On the third floor of El Mercado de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights, musicians often compete from opposite ends of the cavernous room. Mariachis perched on the stage of La Perla restaurant battle ranchero accordions in the adjoining El Torasco restaurant. Patrons shout over the festive music while waitresses scramble to take orders.
But while merchants love the crowds, they are a source of conflict between neighbors and Pedro Rosado, the 73-year-old owner of El Mercado. Rosado hopes to expand the massive complex by acquiring a full liquor license -- currently he can sell beer and wine -- and adding a dance floor and sports bar to the third floor. But some residents complain that the clientele is already too rowdy at night and on the weekends, saying the customers urinate on sidewalks and drive drunk around the neighborhood.
Longtime resident and community organizer Nadine Diaz, 46, said that about a month ago she saw a man stumble out of El Mercado about 9 p.m., unzip his pants and relieve himself in the middle of the sidewalk while facing homes opposite the marketplace. Others have chucked eggs and trash into her yard, she said.
“This is not tolerable,” she said.
Rosado shrugs off those stories, arguing that El Mercado cannot be blamed for the neighborhood’s problems. Boyle Heights has 250 liquor licenses within 15 square miles, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, and El Mercado is surrounded by three bars. Rosado insists that to stay competitive he must offer liquor.
“All my competition has everything they need and I am falling behind,” he said. “When someone goes out with their wife or girlfriend, the lady doesn’t want a beer -- she wants a margarita.”
Some of Rosado’s opponents cringe at the idea of taking a family or a date to El Mercado. “You walk in there and it smells like urine,” Teresa Marquez said. “I can’t even take the elevator because I would probably throw up,”
Marquez, 61, is a lifelong resident of Boyle Heights. She remembers El Mercado as a tourist destination when it first opened in 1968, offering Japanese, Italian and Mexican food to visitors.
But El Mercado is not Olvera Street -- there are no tour buses filled with international spectators snapping pictures of mariachis. Instead, Spanish-speaking vendors haggle with customers over handmade leather boots. Discounted car accessories collide with miniature statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe in display windows. Pinatas dangle from crisscrossed wires.
Just across the street on Cheesbroughs Lane, 61-year-old Rita Rodriguez said she can hear people howling at 1 a.m. after the restaurants close. About 10 years ago someone swerved out of El Mercado’s parking lot and slammed into her fence before speeding off, she said. Rosado eventually closed off that exit, but Rodriguez said she still sees men urinating 20 feet from her living room.
Despite residents’ complaints, Rosado is meeting with the East Los Angeles planning commission on Dec. 10 to finalize his plans for El Mercado. In addition to the liquor license, dance floor and sports bar, he hopes to add 30 parking spots to the 270-car lot and build a grand entrance that would funnel foot traffic from the parking lot straight onto the third floor. He hopes that by creating more space and redirecting late-night traffic, his neighbors will be more friendly toward El Mercado.
“I want to have something in East L.A. that’s worth coming to,” he said. “It’s sad, but we have nothing. It’s a place of stereotype.”
Opponents accuse Rosado of perpetuating a negative image of Boyle Heights by allowing El Mercado to disintegrate into a place marred by crime and prostitution.
“I wake up on the weekend and people are asleep on the sidewalk because they’re too drunk to get home,” Marquez said.
She continued: “El Mercado has not helped improve this community. Right now it looks like a rural Mexican town -- crowded, not a business that will attract me or many of the community here. It’s too dirty.”
Marquez’s family has been in the neighborhood since they emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s. She remembers bringing relatives to El Mercado for fresh produce and flowers. But she stopped going years ago after it fell apart, she said.
“People hear mercado and think of Mexico,” she said. “But mercados in Mexico are more like farmers markets and Rosado’s not trying to make it that. I wouldn’t take my 18-year-old granddaughter.”
Supporters of El Mercado argue that Rosado has brought much-needed jobs to Boyle Heights. If the planning commission grants Rosado the permits to expand, they estimate that he could create 100 new jobs.
Taurino Ramirez has been working a churro stand in El Mercado for 19 years and is grateful to Rosado.
“Thanks to my job, my kids go to school,” he said. “Drug-dealing and prostitution happens everywhere. I’m not saying that it happens at El Mercado, but it does happen all over.”