Una Placita: Mercado’s Virgin de Guadelupe Shrine Creates a Social Space From a Parking Space

People gather at the Virgin de Guadelupe shrine in the parking lof of El Mercado de Los Angeles. With the emergence of parklets, and exploring the alteration of parking spaces to create people space, the Mercado's virgin shrine, which occupies a parking space, has taken on a life of its own as a social and spiritual space. Photo: Kris Fortin

The Virgin de Guadelupe shrine is one of the most recognizable landmarks at the Mercado de Los Angeles. The christmas lights that drape over the shrine make it one of the brightest and colorful spots in the Mercado parking lot at night, even with the Mercado only a few steps away.

Though patrons regularly visit to place flowers and offerings at the foot of the tiled painting, what’s often lost is that it occupies a prominent parking space near the back entrance of the Mercado. With so much attention on parklets in Southern California and across the nation, the virgin shrine highlights what can happen when a community,  not just planners or architects, have a say in shaping its environment.

Since the Virgin de Gualdelupe shrine started in Boyle Heights, it has taken on a life of its own. Forty years ago, female clay pot and apron vendors paid a painter to to cover the back wall of the Mercado parking lot with the image of the Virgin de Guadelupe, according to a 2011 Los Angeles Times article.

Esmeralda Bermudez, the Times reporter that wrote the article, described the evolution of the shrine:

“Over time, the painted virgin took on a life of her own. People brought her flowers and candles, kissed her robe and placed photos of their loved ones at her feet. Eventually, the swap meet manager paid to make her permanent, in tile.

“‘Everyone respected her,’ says Maria Carlton, El Mercado’s manager. ‘Even the gangsters.’

“Each year on her feast day, Dec. 12, hundreds gather before sunrise to serenade her. When Carlton took over El Mercado in the 1980s, she went on the radio to encourage people to come.

“The annual event now draws more than 5,000 believers. They celebrate the virgin for 24 hours. Bands play, children dance and shopkeepers donate countless tamales, gallons of coffee and pots of menudo.”

Finding ways to alter parking spaces has grown in popularity with the introduction of parklets in San Francisco, and recently in Long Beach – it was even a theme for a Pacific Standard Times exhibition. Though parklets have created spaces with greenery, tables and seating for people, it says little about the community it inhabits.

Urban Planner James Rojas calls the shrine a prime example of Latino Urbanism. Using parking spaces as shrines, which he calls placitas, or small plazas, replaces empty space with a spiritual, and a social space, Rojas said.

“A landscape architect did not design this,” Rojas said. “It’s generated from the bottom up. People need a say in how they shape a community. That way, it has a more enduring value.”

Whether it’s parking spaces on streets or lots, how would you like to see them altered?