I visited the Holiday Marketplace at Self Help Graphics and Art, a community arts center in East LA, last weekend. A woodblock print of migrant workers boarding a bus caught my eye, especially the sign behind the bus that said, “Monte Mart.”
“That’s the name of the store our family owned in Salinas,” I told my friend Patty. Then I talked to the artist, Alvaro Daniel Marquez. “I’m from Salinas,” he told me. “Monte Mart was this store in East Salinas.”
“Yes, I know!” I said, then launched into my family connection to the store. Monte Mart opened in 1962, the first superstore of its kind, with a grocery store and departments for clothing, housewares, pharmacy and automotive supplies. My father was a partner in the store and he commuted from Castroville to Salinas to run the grocery department. After he was killed in a plane crash in 1964, our family moved to Salinas and lived behind Monte Mart. Every weekend of my adolescent life, from age 14 on, was spent checking groceries or cashing checks at Monte Mart.
“It was an institution in Salinas,” said Alvaro, the artist. “Everybody shopped at Monte Mart. I lived near the store.” It turns out that we went to the same middle school, El Sausal, and the same high school, Alisal, although my experience was probably decades before his. He had a series of stunning woodblock prints focusing on the life of the migrant. “Monte Mart was part of that whole migrant experience,” he explained.
As I thumbed through his other prints, his work conjured memories of summer weekends at Monte Mart, where the store was crowded with shoppers buying their weekly provisions. I cashed payroll checks for migrant workers with addresses on Camphora Road or Old State Road and asked for their green cards for ID in my broken Spanish. I hefted sacks of flour, pinto beans and masa harina onto grocery carts. On weekend afternoons, all ten checkstands were used and the line to cash checks would be 20 to 40 deep. It was an institution on the east side of Salinas and a big part of my life during my high school years.
I bought the print in honor of the memory of Monte Mart and because I like to support young artists. I also bought a companion print, for its lovely use of lines and patterns.
The business was sold to Albertson’s in the late 1970’s and it’s no longer called Monte Mart but the store still exists, all 120,000 square feet and the large parking lot.
“My mom still calls it Monte Mart,” said Alvaro.
In my memory, so do I.