Story by Vicky Falcon-Vazquez. Photos by Phil Decker.
For many of us, it’s easy to go about our days without thinking — we go to work, we socialize or do some kind of community service, but always in the same circles. Seldom do we walk into a different place on our own, submerge ourselves in a new culture, in a new atmosphere. We are too afraid of the unknown, and so we stay hidden.
But there is a place in Salem that beckons everyone to come inside, a place where we can feel welcome while trying something different: “La Pulga.” It is a community within a community, a flea market open on weekends in the old bingo building on Portland Road NE near Highway 99E. La Pulga is a place of friendship, of culture — even family. Yet this place of wonder, almost magical in its uniqueness, seems completely separated from the mainstream Salem community.
I noticed this because right next to it is Harbor Freight Tools. As people go in and out of the tool store, they stare at the other building nearby — at the gentleman near the entrance selling California oranges for $5 a bag, at the food cart where children and families gather to buy all sorts of snacks — but they rarely dare to take a few more steps and walk right in.
Those who dare experience the delight of walking into a Latin American fiesta. Don Arturo — the manager, the boss, the mentor, the man who wears many hats — opened La Pulga in 2011, offering a home to 107 vendors. Through his travels as a missionary and his time living in California, he understood the concept of “los mercados” in Latin American countries, or “las pulgas,” flea markets here in the U.S. Arturo opened the doors to small business owners or future entrepreneurs, giving them a place where they can feel comfortable and happy. Most importantly, a place where they are safe and welcomed.
I had never experienced a flea market in this new perspective. As someone who was born in Mexico and visits it often, I, too, understood the concept of “los mercados.” They have always been a place of wonder. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, everyone went to these markets, whether they wanted to find something specific, to find something spectacular or just to find a place to be social.
I walk right into Salem’s pulga and suddenly I am in a spectacle, a place where you can find just about anything, both modern and traditional — airbrushed items by local artist Paul Knipfer, cell phone gadgets, CDs, photography services, Mexican traditional crafts, jewelry, prom gowns, kitchen items, botanical healing products and much more. It’s a place where you come in to join the party. This I say not only from my own experience, but as described by Angie Vega.
Vega sells yarn and other materials to make hand-woven artifacts. When I see her thread, I think of my childhood, of my Mexican grandmother teaching me and my sister how to hand-embroider napkins. I think of how my grandmother and my aunts crocheted sweaters, blankets, shoes and hats for us when we were babies. I think of the traditions that we have lost.
Vega tells me that she wants to preserve those traditions, and so do her clients, no matter what their age. She says that she has a 9-year-old girl who comes and buys material for her hand-embroidered napkins. Minutes later, Vega’s committed client shows up with her father.
“Oh, it’s her,” Vega says. I turn, and the father says, “Who?” So I explain what I’m doing there and we exchange a few words in Spanish. He is Anglo, but his Spanish is perfect. He has dared. His daughter has dared.
Why a flea market? Why not go out and open your own business somewhere? Why this place? Those were my constant questions. But I found I didn’t need to ask them. I could hear and see how happy the clients came in. How they developed their conversations. Asked about other’s families or how they were doing. The clients felt respected, and the vendors knew their customers were valuable. Over and over, I heard the word “friends.”
Juana Perez from Perez Place explains, “I have my business registered and enough merchandise to be on my own, but I’m happy here.” In her 18 years working in flea markets, she has developed a strong knowledge of lady garments and underwear, in addition to baby clothing and make-up. She, too, has developed a close relationship with her customers. They follow her and always come back to buy her products, she says. They like how she treats them and they feel special when she sometimes throws in a free item.
Magdalena Saucedo Gomez sells botanical healing products. She says that more Latinos come to La Pulga because we identify closely with local markets where we can find both food and products from our home countries. In her section, you will find plants, natural juices, natural ointments, teas, encapsulated natural products and much more. Saucedo Gomez inherited this knowledge from her ancestors. “I don’t underestimate the doctors, but I trust in the natural,” she says.
So do her clients. Saucedo Gomez has become a special someone for many people. On a typical Saturday, she has about 30 to 40 paying customers, but has more than 100 visiting her, many bringing flowers, fruit and other gifts.
Saucedo Gomez is clearly a warrior that not only gives back to her community here, but in Mexico through missionary work. She recently returned from a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, where she helped build a cafeteria for 510 students to have a decent meal.
“No one is too poor to give nor too rich who can’t give back,” she says, and shows me a box covered in photos of the children she helps feed. Her clients support her work and donate before they leave her booth, putting a few dollars in her boxes. Her next dream is to build a library and a center for elderly people.
Behind every vendor, there is a fantastic story. They support their families, and their families work with them to support each other. Saucedo Gomez helped raised two children who were not her own because their father, one of her clients, was deported. She had them for nine years. “I received a call not too long ago from her professors congratulating me because she had been one of the honorees in her graduating class at college,” Saucedo Gomez said about one of the children.
Many of the vendors share similar stories of friendship with their clients. Claudia Villanueva from Firme Photography explains that it’s impossible not to have those relationships when she is capturing special moments in people’s lives. She know her clients by name and builds relationships that last. Like many of the vendors, she also has another profession — she is both a nurse and a photographer.
Over at the Royal Prestige booth, which sells kitchen products, customer Seberiano Cuello tells me that he goes to La Pulga after Mass because he likes to socialize and make friends. He talks to different vendors and also has lunch. “I like to communicate with other people as well as share the Scriptures,” he says.
I hear the loud music, people laughing and talking, some thinking about what to buy, others having lunch, teenagers hanging out, vendors helping their clients decide on the best products, children happy with their toys or eating candies, and I feel happy. No one judges me, no one stares at me because I have stopped with my notebook in hand, everyone continues about their day.
I see people who feel like they belong, people who have dared and feel welcomed. I see human beings sharing our experiences, our traditions, our needs, our stories, our languages. We are part of something greater — isn’t that what community is? A sense of family where we all belong and we help each other. Let’s dare.
Address: 4675 Portland Road, next door to Harbor Freight Tools
Hours: Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Vicky Falcon-Vazquez has found her voice in telling her stories. She began writing poetry during high school and has continued ever since. See her bilingual poetry and photography at www.vfalvaz.wordpress.com.
Phil Decker, a documentary photographer and facilitator of the Salem Photo League, is now a weekend regular at La Pulga, where you can find him sipping licuados. More of his photo essays reside at www.phildeckerphotos.com.