Located in the eastern edge of the historic centre of Mexico City, La Merced is the largest retail traditional food market in the entire city. The area, also called La Merced, has been synonymous with commercial activity since the early colonial period when traders arrived there from other parts of New Spain.
La Merced is located east of the main plaza (or Zócalo) in several very large buildings. Metro La Merced has openings both just outside the market and inside one of the buildings. Outside the buildings, an unofficial market (“tianguis”) continues on the sidewalks and streets nearby. This kind of commerce is illegal, but laws against it are only intermittently enforced as unemployment is high, and peddlers pay bribes to local bosses who in turn pay bribes to local officials.
La Merced offers a wide variety of everyday products such as fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, toys, clothes, flowers, candy and more. The largest building of the complex is dedicated mostly to the sale of fruits and vegetables. Other buildings sell household items such as juicers, tinware, spoons, cleaning supplies and much more.
Basic Mexican foodstuffs are the backbone of this market. It sells Mexican spices, such as epazote, chili peppers of every variety, both fresh and dried, nopals (cactus pads), pig skins fried whole, corn, and uncommon items such as wild mushrooms including a variety that look like chantrelle but denser. It is also one of the few places in the city to find authentic Oaxaca cheese. Vendors can be seen tying stacks of banana leaves, cutting spines from nopals, and selling “secret” herbal remedies. La Merced, like most Mexican traditional markets, is a favoured place to eat Mexican street food, called “antojitos” (lit. cravings). Two specialties are quesadillas and tostadas. Quesadillas can be eaten with a variety of fillings, along with cheese (typically Oaxaca cheese), such as stewed pork stomach, pickled pork fat, huitlacoche (corn fungus) and squash flowers. The quesadillas sold there are typically long and cooked on a comal, often made of blue corn dough. It is topped with red or green chilli peppers that have been blended with onions and salt into a watery paste. Like the quesadillas, tostadas have a wide variety of toppings and sometimes the crunchy tortilla has unusual flavourings, such as sesame seeds and chipotle.
The area of the market has been a site of commercial activities since the colonial period. By the end of the 18th century, almost the entire neighbourhood was one great market, which became even bigger when the markets of the Zócalo area were banished. In the first half of the 20th century, this market was the major wholesaler for the entire city.
In the 1860s, it was decided to provide a roof for the market, and the old monastery grounds were chosen for development. In 1863, the first permanent buildings were constructed. By the early 20th century La Merced was the major wholesale and retail market of Mexico City, especially for foodstuffs. It continued to serve this purpose during the post-Mexican Revolution period until about the 1960s. At that time, the Central de Abasto market was established in the south of the city to take over and modernize the wholesale of foodstuffs, especially produce and meat. La Merced still is the largest retail traditional market of Mexico City for a wide variety of everyday products.
La Merced is considered to be a “tolerance zone” for prostitution, meaning that the police generally do not intervene. Prostitution exists in just about all parts of Mexico City but it is most obvious there. At almost any hour of the day, scantily clad women can be seen walking around. Many of these prostitutes are underage.