It’s late June and a blistering-hot Saturday morning in Sunnyside, one of Denver’s original neighborhoods. The parking lot of Monkey Barrel is lined with white pop-up tents run by rotating vendors. Food trucks and stands emanating aromas of Latin cuisine and pizza await the passersby, some of whom glance over out of curiosity as they walk their dogs down Tejon. Something about this vibrant market, in the center of urban revitalization, evokes nostalgia.
Husband and wife Carlo Hernandez and Jazmine Mendoza and their childhood friend, Leslie Amaya, have known each other long enough to be family. Masterminds behind the Northside Market, the three grew up in Sunnyside, where they attended Smedley Elementary School. Decades later, an influx of weed-curious tenants began relocating to Denver, a millennial magnet.
As Denver and its economy grew alongside the pungent crops of Sour Diesel and Blue Dream, modern duplexes and hipster coffee shops began infiltrating the neighborhood. Sunnyside became a thriving neighborhood for young families looking for historic charm and convenience.
“So we saw a lot of houses were being knocked down and there were new houses coming, like a new type of neighborhood, which is great for the community you know, because the economy in this area. But we’re losing that like … the Latino culture that was here before, but we wanted to be a part of it. We didn’t want to just be like, oh it’s changing now,” said Amaya.
Amaya’s “tía”, however, still lives adjacent to where the Northside Market is held, among the newly renovated craftsman-style homes. Pochito’s Tortilla Factory is around the corner, and Necio’s entertains the “barrio” with margaritas down the street.
Amaya is the owner of AmaDa Artesania and the maker of decorated, handmade “sombreros cordobés” (flat-top hats). She grew up on Vallejo and 42nd Street, just a few blocks from where she sets up her booth at the Northside Market.
“Going back to Sunnyside as a businesswoman and selling on that corner of 44th and Tejon makes me feel so proud. Once, I had a huge line from beginning to end and I remember thinking I’m living a dream,” she recounts.
Amaya’s suede hats are hand-stitched by an artisan in Mexico, Juan Gerardo. The beadwork is known as “chaquira” (beads), a common artform used in “Huichol” jewelry. The process of making her sombreros involves creating the chaquira and strategically cutting the necklaces to fit the base of the crown. In times of high demand, Amaya partners with artisans from Nyarit and Chiapas, Mexico, whom also make Huichol necklaces.
“I can say Huichol is art…It is very time consuming, we are talking that it takes about a week to make just one. Sometimes cutting the beaded necklace can ruin the pattern so at some points I have to reconstruct the whole piece, but it’s okay, they all tell a story.”
On Saturday, July 18, Amaya is helping other vendors for Father’s Day instead of setting up her booth like she normally does. Alex Ortiz, owner of Three Dogs Pickles, is there to sell his homemade jars. Eskimo Bros. food truck is serving scoops of nitro ice cream and The Boozy Botanist showcases her bitters and potions.
In the corner are David and Jessica Alires. The couple started Cholo Ass Vegan five years ago in an attempt to marry the flavors of traditional Mexican food with meatless options. In their case, seitan, a protein source made from wheat gluten.
According to David Alires, even a plate of rice and beans is made with lard and topped with queso. Their most popular plates are the carne asada and “pozole” (hominy stew), which can be enjoyed with a creamy, crunchy elote, also known as Mexican street corn.
“I believe there are a lot of Chicanos and Latinx who want to go vegan. And we kind of give them a helping hand, and you know, show them that it’s not, you know, just all rabbit food that you’re going to be stuck with,” said Alires as he and his wife prepared tortillas and horchata.
One booth over, a line forms at Aguas Colorado. Nester Amaya along with Maria Salinas, Jose Amaya and Diana Paredes, are serving colorful and refreshing “aguas frescas”. According to Nester Amaya, water stands like his are as prevalent as taco stands in Mexico. The aguas frescas are topped with fresh pineapple, watermelon and cucumber, then drizzled with “chamoy”, a tangy and spicy blend of tamarind, sugar and “achiote”.
Across the way is José Camacho, the owner of Chupacabra and maker of Michoacán-style “paletas” (popsicles). Camacho was born and raised in Southeast Denver but his cultural heritage draws him to the legendary Chupacabra, a vampire-like creature.
“So whenever you have one of our popsicles, you’re sucking on a goat,” said Camacho. A play on words, the young Chicano hopes customers find humor in their experience as they indulge in one of his bloodless treats.
A few booths down from Camacho, Hernandez sells organically-grown, authentic Mexican coffee. The beans are produced in a region called Coatepec Veracruz, which lies in the beautiful, lush foothills of the Sierra Madre — the “Eje Cafetero” of Mexico. The region is known for its robust, aromatic coffee where the beans grow at 3,000 feet above sea level in volcanic soil.
Hernandez looks around the market where he is joined by his wife and two kids.
“There’s been a lot of change happening, the thing that I do, the only thing that I agree with, that I would love to agree with more, is that we want to change with it, you know what I mean? So, if it gets gentrified or changed, we want to be part of the change too, you know?”
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