Community Spotlight: Mexicantown in Detroit, Michigan

October 15, 2020 | Community Spotlight: Mexicantown in Detroit, Michigan | By: Myrna Segura-Beltchenko, Director, Mexicantown-Hubbard Communities Main Street Program | 
The façade of Xochi's Gift Shop after participating in a façade improvement grant program from the Main Street. Photo credit: Myrna Segura-Beltchenko

The Mexicantown-Hubbard Communities (MHC) Main Street is a program of Southwest Detroit Business Association in Detroit, Michigan. Established in 1957, the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) fosters innovation, drive, and commitment. We work with investors, entrepreneurs, customers, and neighbors to capitalize on Southwest Detroit’s competitive advantage. We support our community’s vision for a healthy, vibrant neighborhood.

A Rich History

In the early 1920’s, the first Mexican families began to settle in the residential sections around downtown Detroit. They were drawn to Detroit because of the many job opportunities available within its rapidly growing industrial base. With time, families moved further southwest into the area now known as Mexicantown.

The Mexican community has been steadily growing and is considered one of Detroit’s most treasured neighborhoods. Its abundant diversity, walkability, and thriving business district has long been a magnet for newcomers.

Most Latinos living in Southwest Detroit are from the state of Jalisco, specifically an area in Mexico known as Los Altos (“The Highlands”). Los Altos is composed of a string of villages that are the birthplace of three of Mexico’s most popular cultural exports: mariachi music, cowboys, and tequila. While the last big wave of Mexican immigrants came in the late 1990s, new immigrants continue to trickle in, and with them they bring authentic food, tradition, and a rich cultural heritage.
Cinco de Mayo celebration along W. Vernor Hwy in the commercial district. Photo credit: Myrna Segura-Beltchenko

Mexicantown Today

Walking along the streets of our Mexicantown Main Street today, you can feel the energy of our commercial corridor. Our shop windows are decorated with papel picado—or cut paper—and colorful decorative Day of the Dead skulls. Our historical buildings incorporate elements of Mexican architecture. Our exceptional murals are influenced by the Huichol art which honors our heritage, ancestors, and the first generations of immigrants who came to this city.

Add to this the smell of freshly made corn tortillas, the taste of the Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead Bread) and other Mexican desserts available at our local bakeries, and the variety of Mexican restaurants offering traditional dishes such as Camarones al Ajillo and Pollo en Mole as well as carnitas, tacos, tamales, and Tex-Mex food.

And we cannot forget our supermercados—the supermarkets—that serve our community and visitors from all over the state of Michigan and Canada. These supermercados offer a great variety of Mexican products, including bright vegetables, and fruits, meats, and other unique goods such as fresh cheese, hot sauces, spices, flans (custards), and frozen sweet fried plantains.

This liveliness of our W. Vernor Hwy. and Bagley Ave. commercial corridors are the backdrop for our small businesses, community, and our Mexicantown-Hubbard Communities Main Street program.

Celebrating Tradition: Día de los Muertos

Among many of the events we host celebrating our cultural traditions is the Día de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead. Celebrated November 1st and 2nd, the Día de los Muertos remembers and honors our loved ones who have passed away. This honoring is done through the installation of Ofrendas—or altars. Every year, many families place offerings and altars decorated with cempasúchil flowers, papel picado, sugar skulls, bread of the dead, mole, or a dish that their relatives to whom the offering is dedicated liked. Incense is placed to aromatize the place. The Day of the Dead is considered a celebration of memory and a ritual that privileges memory over oblivion.

Photos of this year's Oferenda displayed in Xochi's Gift Shop. Photo credit: Myrna Segura-Beltchenko

Mexicantown has been commemorating the Día de los Muertos tradition since 1999. Since then, the celebration has included Day of the Dead special events, workshops, and marches. Many businesses, churches, and other organizations in our district install Ofrendas and art displays in their windows to create a Tour of Ofrendas in our business district. Our annual Day of the Dead Brochure informs residents and visitors to all that is happening in our district during this celebration. 

This celebration has expended all around Southwest Detroit and other areas of the City. Every year, more than five thousand visitors and students from our communities and from around the State take this opportunity to learn more about our communities’ culture, enjoy the shops in our business district, and eat at our restaurants.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s celebration is going to be a little different. We understand that the local community, visitors, and schools want to celebrate this annual tradition and honor loved ones and community members that have died this year. While we anticipate having visitors, we know that the number will be reduced compared to previous years.

For that reason, we will be offering a Virtual Tour of Ofrendas in Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit for the first time. Guests will be able to enjoy an introductory video with an overview of our business district and a view of each participating business. The digital brochure will also have a link to videos or photos of each Ofrenda in the Mexicantown area, with a recorded presentation provided by participant business owners or commissioned artists, who will explain the meaning of each Ofrenda. The brochure will include a link to each participant’s website or social media page. We hope this will allow visitors and community members to still celebrate this tradition from home.

Supporting our Diverse Business Community

Our program is implementing a comprehensive, commercial district economic development plan to revitalize, strengthen, market, and promote the Mexicantown Main Street/Business District. We have established strong relationships with community members and business owners, communicating clearly in both English and Spanish. Our main goal is to provide a platform and a space where stakeholders can share their vision for the Mexicantown-Hubbard Communities.

We are intentional in our efforts to achieve our overarching goals and support our business community:

Providing resources in English and Spanish. We provide bilingual business workshops, networking events, and general support. We collaborate with and receive support from different City departments, Detroit District 6 City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, and other local agencies in an effort to advocate for the creation of multilingual City forms and communications with our community members and constituents. Spanish is the native language of many of our residents and business owners.

Shop Southwest Detroit. The Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) has identified the need for increased technical support to help our small businesses bridge the digital divide as an integral part of their COVID-19 business plans. To address this, SDBA will soon be launching Shop Southwest Detroit, an e-commerce megastore for businesses in Mexicantown/Southwest Detroit. Seven businesses in our Mexicantown Main Street district will receive support services valued at $2,500. A total of 25 businesses in Southwest Detroit will participate in this new program.

Southwest Detroit/Mexicantown Façade Improvement Program. Our SDBA/Mexicantown Façade Improvement Program helps business and property owners improve their storefronts by providing grants for architectural services and reimbursement for up to 50% of construction costs. Façade improvements include updates such as new signage, lighting, and awnings, but can also completely rebuild storefronts. We provide architectural assistance, façade matching grants, and technical assistance throughout the application, design, bidding, permitting, and construction phases.

Local business owner Gloria Rosas Baiocco in front of her small business in the commercial corridor. Photo credit: Myrna Segura-Beltchenko

Closing Thoughts

The Mexicantown-Hubbard Communities Main Street welcomes everyone to respectfully enjoy its vibrant, colorful, and distinctive commercial district. Its architecture and aesthetics are reflective of its proud Latin American roots. Its walkable streets are safe with inviting, family-friendly activities. Its business community is an accessible, equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem.