Different Paths, One Market: Awnings and Interviews
by City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Awnings and Interviews
In "Different Paths, One Market", artists Michelle Angela Ortiz and Tony Rocco transformed the vinyl awnings that shelter the vendors from the sun and the rain into an outdoor gallery of their stories of family, labor, assimilation, struggle and identity. This gallery anchored the ends of Ninth Street at Christian Street and Washington Avenue with the stories of longtime Italian merchants. The stalls in between focused on newer immigrants—those people who are willing to work outdoors in all weather, angling for a chance at the American Dream—and on those Italian Americans who are a living link to the bygone days of hucksters.
Carmen Lerro is the fourth generation of his Italian American family to work in the Market. In 1885, his great-grandfather Joseph opened a butcher shop on Ninth Street. In 1985, his family started to run the fruit stand where Carmen continues to work. Carmen learned how to be street smart from the older vendors: “I learned from the old timers how to deal with life. They worked together and respected each other. They had street respect.” Carmen says that now the hustlers of old are gone now, except for him. He remembers the hustle calls he used to say at the butcher shop: “Put on the grill give it a thrill!” and “Cheap, cheap, cheap all the meat you wanna eat!”
Anthony Anastasio is the fourth generation in his family that continues to have a business in the Market. His great-grandfather, Tomas Anastasio, was from Spadafora, Sicily. His grandfather, also named Anthony, was the first generation born in the United States in 1920. In 1938, he opened a fruit and produce store and married Anna Pagano. Both he and his wife lived above the store. Anthony remembers his grandfather and his white cotton coat and how hard he worked. A memory that remains with Anthony to this day is the story of his grandfather and how as a child he would go to school with holes in his shoes. His grandfather made a promise to his children that he would always provide for them. Against all odds, Anthony states that his grandfather was able to overcome adversity. It is important to Anthony to remain present in the Market and keep his family name there.
Judy Tran and her husband, Scott, have worked in the Market for over 15 years. Of Chinese descent, she emigrated from Cambodia. Though she speaks Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese, it was difficult for Judy to learn English and to shift from her Asian traditions to American traditions. Though at the beginning, it was hard for the other vendors to accept her and Scott, they are now a part of the Market. Their son, Keong, has been working with his parents since he was 8 years old. While attending college, Keong continues to work in the Market to help his mother. He says “I do not want to see her struggle. For us, and the other families in the Market, we love our family. My mother comes out every day to work. She is providing a better life for me. When she was in Cambodia, she did not have the luxuries and education that we have now.”
Tony “Popeye” Messina and Mary Messina
Mary Messina is 82 years old and is one of five children of Mary and Frank Messina, Italian immigrants from Mazzara S'Andrea, Provincia di Messina, Sicily, Italy. Mary’s father bought the house and the fruit stand where she still lives and works. Along with her older brothers, Carmen and Tony, she worked at the stand all of her life. During the Korean War, Tony was drafted into the Army. Mary shared a letter that her brother wrote to her stating that he was finally coming home. Though before the war he had wanted to leave the Market, he now made a promise to return and help them work at the stand. Mary says that things were simple in her younger days: “We had no money but we were happy.” Mary and her brothers would say hustle to attract customers to their stand. Her older brother Carmen would say, “How many, how many, how many?” Mary would say, “Here look them over, sweet as honey, better than money.” Mary believes that the new vendors and new customers are not aware of the history nor do they care. She says, “When my brothers went to the Market, they took pride in what they did. If a bad apple was given, my brother the next day would go back and ask why the quality was bad.”
Lydia Mendez is originally from San Lucas, Puebla, Mexico, and is the third generation of herbal medicine healers known as “cueranderas”. Lydia and her husband, Joel, have worked in the Market for five years. She felt forced to leave Mexico because of the poor economy and lack of job opportunities. When she left Mexico, her goal was to work for a few months and make enough money to build a house for herself and her children that were left behind in Mexico. Months turned into 14 years. She is heartbroken and feels incomplete being here and wants to go back to see her children. When she speaks with her children, she describes the Market as being like the one in her hometown.
Rosalio Corona came to Philadelphia from Tlaxcala, Puebla, Mexico over ten years ago. He is one of many Mexican immigrants that came to Philadelphia in search of work and opportunity. He began working in the Market as an employee of a Vietnamese vendor. It was in the Market that he met his wife, Karina. She was also from Mexico and worked at a fish store in the Market. In her interview, Karina tearfully expressed her recollections of how difficult it was to cross the border. She remembers her father saying that he wanted his children to be triumphant; her father’s words helped carry her through her difficult journey. The couple say that the future of their three children is in the United States. Though they have faced discrimination as immigrants, the Market is dear to them because it is where they met each other, where their love grew, and where they can provide for their family both here and in Mexico.
Paul and Frances Giordano
Paul and Frances Giordano emigrated from Sicily as children. They met while working in the Market, had a total of fourteen children, and founded Giordano Produce on June 10, 1921. Frances Giordano is remembered as being a strong and hard-working woman, a woman who was the heartbeat of the business. Their son, John Giordano, says that they try to keep the business the same way his father wanted it. Even the colors green and white are the colors his father wanted for the store.
In 1975, with the fall of Saigon approaching, twenty-one-year-old Nghia fled Vietnam on a boat to Singapore. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1981. As a child living in rural Vietnam, he used to wake up at four in the morning to help his mother sell produce in the market. When he came to Philadelphia, the Market was the only place he could find work. He has since worked in the Market for over twenty-five years. Nghia has visited Vietnam and says that things are so different. When he visits, he doesn't recognize anything, not even his own family. He feels sometimes like a stranger in his own land.
Other interviews allowed the artists to gain a more varied perspective of the life of the Market. These perspectives were shared through a series of videos edited by Rocco, which were screened in the Market while the awnings were on display during Journeys South:
This project has been funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program.