While South Philadelphia’s Italian Market has been considered a cultural hub since its beginning, a large influx of Mexican immigrants has been taking up the storefronts, revitalizing the marketplace and populating its surrounding neighborhoods. Alma Tlacopilco, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, said that when she and her husband, Marcos, came to Philadelphia in 1997 many of the store owners in the market were Italian. As the Italians have been moving on, other groups of immigrants, including many Mexicans, are picking up where they left off.
When Marcos Tlacopilco arrived in Philadelphia, he wanted to try American life for at least a year and then make the decision on whether he wanted to stay.
“There is a lot of opportunity here,” Marcos said, explaining his decision to stay in the United States. Marcos’s first job was working at Darigo’s Fish Market, an Italian-owned fish market in the Italian Market. Alma accompanied Marcos five months later and found work cleaning houses. She first worked only on Saturdays and Sundays, but after convincing her boss, she worked every day of the week. When Alma first arrived she said she felt like the only Mexican woman in Philadelphia, because most of the immigrants were men. In 1998 Marcos became a manager of Darigo’s and Alma also got a job at the fish market.
Four years ago, Marcos and Alma took over the business at the fish market, now named Marco’s Fish and Crab House. However, the couple faced challenges and suffered from exploitation in the process. Marcos explained that some immigrants who come to America do not know very much about the banking system and money, making them vulnerable to employers.
Before Marcos had a secure place to keep the money he was earning, he asked his former boss at the fish market to save it for him. Once Marcos had saved $50,000, he asked his boss for the money. He fed Marcos excuses and then offered to sell the fish market to Marcos for $150,000. He would allow Marcos to pay $100,000, since he owed him $50,000 already, and pay in installments of $25,000 a year. Marcos accepted the offer, seeing no other way to get his money back, and began to run the fish market as his own. Four months later, his former boss died. There were no records of the money they had paid and the business was still in the name of its former owner. Alma said it was as if all their hard work was for nothing, but their lawyer helped them legally acquire the business.
The Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helped Alma and Marcos when they started running everything themselves. Marcos explained that running a business in America is entirely different from running one in Mexico. They had to learn about standard procedures such as inspections, permits and banking, while dealing with a language barrier.
“My lawyer told me, ‘you can’t speak English right now. You don’t know anything,’” Marcus said. “So someone [would] ask me something and I [would] say, ‘I don’t know anything.’”
Learning English was a constant struggle for Marcos and Alma when they arrived in Philadelphia. Marcos went back to school at the Community College of Philadelphia to learn English and Alma took classes at a local church.
“Now my teacher is my daughter,” Alma said. Alma and Marcos have three daughters, ages 5, 10 and 11, who were born in Philadelphia.
Alma explained that there was a shift of ownership in the Italian Market. New nationalities have taken over the stores and each one has influenced the products being sold throughout the market. She now calls it the “international market.” The Italians who originally opened up the shops raised their children and gave them the opportunity to move out of the area to start different careers. Alma said she hopes this cycle will continue for her family.
“I work for us and maybe my daughter [will become a] doctor,” Alma said.
Alma mentioned that some American people see immigrants as a big problem because they use government funds from welfare. She said that she does not take welfare and shows her daughters that her family can support themselves without it.
“It does not bother me to say I am an immigrant. I am an immigrant and I am working very hard for my daughters,” Alma said.
Marcos and Alma worked hard to create more opportunities for themselves and their family.
“This country teaches us that we can achieve with work and with effort,” Marcos said. He and Alma continue running their business with smiling faces. Marcos said that they travel outside Philadelphia to obtain quality fresh fish to sell to their customers. He said he hopes to expand and get involved in construction work, a field he became familiar with in Mexico.
With the initial challenges of starting their business behind them, Alma and Marcos look forward to the next step. Right now the entire family lives directly above the fish market.
“We want to move away from the store. My daughters want to move. They smell like fish,” Marcos said, laughing, as he rearranged the ice to cover a fish-head.
Marco’s Fish and Crab House is owned by a Hispanic family. Their customers bump elbows with the customers at a fruit stand directly across the sidewalk, which is owned by an Asian family. They run flush up against a meat market that is still owned by an Italian family, but the man running the caddy-corner coffee shop has a Russian accent. A Latino family owns the grocery store across the street. Less than 10 years ago, the sellers were mainly Italian.