Above and below: scenes from Lupita's in Calumet City

My hometown Mexican grocery stores are El Roble (now Supermercado el Tapatio) and Lupita’s in Calumet City. Lupita’s is bigger and has more produce, but on the weekends, nothing touches the carnitas at El Roble. Inside, the smell of the pork fat is mouthwatering. You can follow your nose to the big chunks of meat under the glowing heat lamps. Take your pick: Do you want cuero or tripas? Do you want a mix of everything? On Saturdays, back in the day, my mom would pull me away from the magazine rack to say hi to Doña Chela y Chuy y Monche y Miggy y Dro y Yunior y Lupe y Nena.

When I moved to the East Coast for college and became inconsolably homesick, my friends asked me what I missed about home. Yeah, I missed Harold’s Chicken and the open mics at Young Chicago Authors and asking for ground beef and nacho cheese to be added to my bag of chips at the corner store. But mostly I missed Mexican markets. I missed buying El Milagro tortillas. I missed walking in and listening to ranchera music before the teenager working the cash register put on WGCI. I missed hitting a two-step before sliding to the produce section to pick up aguacates, plátanos, manzanas. Those words were a balm — like hearing my own name pronounced correctly, the way my mom said it the day I graduated from college: “Mijo, José, mi querido hijo, estamos tan orgullosos de ti.” I missed the delicacies and remedies like Gansito snack cakes, Maseca, VapoRub, and hot Cheetos. And, oh, the peppers: serranos, jalapeños, habaneros, chiles de árbol.

But what I love the most about Mexican grocery stores has nothing to do with the snacks and chiles they sell or the fact that the produce is more affordable than in the bigger supermarkets. It’s not the taquero posted up in some corner of the store serving up some of the most delicious tacos in town. It’s the women who call me “mijo” and tell me “Que Dios te cuidé” when I say goodbye. It’s the men who call each other “carnal” and dap me up when I buy carne de al pastor from them. I’m saying it’s the dude who cuts up the carnitas and knows I don’t like tripas, so he always picks them out for me. I’m saying Mexican Heaven is a real place and you can find it if you know where to look.