The importance of the El Mercado shopping district to the culture of San Antonio goes far beyond the thousands of visitors who flock to the area every day.

Market Square, more commonly known as El Mercado, has been a center of retail commerce since the 1820s.

Completely renovated in the 1970s, El Mercado has been a key part of the economic revitalization of San Antonio and is the city's No. 3 tourist attraction after the Alamo and Riverwalk.

The Texas city receives around 20 million visitors annually, according to the San Antonio tourism office.

Fittingly, El Mercado's biggest day for visitors is the annual Cinco de Mayo holiday, celebrating the Mexican army's 1862 victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla.

As part of El Mercado's mission to preserve the city's Latino heritage, the district hosts weekly entertainment and cultural events, municipal official Guadalupe Garza said.

"The tourist will find everything from Mexican and Tex-Mex food to unique craft products that are sold only in this region. It's the place par excellence to experience the more Hispanic side of Texas," Garza told Efe in an interview.

Filiberto Marquez has spent the last 13 years selling his handmade leather goods at El Mercado.

"Like any business, there are days when you sell a lot, there are days when you sell nothing, but I make a living from this," he says, insisting that in terms of product, "there is no one else in the United States who does what I do."

Another El Mercado merchant, Honduran immigrant Oscar Paz, is similarly upbeat.

"Though the times are bad, there are always tourists ... there are always people enjoying what we have to offer," he says.

El Mercado is also known for cuisine, savored in elegant restaurants and at more modest food stands, including the one belonging to San Antonio native Letty Herrera, locally famous for her funnel cake.

"It's a regional recipe popular at festivals, made from a flour tortilla with milk fried in oil served with powdered sugar, ice cream, strawberries and other ingredients," she explains. "But the most important thing is that it's made with love."

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