On February 6, 2021, The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) celebrated the Grand Opening of ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo (the People’s Market) Initiative and Incubator. The inaugural celebration included guests from the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Aldermanic representatives, Main Street America, Somercor, and partner organizations like Sunshine Enterprises, BMO Harris Bank, Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce, and West Town Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo Initiative and Incubator grew organically when there arose the need to find indoor space for vendors who had been participating in the community pop ups. During the warmer months, these pop-ups were held outdoors along the Paseo Boricua. The PRCC took advantage of a timely opportunity when the space occupied by a former laundromat, which had sat unused for 10 years, began to undergo renovations – thanks to the City of Chicago’s Small Business Investment Fund (SBIF), a program of the Department of Planning and Development. This former laundromat shares a parking lot with and abuts the Municipal Supermarket on the corner of Division and Rockwell. The SBIF funds were provided to Municipal owner Ziad Farhan so that he could renovate the space, after a decade of neglect.
The ribbon cutting ceremony was performed outside, in spite of the inclement weather. Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning & Development, Mary O’Connor; Managing Deputy Commissioner Bureau of Economic Development, Chip Hasting; son of Municipal Owner, Maher Farhan; PRCC’s Business Initiatives Director and SBDC Director Carlos Bosques; and ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo Coordinator, Nadya Henríquez, all held the red ribbon while it was cut thus inaugurating the official opening.
Inside the new space, there was a palpable mix of excitement and euphoria among the 17 vendors who are part of the incubator. City of Chicago photographer, Walter Mitchell, captured people’s elation in his pictures, as guests strolled through the aisles of socially distanced vendors, the “Weperos” as they are called.
Director Carlos Bosques addressed the attendees and described how “the project was born as a result of the needs of entrepreneurs and micro business owners especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.” He continued, “The ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo is an innovative project where startups can begin selling their products as they formalize and grow their businesses with the support of PRCC’s business programs, like the Illinois Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and the Neighborhood Business Development Center (NBDC).”
Bosques added, “The Mercado is an example of how the intersectionality of resources and programs can create projects like this that encourage economic development in our communities. We are developing an economy that is sustainable and self-perpetuating”. The duration of the program is one year, after which, businesses will move into a brick and mortar or a coworking “retail” space.
PRCC’s Executive Director, José E. López stirred the crowd as he described the history behind the “Mercados” found in every “Plaza” (public square) in Latin America. The mercados not only provide a marketplace to buy products but also are an intrinsic part of the culture and history of every town in Latin America and the Caribbean, and therefore, a vivid reminder of our countries. That is the vision Director López has for visitors who enter the mercado — he hopes they will be transported to a different space, and learn more about Puerto Rican culture, art, gastronomy, and our identity.
Nonetheless, the mercado is not only for Puerto Rican vendors, as it is inclusive of other minorities like African Americans, Mexicans, and the LGBTQ community. “We want to maintain the Puerto Rican identity of our Paseo Boricua alive, but at the same time we want to support our fellow African Americans, Latinos, and LGBTQ participants in the achievement of their entrepreneurial dreams,” said López.
Guests were able to savor delicious Puerto Rican “quesitos” made by Chucherias Tropical Creations, virgin “coquito” (coconut milk drink) from Anita’s Coquito, delicious “empanadillas” (beef filled turnovers) from Janellies’ Kitchen, and special Puerto Rican “mazamorra” (coconut pudding) made by our own Executive Director, José López.
The Mercado offers a variety of products from its permanent WEPA vendors: Rochy’s Art, Eco Boutique by Alejandra, Chucherias Tropical Creations, Jibarito Maker, Borincanias, El Rescate Limbers, El Conuco Sofrito by Glenda Guzmán, Batter Up by Bry, Dr. Herbal’s Organic & Vegan Hair Care, Butters RX, Chicago Honey Truck, Butterfly Cookies, Fasin@ rte Artesanias Mexicanas, Anita’s Coquito and Janellies’ Kitchen. From time to time, when there is space we bring other vendors to pop up at the market.