Family Travel

French Bred: Growing Up In The French Market


 It is the ultimate “take your child to work” job, but New Orleans-style. There are no gray walls, cubicle partitions, humming Xerox machines, and the permeating smell of coffee. Instead, work is a sea of colors of people, merchandise, muffalettas and pralines set to the background sounds of trains, ferries, street dancers and trombones.

Behind almost every stall and table at the New Orleans French Market are generations of vendors, now adults, who grew up here. In 2015, a new wave of French Market babies are continuing a long-standing tradition of the market, snuggling close to their parents, being raised by an extended family of 300 vendors, and undergoing rights of passage that transform their parents’ work space into a child’s second den.


“Different cultures have different roadmaps for success,” says Rosalind McCorkle, a 30-year veteran employee of the French Market and now its manager. Rosalind says she instantly saw the family connections in the market within her first year as manager in 2014.


“A lot of the families, they pool their money and business together. If the kids grow up and stay and start selling in the market, the grown kids then set up their own stalls,” Rosalind says as she strolls through the market pointing around. “One man has his two sons over there, plus his own stall. They just look at it as the family’s money, the family business, and they are very successful this way,” she explains.


Vendors are allowed to keep minor children at their stalls, but minors cannot sell, remain unattended, or disrupt other vendors. Despite the rules, many French Market families see the set-up as a way to install work ethics in their children from a young age, keep their little ones close-by, and open their children’s minds to a world of people and cultures.


The vendor families are international, coming from countries like Senegal, Korea, India and Mexico, to homegrown New Orleanians. “We all raised our children out here,” says Gaynell Arcemont, a New Orleans native who has had her stall for 29 years at the French Market. Her grown daughter Heather and granddaughter now operate a stall a few feet away.


Gaynell points to a beam in the market’s roof where she hung a Johnny Jump Up for her last child, Mikey, two decades ago. During winters, Gaynell kept little Mikey at home. At the market, she cooled him off in a bucket on hot days. When he needed to nap, she put him in his playpen. As Mikey got older, he took to running with the other boys who were sons of Flea Market vendors. Mikey’s friends were Korean, Moroccan and African, Gaynell says. “The most amazing thing about raising children out here, they never knew the difference between any race, color, African, Japanese, Chinese, whatever. That was one of the greatest things that happened to the kids. There was no race. It was just boys running through the market, playing ball. It was just boys will be boys,” she says.




On Mother’s Day 2015, 11-year-old Alberto Hernandez-Sereno was looking to meet up with other French Market friends and find some mischief. The restless pre-teen mostly comes on weekends now to his parents’ permanent booth in the market, Alberto’s Cheese and Wine Bistro, named after him. His plans for the day are scuttled by a warning look from his mother, Antonia Sereno; he sits in the kitchen area with his father, and resigns himself to play a few games on his iPad.


“When I was small, I used to ride my scooter all about, but a lady told me to stop,” Alberto says. “I like to come so I can run away and get into trouble, ha ha,” he says, glancing over at his mother.


Antonia explains that she is actively looking for a sitter so that she can keep Alberto from wandering off to the Old U.S. Mint building or across the tracks to the Riverwalk, where she fears there are too many homeless strangers. Antonia says she has mixed feelings about raising Alberto at their permanent stall in the French Market.


“It’s good that he’s here and he learns about business,” she says, adding that Alberto will sell cups of water for $1 and likes to meet and greet customers. But she’s also had to run out of her booth shouting “Alberto! Alberto!” when he’s been rebellious and headed off to the flea market section.


Older brother Juan Carlos Hernandez, 23, is an aspiring baritone opera singer, who just graduated from Loyola University in December. He says it’s useful to have the family business as a fallback plan. “It’s a family atmosphere. I have my dad in the kitchen. It’s nice to have a part time job that’s a 9 to 5 with your family here,” he says.           Alberto, on the other hand, disagrees. “I don’t really help my dad. I should, but I don’t,” he says laughing.


Next to Alberto’s Cheese and Wine Bistro, at Loretta’s New Orleans Authentic Pralines, Robert Harrison and his brother Roddrick have fully taken over running the French Market location for their mother, Loretta. Both boys grew up in the French Market, and their mother’s stall was where they learned to do chores.


“I’m a child of the market. I spent my days here as a child, teenager, young man and now an adult,” says Robert, who is expecting twins in late September. He says that he and his younger brother would come to their mother’s praline stall after school, finish their homework, and then help their mother sweep, make candy, and the business’s signature Shoe Sole.


Roberts says he looks forward to starting the French Market tradition with his twins as they grow up. “Me and my wife plan to have them come here, and when they get older, let them help out and get into the family business.”


The culture of the market is one that’s passed down. And those who have grown up in it get it. “Not one of our kids have been in trouble, many of them are college educated,” says vendor Gaynell Arcemont. “It’s taught them responsibility of selling and gave them the confidence to look somebody in the eye and to communicate with them. It’s brought out the best quality in kids in this environment.”


Abdourahmane Fall agrees. As the youngest of Awa Thioubou’s seven children—five of whom now work in the market—he says he learned hard work watching his mother over the years. Mama Awa, as she is affectionately called by her fellow vendors, is a Senegalese native who has sold African clothes, jewelry, arts and crafts, drums, figurines, oils, shea butter and black soap for over two decades at the market. She now manages one of its showcase stalls. Abdourahmane, now an adult, runs his own stall in front of hers.


“I know she’s a hard worker. She gets up at 6 am to get out here and set up. Now we do the same thing like her,” Abdourahmane says.




On a Tuesday afternoon in May, 18-month-old Paul George Castellanos gives high fives to the other vendors, blows kisses, waves bye-bye to tourists and mouths “choo-choo” as a train goes by across the street behind the market. Pauly, as he is affectionately called by parents Angelica Becerril Delgado and Pablo Castellanos, is growing up in the French Market tucked behind his mother’s stall. Little Pauly made his debut here at four months when his mother brought him to her stall where she sells ocarinas, handcrafted Aztec wind instruments shaped like birds, turtles, alligators and Fleur-de-Lis. Like the babies a generation before, Angelica Delgado says she keeps Pauly at home during winter months, tried daycare but Pauly was miserable, and sets up his playpen and stroller for naps and playtime.


Pauly is a natural draw;  his mere presence triggers ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from tourists as he blows a whistling sound on the ocarinas, sending sales up for the souvenirs more than at any time in the four years his mom has worked at the French Market. Angelica says she believes Pauly learned how to blow the ocarinas when she was pregnant with him because she blew them all the time to attract customers.


Pauly will go to a pre-school beginning this September and stay with her after hours and on the weekends. But for now, she cherishes the bonding they have had at the French Market.


“The best part is that I am with him and he’s with me,” Delgado says. “It’s our family business.”




Story and photos by Shearon Roberts




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