A man’s journey to bring a piece of Mexico to the streets of South Philly
By Kathryn Gonzales
When Ernesto Atrisco walks into his storefront on 9th Street, it feels like home.
Atrisco, 50, and his family opened Lupita’s Grocery in 2003, offering everything from cornhusks for tamales to glass bottles of Coca Cola. The small grocery shop is filled with bright, colorful packages carrying spices, sauces and various Mexican kitchen staples.
The South Philadelphia grocery was not only a way to make a living, but also a testament to the life Atrisco and his family left behind in Mexico.
“You start to remember home. It makes you feel like you are closer to where you were born and raised,” he said. “I want to show Philadelphia locals and even all people food they’ve never seen before. They can come and experience my culture.”
Atrisco hails from Acapulco, Mexico where he lived in a low socioeconomic class in a house that could barely fit all his family members. “It was the hardest decision for my Dad to let me go, but it was what he had to do,” he says.
While acknowledging the physical and emotional risks that came with going up North, he says asserts that “I never thought about the bad things that could happen to me because I knew if I did I would not go; you just go until you are there.”
Settling in South Philadelphia, an 18-year-old Atrisco started out delivering pizzas for a Greek-owned restaurant but he felt alienated and alone. By his mid-20s, though, he had married and gained citizenship in the U.S., creating a life for himself where he could make a living for his family in the States and for his family in Mexico
There was something missing for Atrisco; a piece of culture that he wanted to add to his community.
“I wanted to own a store that sold products that I remember from home,” he says. “Where I can provide a space for people who look like me that could come and not feel as alone as I did when I came to the U.S for the first time.”
As his wife, Lourdes Atrisco, 45, recalls: “I thought he was crazy, I mean who wakes up one morning wanting to open up a grocery store” but understood that the need was there in her, too.
It began as a modest operation, a sparse, dull small store with little in the way of structural logic. Walls were discolored with shelves that were disorganized and cluttered, while Atrisco and his family members, traded shifts between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Soon, through the assistance of community members, Lupita’s Grocery became a regular stop for many locals, adding to the growing multicultural experience in 9th Street.
Walking into the grocery store, you are met with the smell of nostalgia. You’ll see Mexican soccer jerseys, luchador masks [fighter masks], candies and many other products that not only come from Mexico but other Latin American countries.
Lupita’s is one of the many Mexican-owned businesses that have brought new vitality to what is known historically as the Italian Market, after the immigrant street vendors who first set up business on 9th Street beginning in the 1880’s.
“We go to the supermarket to get what we need. But our needs are determined by who we are and how we feed our obsessions” Atrisco explains. “At the grocery store, our needs are not simply material. These are selfish, soulful wants, and they come from pits deeper than our stomachs.”
The community surrounding the Lupita’s Grocery is filled with migrants coming from countries far away; knowing that there is a small chance of being able to go back to their homes. As they seek to maintain this relationship with their motherland, making the visit to the market is offers the opportunity not just to remember, but also to recreate.
Maria Martinez, 35, a regular customer at Atrisco’s store says “My son asked me to make him and his friends a pozole [pork and hominy stew]. Some of his friends have never tried pozole before. I wanted to come to Lupita’s Grocery because, here, I think the chilies are authentic and fresher. When I make pozole with chilies bought at the supermarket, something is wrong with the flavor. It doesn’t taste as it tastes there in Mexico. Here I found a provider from Zacatecas that sells very tasty chilies.”
Memories accompany flavors that people have recorded in their memory. Atrisco has created a memory bank in the form of Lupita’s Grocery where customers can reproduce their culture again and again. He hopes that by entering his store, people can be transported or at least reminded of their homes.
The impact this man made on his family and his community is apparent based on the regulars that come in his store with a sense of belonging, yet he seems nonchalant about it all. “There are many others who have gone through the same struggles as I, always remember that and never forget,” he said.
Kathryn Gonzales has a beat focusing on Latino Philadelphia