Saturdays and Sundays, Rosa Banuelos wakes up at first light and packs her car with whatever is needed to replenish her stock of merchandise--fresh sugar cane, maybe, or smiling Virgencita statues, or a dozen fat brooms from Sonora.
Banuelos, who lives in Gilbert and works as an inspector for an East Valley electronics supply company, is on the road by 7 a.m. She steers her well-packed sedan past strip malls and housing developments and discount superstores and glides west on Interstate 10. At times like this, she says, she understands how a bird must feel when it is freed from a small, tight cage.
Rosa Banuelos is going home.
Not to Guadalajara, Jalisco, where she was born, but to the Great Southwestern Swap Meet, better known as El Mercado, which advertises itself as a "Little Piece of Mexico."
Every weekend, about 1,400 vendors, almost all of whom appear to be slightly homesick Mexicans, set up stalls in El Mercado, 40 acres of asphalt in the heart of southwest Phoenix. They sell wares ranging from fresh persimmons to Selena sweat shirts to powders and lotions designed to ward off evil spirits.
Banuelos, who operates a stall with her sister Lorena, has been selling every weekend at El Mercado for three years. She figures that after paying $70 weekly for two adjacent spaces and a storage shed, the sisters clear about $200 per weekend selling goods they've purchased in Guadalajara and Nogales and Los Angeles.
They know what to buy because they are Mexicans, and they know what Mexicans miss about their country. Like many of their customers, Banuelos moved to the United States out of economic necessity. Banuelos had earned a high school diploma in accounting in Guadalajara, she says, but couldn't get a job. She figured she probably never would get a good job, seeing as how she didn't have the prerequisites: family connections and a pretty face.
She moved north but still misses the comforting smells and tastes and sounds of her native country. The way Banuelos sees it, her fellow emigres are so homesick they'll buy practically any product that reminds them of Mexico.
For instance, to newly arrived Mexicans repulsed by the chlorinated taste of Phoenix tap water, Banuelos sells huge earthenware jugs that, she says, give city drinking water a clean, earthy taste.
Other nostalgic Mexican Americans, she says, beg her to locate old-fashioned pinatas, the kind made out of pottery, not paper, the kind that break open with a familiar clunky sound, the kind that one fills with cut-up sugar cane and pineapple instead of with cheap bubblegum and plastic toys from the supermarket.
Banuelos and her sister specialize mostly in very-difficult-to-find foodstuffs and cooking ware. For instance, a housewife looking for the ingredients for ponche, a hot drink for cold weather--a simmering mix of sugar cane, guavas, apples, pineapples, brown sugar and cinnamon--can get all the ingredients at one stop at the sisters' stand. Or a kid hankering for a taste of cueritos--soupy, pickled pork rind the color of a boiled white spud--can buy it seasoned with lime, chile and salt for two dollars from the sisters on the corner.
"All day long during the week at work, people give me directions. Rosa, do this. Rosa, do that. Here at El Mercado, I am my own boss.
"Here, I am free."
Curiously, this overwhelmingly Mexican swap meet was created by a gringo, Herb Owens, who owns a lumber company called Precision Components, Inc.
Owens is 66 and has lived in Phoenix most of his life. About five years ago, he decided to start a swap meet on property adjacent to the lumber company, after observing that a nearby Mexican swap meet seemed well-attended, even though it provided neither rest rooms nor shade.
Owens figured if he added shade to his lot, and rest rooms, people would come.
And they did.
Last year, he says, El Mercado drew 1.5 million visitors, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, Latino swap meets in the Southwest. License plates in the parking lot show that vendors and customers come from Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California, and Sonora, Mexico.
Although Owens won't say how much money El Mercado makes, judging from attendance, vendor fees and the admission charge--$2 per carload--the business grosses at least hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly.
Which might explain why Owens could afford to add two dance pavilions, a couple of restaurants and some of the hottest norteno and banda groups in Arizona and Mexico to the swap-meet mix.
There are two shifts of visitors to El Mercado--early in the day, families with small children come, eat lunch, buy a few things, take in the magic show, leave. Later, when the dance music starts, young couples stroll down the alleys of the marketplace.
Especially at night, it's not unusual to see a vendor chatting in Spanish with an off-duty Phoenix police officer in a golf cart. Because El Mercado isn't exactly in the safest part of the Valley--its 35th Avenue and Buckeye Road location sits near well-known gang areas--the officers and vendors scour the clientele for signs of gangbangers. No one with gang insignia is allowed onto the property, but occasionally a gang member in civvies will sneak in, check out the wares. Vendors point out the disguised gang members to officers, who let the suspicious guys know they are welcome only if they are coming to dance, have a good time, enjoy the day. Act up, they're told, and they'll be kicked out.
Every Sunday at El Mercado, a man named Lupe and a woman named Luz Maria set up a microphone, speakers and electric keyboards at an open-air restaurant ramada.
Neither Lupe nor Luz Maria, who sings with Lupe, seems entirely comfortable being interviewed for this story; both insist they never give out their last names.
"We are known only as 'Lupe y Sus Teclados [Lupe and His Keyboards],'" says Lupe firmly in Spanish.
Lupe says he's never had a music lesson; he just picked up playing the teclados in Mexico. He's committed hundreds of ballads and songs to memory, which is a very good thing, considering that he must accompany dozens of amateur singers each Sunday at El Mercado.
Lupe and Luz Maria run what has become a famous weekly singing contest.
Men and women begin nervously queuing up behind Lupe and Luz Maria before the contest begins. Their families sit at the tables in the ramada, ready to whistle and cheer on their relatives. Winners get gift certificates from a local food market.
Occasionally, a crooning contestant (and Lupe's teclados) is drowned out by music being blasted from a nearby booth that sells compact discs and records. Lupe and Luz Maria get on the microphone, remind their neighbor that he's too loud, and the neighbor turns down the music. Then Lupe continues playing.
At one table, a woman sits with a man. Both are tapping their feet to Lupe's beat. On the woman's shoulder, a green parrot eyes a small child who is eating brown-sugar candy.
As evening nears, Lupe packs up his keyboards.
The man and woman with the parrot head for the exit.
At a stall in El Mercado, a photographer from Hermosillo named Francisco
Mendoza and his wife stand near a life-size chipped plastic horse, hoping that parents on their way to the parking lot will stop, let Francisco dress their kids like little cowboys in charro outfits, plop them on the horse. After Francisco's wife runs behind the horse and hoists up a blanket as a backdrop, Francisco snaps a Polaroid picture of the miniature cowpokes. It only costs $6, says Francisco. Why not have a memory of this happy day?
But the crowd is changing, the children are going home. Young couples begin walking up and down the rows of stalls, waiting for the dances to begin. Sundays, there are always two dances. All entertainment is free.
On this particular Sunday, 61-year-old saxophonist Eulalio "Lalo" Mata and his band play norteno music, which is the rough equivalent of country-western music in the United States. Mata performs in the smaller of two dance halls, and generally attracts a more sedate crowd.
For Mata, who works during the week at a McCormick Ranch golf course, there is no economic necessity that drives him to play. He plays for the sake of the music, which his grandfather taught him decades ago in his home state of Chihuahua, Mexico. He will not tolerate flash or ego in his tightly knit group, which includes a couple of his brothers and has been together for years.
A more hip crowd gathers over in the ramada called "La Quebradita," which Owens named after a popular dance, to hear Roberto Martinez y Su Banda. Martinez, dressed in a white suit trimmed with pink glittery material, a white cowboy hat and white boots, bangs out his first tune, a cumbia. Immediately, couples begin dancing. A man and a woman move in perfect rhythm while their young son trots along after them, asking for a Coca-Cola. By 7 p.m., several hundred dancers crowd onto the floor.
Rosa Banuelos will not go to the dances tonight. She is too busy packing her wares, making notes of what to buy for next week.
Several pinatas hang over her head. She will pack them away last, so as not to damage them. One is shaped like a star, and hanging from the points of the star are ribbons of bright pink tissue paper. When the evening breeze picks up, the ribbons flutter.
In the distance, she can hear Lalo Mata playing his saxophone.
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