When Manuel Sanabria started selling produce at the Plaza de la Perseverancia thirty years ago, the fruit and vegetable market teemed with vendors and customers haggling over the prices of potatoes and onions. “There wasn’t a spot for even one more vendor to fit,” he remembers.

“Now it’s empty, fewer people enter, it’s not the same as before.”

Elena Navarro also remembers what the plaza used to be like. When her mother started cooking lunch here forty years ago, she used a wood stove to prepare dishes from her hometown in Tolima. Diners ate on wooden benches and those who were lucky enough to have a gas stove had to bring the fuel in by truck.

Now Doña Elena, as she is known in the plaza, is one of nearly twenty cooks. Like her fellow restaurateurs, she has her own gas stove, an assistant, and an assortment of small tables arranged in front of an open-air kitchen.

Doña Elena cooks tolimense in "La Perse."
Doña Elena cooks tolimense in “La Perse.”

Although much has changed over the years, the Plaza de la Perseverancia remains a world in which loyalty is prized, clients are greeted with affection, and cooks spend hours laboring over a traditional stew. It’s a relic of a Colombia that has largely disappeared in Bogotá as shopping centers and giant grocery stores replace traditional markets and diners forsake the plazas for trendier, more modern restaurants.

“ has been the tradition,” explains Doña Bertha, a cook from Boyacá who has been selling desserts here for 35 years. “You arrive in a town or a neighborhood and the first thing you ask is where the plaza is.” She adds that here, the market is like a family. Cooks welcome new customers as if they were old friends and diners seldom stray from their chef of choice.

“They change only when they have to,” explains Doña Lili, who makes dishes from the coffee region, adding that recently some of Doña Elena’s clients had to dine elsewhere because there wasn’t any room at her tables. “But they told me that tomorrow they’re going to come back,” confirms Doña Elena, “it wasn’t because they didn’t like my food.”

The cooks, in turn, are faithful to their chosen grocers and make a point of buying from the same vendors every time, either in this market or in one of the larger ones further south.

Sadly, this plaza and the 18 others like it in Bogotá are in danger of being erased completely from the urban landscape, says Eduardo Martínez, the chef of the innovative restaurant Mini-Mal and one of the leaders of a movement to revitalize the city’s marketplaces. He and other Bogotá chefs plan events and activities to remind residents of the value in shopping and eating at traditional markets.

“Here there’s food you’re not going to find anywhere else in Bogotá,” he explains, “We’ve counted up to 29 different kinds of soup during the week.” He adds that the plaza serves an important economic function for vendors, many of whom have been able to support their families with their earnings from the mar- ket. Some, like Doña Bertha, have even been able to pay for a university education for their children.

Soups and stews are essential to this market lunch.
Soups and stews are essential to this market lunch.

Don Manuel points out that the plaza is also vital for the city’s poor, who can’t pay for the large quantities sold in supermarkets. Vendors here are willing to sell whatever the customer can afford, even if it’s only a bundle of cilantro or a few onions.

On a recent Friday, each of the cooks prepared a special meal to celebrate the Day of Love and Friendship and pay homage to Colombia’s native seeds. The plaza looked like a microcosm of Colombia: business people, day laborers, and families sat together at crowded tables as cooks from nearly every region of the country bustled around adding the finishing touches to grilled pork, octopus ceviche, bean stew and other regional specialties.

Martínez, who helped organize the event, worked with Doña Elena as she steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves. Then he took a break to enjoy a cup of Doña Bertha’s famous chicha, a fermented drink. “The most democratic spaces the city offers are the marketplaces,” Martínez said between sips. “If we want to actually construct a human city, I think we’re going to need a lot more of these spaces.”

If the crowds during this event were any indication, there are still some city dwellers who appreciate traditional markets. It appears that the Plaza de la Perseverancia, as its name suggests, will continue to persevere. At least for a little while longer.

Plaza de la Perseverancia. Cra 5 No.30A-30.