When you are in Chicago and if you want a bit of Mexico — with her street food and open air tianguis market culture — make your way to Chicago’s near west side for the New Maxwell Street Market every Saturday. The backdrop is the city’s stunning Loop and Magnificent Mile.
Beyond the Loop on the near west side is a historic immigrant neighborhood where Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Eastern European Jews, African-Americans, and now Latinos from Mexico and Central America settled.
The original Maxwell Street has been developed for a University of Illinois at Chicago expansion. The new market, a neighborhood gathering place, is now located on Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Polk Streets, just west of the Chicago River. You get there from Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road by CTA Bus #12 or by foot.
In my days of living in the midwest, I confess I never made it to the Maxwell Street Market, known for its blues musicians, flea market bargains and once-in-a-lifetime antique treasures. So, when I arrived in Chicago from Mexico City to visit friends on my way back to North Carolina and the opportunity came to explore, I said “yes.”
Be sure you come hungry! What I found were several blocks filled with street vendors not much different from Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Sunday market except on a much smaller scale. The standout was the food vendors. People from all ethnic backgrounds, including plenty of visitors toting cameras, formed lines snaking down the street for tastes of savory tacos al pastor, steaming tamales, traditional aguas — fruit waters — made from tamarind, watermelon, lime and coconut. There were at least four stands selling nieves, the famed ice creams that more resemble the intense flavors of an Italian gelato.
There is also organized live music, and if you are lucky as I was, you might come across an old African American blues musician belting out a tune on a guitar or saxophone, reminding me of the Mississippi Great Migration and The Warmth of Other Suns.
There’s not much remaining of the original Maxwell Street’s flea market atmosphere. What I saw were sellers of new tires, perfumes, electronics, out-of-date packaged foods and snacks, nail polish and make-up, hardware and garden tools, office and school supplies, used and new clothes, shoes, records, and a few chachkahs. There were few antiques per se.
What attracted my attention were the dried tropical fruits, roasted nuts, tamarind pods, spices and chili peppers that we see throughout Mexico and especially Oaxaca. I heard mostly Spanish spoken by buyers and sellers.
At the food trucks and under the cooking tents, women prepared and cooked fresh tortillas and grilled corn on the comal, men tended the spit-roasted pork and grilled pineapple, a family displayed their made that morning sweet and chicken-stuffed tamales, and young girls ladled out fruit drinks into clear plastic cups.
The children strolled hand-in-hand with parents licking on a cone of traditional Mexican ices. Neighborhood shoppers bought fresh berries from the few produce vendors interspersed between the aluminum kitchen utensil and car cleaning supplies stalls.
If I lived there, I would have filled my shopping bag, tempted by what is familiar to me and the tastes I love. As it was, I settled for a glimpse into what it means to keep the culture through a reverence for its food.
Of course, saying a prayer at the home altar to the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, and the Baby Jesus will help ensure that the culture is preserved. Locals shop for religious icons at the market, too.