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culture: Market Fresh

Forget the fruit — the Farmers’ Market is attracting a new kind of customer.

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According to Adam Nathanson, Mercado liaison, the initial goal was to encourage patronage and entrepreneurship in Richmond among the Spanish-speaking population. “We want to create an organic cultural gathering place,” Nathanson explains. This population ranges from recent immigrants to third-generation U.S. citizens with African, European and Native American ancestry. How does the city lure this epitome of multiculturalism from the suburbs? Live Latin entertainment.

The music featured at Mercado includes the wildly popular salsa and merengue, mambo, and Bolivian Andes. In the wooden stands along the perimeter, a market tradition with a new twist — vendors, including nationals from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru sell their wares. Products sold include intricate beaded jewelry, journal covers trimmed in dizzying indigenous patterns and hot enchiladas.

Patrons confirm that the entertainment is what attracts them to Mercado. Rodrick Hernandez, aka DJ El Duro, darts through the crowd distributing handbills announcing free Friday night Latin dance instructions at the Ay Caramba Lounge on Midlothian Turnpike. He also manages to offer impromptu dance lessons. “The music is so festive, you have to dance,” Hernandez says. “Mercado should be every Saturday night.”

Kathy Emerson, manager of the Farmers’ Market, explains that original plans included a weekly Mercado. Those plans were thwarted because of rain and low turnout, but attendance has improved with the weather.

The Spanish-speaking are not the only beneficiaries of Mercado’s cultural exchange. A mature Colombian woman, with the legs of a 20-year-old dancer, high kicks it to the cobblestone dance floor when she hears cumbia, music from her native country. She grabs the hand of an equally mature stranger, an African-American man. “I don’t know how to dance like that,” the man apologizes. He follows her lead anyway.

Nathanson reports an entrepreneurial success story. Jose Lorenzo and Juan Carlos Debasa sold Cuban sandwiches at Mercado when it opened in April. The pair, both born in Cuba, recently began renovations on a building that will become their Cuban restaurant, Little Havana, at 1703 E. Franklin St. The restaurant is scheduled to open late August. Along with Cuban sandwiches and other authentic dishes, the restaurant plans to have a house band, The Little Havana Group. The band will play live Cuban music at least twice a week. Debasa and Lorenzo credit the Farmers’ Market for helping them get their business off the ground.

“The people at the market have treated us phenomenally,” Debasa says. “They are working to make the Latino community more successful.” Lorenzo adds: “Kathy Emerson makes things happen. She is our inspiration.”

Live entertainment is scheduled for Mercado until it wraps in November. And plans are already underway for next year’s market. “Our goal is to make this a compelling event for Spanish-speaking, African-American and white people,” Nathanson says. “The potential is here to create an international community.” S



On Aug. 2, Mercado will feature Sambaiosis, a Brazilian samba act.

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