El Mercado is widely known as a social, cultural, and commercial center for the local Latinx community. Representing a traditional Latin American marketplace, it provides a space in Boyle Heights for the sale of traditional Mexican goods, religious relics, live mariachi music, and authentic Mexican food. The building is situated around a large interior courtyard and is distinguished by its red tiled roof, arcade, and distinctive two-story arches.
Although El Mercado has become strongly identified with the Latinx community, the space was originally a multiethnic market. Founded in 1968 by Art Chaya on the former site of the Boyle Heights Lumber Company, the two-story stucco building served the local Mexican, Japanese, and Italian communites. The variety of cultures, products, and foods boosted its appeal to outside visitors. Though the building has evolved over time, its original spirit and purpose has been sustained.
In 1991, artist Jose-Luis Gonzalez of Goez Art Studio designed and installed a bas-relief, mosaic tile mural on the first level of the western elevation. The mural, entitled Mayan Rain God, depicts abstract representations of the ancient Mayan diety in a largely serpentine form.
Today, El Mercado (also referred to affectionately as "El Mercadito") is famous for its legendary mariachi scene, hosting hundreds of bands throughout its history. Traditionally, musicians have recreated the practice of working al talon ("on one's heels") as they would in Mexico, working a handful of establishments per night for a fixed fee per song.