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Mario’s Westside Market much more than grocery store to community

Mario Berlanga’s busy corner market means so much more than a grocery store to customers in Las Vegas’ Historic Westside. It has earned its place as a welcoming refuge where old-school hip-hop plays and customers young and old can relax and be themselves.

Regulars know Berlanga as Mario, a local Latino kid who grew up in a nearby housing project, later becoming an entrepreneur who for decades has looked out for the historically Black neighborhood.

At Mario’s Westside Market, on the corner of North Martin Luther King and West Lake Mead boulevards, customers can buy hard-to-find Southern soul food such as smoked pig’s ears and hog jowls, pickled sausage, turkey necks, Louisiana-style beans, spices and hog head cheese.

The owner routinely walks his store, keeping up a running banter with customers, many of whom he knows on a first-name basis. At Mario’s, the jokes keep rolling. The other day, a man in a pickup rolled up to Berlanga in the parking lot.

“Hey Mario!” he called. “Where’s my money?”

At this market, trusted regulars can buy on credit. The down-and-out often are served for free at the store’s hot food section. “Go ahead, give ’em a meal,” Berlanga tells his staff. He also provides free food vouchers for the poor and elderly at local Victory Baptist Church.

Since 1997, when Berlanga opened the place with longtime partner Sam Johnson, the 10,000-square-foot store has served as a town hall for an underserved, predominantly Black community that might otherwise be written off as just another of the Las Vegas Valley’s urban food deserts.

Decades before it became a national slogan for racial equality, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was already Berlanga’s creed. He’s been both a volunteer police officer and a person of color concerned over the way he’s been treated by police.

Berlanga has built a community bridge between local youths and both North Las Vegas police and officers from both the Metropolitan Police Department. His store sits on the enforcement line between the two agencies.

For years, he has operated a baseball league for underprivileged youth at Doolittle Field on the Westside. Today 186 players, many from single-family homes, play free of charge, coached by off-duty police officers.

‘All because of Mario’

Community leaders believe Berlanga’s hands-on neighborhood involvement could serve as a national model to help bring police and Black residents closer together.

“When you think of Mario’s Market, the first word that comes to mind is ‘stability,’ ” Nevada Assemblyman William McCurdy said. “It’s a welcoming atmosphere where you run into people from your church after services, a refuge from the stress and discord of the outside world. And it’s all because of Mario.”

At Mario’s market, the meat counter features the congeniality of a Black corner barbershop, old school rap playing on the radio, with patrons feeling free to express views on everything from politics to local sports.

It’s where Berlanga, 59, holds court. At 5-foot-8 and 298 pounds, he’s a sturdy spark plug of a man, greeting shoppers, catching up on gossip, being Mario.

One day, pastor Timothy Morris carried his young son, Caleb, into the store. Berlanga tried to give the baby a fist pump but Caleb reached out with both arms.

“He wants a hug,” Morris recalled. “He hasn’t seen you in a while.”

‘I’m one of them’

Since Berlanga and Johnson opened the store, a generation of neighborhood kids has grown up wandering the market’s blue-and-white tiled floors. Many later got jobs there. Today, 85 percent of Mario’s 42 employees are Black, and some are ex-felons whom Berlanga has given a second chance.

Outside, a large electronic community board tracks local meetings and celebrates the achievements — both athletic and academic — of area youths.

Partnering with police, Berlanga also sponsors such events as Christmas in the 106, denoting the last three digits of the local ZIP code, offering gifts for low-income families. One year, Berlanga drove to Los Angeles to buy 150 bicycles on his own dime.

There’s also a back to school day where workers hand out free backpacks and school supplies, where barbers give haircuts, and doctors and dentists perform checkups.

To keep youths off the streets, Berlanga and other donors sponsor a Halloween event called Trunk or Treat in Doolittle Park, where kids can line up for candy from the trunks of parked cars.

“I’m not better than anyone else. I’m one of them,” Berlanga said. “I tell kids, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something, just because of the place you were born.’ ”

But there’s another, deeply personal, side to Berlanga’s philanthropy.

Over the years, the divorced father of two children has allowed several local boys from broken marriages to live in his home, often for years at a time.

DeShaun Lewis is one of them.

He once played on Berlanga’s team in an earlier youth baseball league, a kid who never knew his father and endured the murder of his mother before moving in with his older sister. After ballgames, he’d lie down in front of Berlanga’s car so he wouldn’t leave.

He saw in his coach a father figure he never had.

Lewis lived with Berlanga from age 9 until he moved out into his own apartment.

Berlanga sprung for the security deposit and gave him a job at the market.

“Mario taught me to be the best man I can be,” he said. “He didn’t have to step up to become my dad. But if he didn’t, I don’t know where I’d be.

“Probably in jail. Or dead.”

Berlanga grew up poor, one of 11 children, in a world far from the glamorous Strip. His parents worked in the casinos — his father a restaurant food runner, his mother a hotel maid.

At the Marble Manor housing project, Berlanga learned to get along with tough kids from different races. From a young age, he wanted to be a cop and rarely missed an episode of his favorite police TV show, “Adam-12.”

Sometimes, pretending to be an officer, he manacled his younger sister, Juana, with plastic handcuffs. He also stayed off the streets. One arrest, he knew, could extinguish his dream of a police career.

Fortuitous choice

As a teenager, he began volunteering with North Las Vegas police, taking part in K-9 drills, hiding in vacant buildings until the dogs sniffed him out. After school, he worked as a bagger at a local grocery store.

At 21, he took the police employment test, setting the stage to don that uniform. That’s when Johnson stepped in. Berlanga’s grocery boss was a former cop who counseled that Berlanga would be better off partnering with him in the grocery business. Berlanga agreed, christening a four-decade-long partnership that has drawn the two as close as father and son.

Johnson opened the Vegas Village market on Cheyenne Avenue and took Berlanga with him. Berlanga learned to walk the line between the gang members who frequented his store and the patrol cops who adopted the market as their own satellite precinct station.

He’d catch the occasional shoplifter, which taught him a valuable lesson: Sometimes, people do illegal things just to feed themselves or their families. Sometimes, Berlanga let them off with a warning.

That compassion earned Berlanga a measure of appreciation, and during the 1992 riots that followed the police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King, neighborhood kids helped Berlanga board up the market and stood guard to discourage looters.

The partnership worked. While Mario’s Westside Market suffered a single gunshot that shattered a beer cooler, a nearby business was set on fire. “It was all about respect,” Berlanga recalled. “We treated those kids like we wanted to be treated.”

Initial wariness

Five years later, Johnson and his protege opened the present Mario’s Westside Market.

At first, some residents threatened a picket — they just didn’t trust a Latino and a white guy running a business in the black community.

But Berlanga convinced skeptics that he was one of them, that he’d grown up in the neighborhood. Not only that, he began to make improvements.

He opened an adjoining Western Union office and a hot food department where customers could buy such dishes as fried okra and pickles, dirty rice, mac-and-cheese, smoked ribs and catfish filets.

Berlanga’s strategy: If you’re going to run a neighborhood market, you should offer the ethnic dishes your customers want to eat.

The store thrived. And Berlanga looked to repay the community for its loyalty.

As a police volunteer, he met people such as Metropolitan Police Department officer Regina Coward, the now-retired head of community policing.

Together, the two launched the Christmas in the 106 event, which featured a gift-giving Santa Claus who arrived by police helicopter. For many kids, it was an alternative image to the spotlight-wielding choppers that often hovered over their homes at night.

“It was a new way of policing,” Coward recalled. “And Mario paid for much of it out of his own pocket.”

A league of their own

Berlanga also teamed up with Las Vegas Metro Capt. Robert Plummer in 2016 to launch a baseball league — bringing in police officers as coaches. “That league had something to teach both the cops and the kids,” said Plummer, who now leads the police department in Napa, California.

“The officers learned to leave policing out in their squad cars and the kids learned they could actually trust a guy in a uniform,” Plummer said. “In the end, they were all just people.”

Berlanga saw the transformation. By the end of a season, cops-turned coaches — who at times had been uncomfortable around Black teens — were buying after-game pizzas, allowing their players to ride in their unmarked cars and to try on their police vests.

Metro officer-turned-baseball coach David Shive recalled the evening he arrived at the scene of a reported domestic argument to find one of his players, a 10-year-old named Charles, open the front door.

The boy was wide-eyed, assuming that Shive was taking his father to jail. “I told him, ‘It doesn’t have to end that way, buddy,’ ” said Shive, now the league’s vice president. “He calmed down and even showed me his room.”

Weary of watching his team play in then-rundown Doolittle Park, Berlanga had successfully petitioned Las Vegas Ward 5 Councilman Cedric Crear for upgrades that included a new scoreboard and an improved playing field.

In return, Shive said, crime rates among area youths dropped noticeably.

The league won’t play this fall, because of COVID-19.

Tensions persist

Still, tension between police and residents remains. During one league fundraising drive outside his store, Berlanga noticed how preteen boys could sell bottles of water at the adjacent light without a problem, but as soon as the older boys tried, the black-and-whites swooped in, demanding IDs.

Berlanga said he himself has been singled out for what he termed racial-profiling stops. In one incident, a Metro officer pulled him over in him own parking lot because, in Berlanga’s opinion, he had several black passengers in the car.

“It was embarrassing,” he recalled. “Everybody knows me, and the police had me standing in front of their patrol car, hands on the hood.”

With partner Sam Johnson now in his 80s, Berlanga has taken over running of the store. He knows he must remain vigilant, even at his own market.

The place has been robbed once at gunpoint — by a gang of thieves from Los Angeles, he said. Grifters sometimes hang out in the parking lot. He’s also caught teens selling bogus raffle tickets.

Kids and pizza

Still, Berlanga is making a difference in his neighborhood — one kid at a time, said Victor Dunn, a now-retired North Las Vegas deputy police chief.

The two once sponsored a program at a local school that awarded a pizza party for the class whose students read the most books. But that wasn’t good enough for Berlanga.

“He said, What if the runner-up class comes up just a few books short?’ ” Dunn said. “He wanted to reward everybody. So we bought pizza for the whole school.”

One afternoon, Lewis, Berlanga’s unofficially adopted son, was stocking shelves in the market when he stopped to talk about the man he calls “Pops.”

“Mario just doesn’t know how to say no to anybody,” he said. “He doesn’t ask, ‘What are you gonna do for me?’ I’ve never heard him say that.”

John M. Glionna is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. He may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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