The Italian Market as Our Spanish Classroom

Recently I traveled with a group of upper school students from my Spanish 3 class to meet with members of the Latino community in the Italian Market. For over two hours, we wandered along 9th Street, visiting Los Amigos Mexican Culinary Foods, Tortilleria San Roman, South Philly Barbacoa, and Ricoleta Paletas y Helados—all of which became our extended classroom as students participated in a full cultural immersion that was conducted exclusively in Spanish.

My objective was to bring to life two previous class units on food and migration through conversations with local Latino business owners and activists. We sometimes forget that there is a Latino world a short distance from where we live, and that we don’t need to travel to distant places or countries to experience it. This was a chance for our students to learn much more about this world.

We started at Los Amigos, a traditional market located at the corner of 9th and Melrose Streets, which is evidence of the successive waves of migrants who have arrived and set up shop in the Italian Market in recent decades. Los Amigos sells a large variety of Mexican groceries, including Oaxaca (pronounced "wha-ha-ka") cheese, a white string cheese often used to make traditional quesadillas. We then walked a block south along 9th Street to Tortilleria San Roman, where students observed a typical tortilla-making machine and smelled the distinctive aroma you would encounter in any similar establishment in Mexico, as they tasted hot blue corn tortillas.

Crossing Washington Avenue, we made our way to South Philly Barbacoa, which Bon Appétit magazine recognized in 2016 as one of the country’s 10 best new restaurants. There we met with Cristina Martinez, the co-owner and chef, who is also an illegal immigrant and an immigration activist. During lunch, the students sampled various traditional dishes, including chicken enfrijoladas (chicken served in a bean sauce), cochinita pibil (shredded pork), quesadillas, and chicken with mole (a savory dish made with a chocolate base). They also tasted handmade tortillas and compared them to the machine-made ones from Tortilleria San Roman, and considered the differences between yellow and blue corn. Following lunch, we stopped at Ricoleta Paletas y Helados, where we sampled different types of Mexican ice pops.

The next day, my students watched an episode from the latest season of the Netflix series Chef's Table, which features Cristina Martinez's harrowing story of coming to the United States illegally, and remaining separated from her family still in Mexico as she struggled to open a restaurant. They had just met with her the previous day. They had eaten her extraordinary food and heard part of her story in person. They were engaged and connected in a way that could not have been accomplished without turning the Mexican businesses of the Italian Market into their classroom.

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