Lifeline en South Park. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

Organizers found direct connections built on trust were key to making contact with the “hard to reach,” Pérez said. Efforts included sharing information through word-of-mouth and cultivating an existing network of families that organizers knew were low-income. Organizers would also invite them to be part of the work, Pérez said.

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“Nos pusimos las pilas,” Pérez said, a phrase common in Latin America that literally means “to put on your batteries,” but is used to convey the need to adapt to a situation through ingenuity.

“The approach wasn’t to say ‘we’re here and come,’ it was for us to meet them where they were to reduce any uncertainty or shame accepting help,” Pérez said.

El Mercadito Farmer’s Market has expanded outreach efforts, now delivering food twice a month to people in South Park and beyond who can’t make it to the market.

“We packed up some of our cars and went to them. We wanted to make sure everyone had food on the table,” Pérez said.

But organizers didn’t want their assistance to only reach Latino families. They made sure to extend a helping hand to other communities facing hardships in the area, including bringing food to homeless encampments near South Park, Pérez said.

When the food bank began, organizers had difficulty connecting with people who needed food, Pérez said. But as the effort grew and the pandemic continued, demand for food increased, Pérez said.

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El Mercadito se convirtió en un mercado de agricultores repleto con verduras y frutas gratuitas para las familias que no tienen acceso seguro a comida durante la pandemia. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

“Sometimes you have more donations than people using them,” Soerens said, pointing to a disconnect between people in need and volunteers looking to help. Being attuned to the needs of a community is necessary, Soerens said, and that can often only be done by members of that community.

About 18 volunteers helped bring success to an initiative born out of “love” and “compassion for people,” Pérez said. “It’s not just about offering tangible resources but helping people flesh out leadership abilities,” she said.

In fact, many volunteers at the market once stood on the other side of the stands, waiting to receive food assistance.

Luz Imelda Casillas is one of the volunteers who felt a sense of duty to pay back the kindness she witnessed. She began volunteering in March of 2020 and continues to help at the farmers market.

El Mercadito provides her a place to socialize with her neighbors while fulfilling a mission to help people facing food insecurity, she said.

Marisa Figueroa, propietaria de Electric Habitat Brines and Sauces, muestra jalapeños en escabeche a Jess Bacon, a la izquierda, en su puesto en El Mercadito. Figueroa vive cerca del mercado y lleva su producto a su puesto en un vagón que tira por la calle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

Casillas feels a sense of fulfillment when she sees the trust people place on her and other volunteers, and when she notices familiar faces returning to the market.

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Building on the market-style food bank to support artists and vendors seemed like a natural next step, Pérez said.

“The principal idea of expanding for us was giving, serving and growing together as a community,” she said.

Eli, al fondo, toca música; Marcus Henderson, a la izquierda, acepta dinero de un cliente; Masra Clamoungou, segunda desde la derecha, observa la escena. Eli y Marcus colaboran con Black Star Farmers y Masra con Black Farmers Collective. Todos ellos son agricultores que venden sus verduras en El Mercadito y piden a la gente que pague lo que pueda. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

Organizers reached out to Marcus Henderson of the Black Star Farmers, who has now set up shop in El Mercadito, his first farmers market. He sets up alongside two other farmers from the Black Farmers Collective, Hannah Wilson and Masra Clamoungou.

Black Star Farmers is focused on social justice, including “land back” sovereignty efforts to return the control of the land to Indigenous people, Henderson said.

The trio asks people to pay what they can for the zucchini, lettuce and other produce they offer.

Black Star Farmers y Black Farmers Collective son agricultores que ofrecen verduras en El Mercadito y piden a la gente que pague lo que pueda. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times).

“As people we are rooted in the land,” he said. “The land is where all of our resources, our livelihoods are — everything that sustains us comes from it — and to separate us from that is an injustice,” Henderson said.

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Small farmers can’t afford to take financial risks to grow and it’s hard for many to figure out how to be successful selling at farmers markets where there’s no guarantee everything will sell, he said. But organizers for El Mercadito have helped eliminate some of those barriers by helping vendors get their permits and paperwork, Henderson added.

“BIPOC farmers are growing … and now have an opportunity to make it our livelihood,” he said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. “Removing the barriers is the first part.”

Marketgoers can participate in a literal exchange of goods as much as an exchange of culture, Pérez said.

El Mercadito has become a heartfelt space for community members to gather, and it’s been heartwarming to see how much support there has been, said Crystal Brown, the market’s interim executive director.

A few weeks ago, on a particularly chilly morning, Brown sat on her porch clutching a tea she had made from herbs purchased at El Mercadito Farmer’s Market.

“It was just an immensely beautiful experience to know that I was supporting a neighbor of mine,” Brown said. “My tea herbs came straight from my neighbor’s garden.”

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When Brown describes what South Park feels like, she says it’s in many ways like Sesame Street: a beautiful collection of people from different backgrounds all living in a cohesive environment.

People in South Park love to greet one another while walking their dogs or taking a stroll, which is a welcome change from the stereotypical icy Seattle that holds true in other neighborhoods, she said. The neighborhood is tucked away from the rest of the world, sandwiched in between highways and maybe, Brown said, that’s why there’s this openness between neighbors.

“I’ve lived in New York, I lived in LA, and in Seattle, but there’s nothing like this neighborhood,” Brown said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated the market hours were 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The market runs from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.