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Family Night

It's 7 p.m. on a late summer Sunday, and cars are streaming out of the parking lot at El Gran Mercado, the Mexican swap meet on 35th Avenue and Buckeye in west Phoenix. But just as many cars are entering -- and it's not for last-minute shopping. These people are...
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It's 7 p.m. on a late summer Sunday, and cars are streaming out of the parking lot at El Gran Mercado, the Mexican swap meet on 35th Avenue and Buckeye in west Phoenix.

But just as many cars are entering -- and it's not for last-minute shopping. These people are here to get jiggy with it at "El Gran Baile," the big dance that happens every weekend from dusk until well after midnight.

At La Quebradita, the larger of two similar dance halls that resemble oversize unfinished concrete houses, onlookers surround the dancers, who move in a large circle much like a country-dance. Middle-aged vaqueros and damas, flirtatious teenaged girls and grown men hanging on to their white cowboy hats all cut a rug -- well, the concrete floor, anyway.

On three sides of the packed floor, more people sit on five levels of concrete slabs. Young mothers bounce their tykes to the oompah rhythms of norteño and banda groups. Kids chase each other.

It's a scene that has been going on for years. But the one person here tonight who has perhaps seen it the longest doesn't fit any of the above descriptions. Hell, he's not even Mexican. He's Maricopa County sheriff's deputy Al Macklin.

"I love it," Macklin says, leaning back against a wall. The 38-year-old has been dutifully patrolling the dancers and everyone else -- from jealous boyfriends ready to duke it out to minors trying to score beers -- for almost 12 years. "Eighty to 90 percent of the people won't know if there's a fight," he says, motioning to the crowd. "We're that responsive."

Flare-ups and underage drinking (there isn't an age requirement to enter the dance halls) have remained relatively minor over the years when you consider the popular market's staggering traffic flow, says the sheriff's deputy. "1.2 million people come through here a year. A recent holiday weekend brought in 30,000 after 9 p.m.," Macklin says.

"You get good music in here -- it will be nothing but dance floor," he says. Glow toys keep kids happy the way beer does for the white-cowboy-hat set.

When asked about the youthful-looking crowd skipping over empty beer cans (the cleaning crew apparently waits until everyone has left), Macklin responds, "It's a swap meet, not a bar."

Whatever you call it, it looks like a big wedding where the whole pueblo was invited and everybody showed up.

At first, the men are gracious in their invitations to dance, but they become a little more aggressive as the night wears on. "You gotta figure at least a hundred times -- [that] they get asked to dance. If there's a woman with a poor self-image, they should come here. They'll get asked to dance. That's what they call it. It's a dance!" Macklin says.

There's something going on here that attracts huge crowds on Sunday nights -- far bigger than Saturday nights, when the adults do the club scene. Sunday is family night. Quite a few in this crowd aren't old enough to get into a club. Some aren't even old enough for preschool.

And that's exactly it. Mom and dad (sometimes only mom) can go dancing without having to get a sitter, and teens can mix it up with the bar crowd. No wonder it's packed.

As the night wears on, most families head for the gates, but a surprising amount stay on. Some have no choice. Kids are passed out on older siblings' laps as mom and dad dance on.

Asked what, if anything, has shocked him, Macklin replies quickly, "Mothers breast feeding. Right in front of you." Then he says more solemnly, "Babies in front of speakers." Unbelievably, he says, the parents park the strollers in front of the loud PA system.

Ouch.

Outside, 10 young men are handcuffed to each other and are being escorted from a sheriff's office located conveniently next to the men's rest room. "Vamonos al baile," one of them says. Then someone in the crowd reminds the reveler that the dance floor is the other way. Everyone laughs. Later, when Macklin pops up again, he says the arrests were "alcohol-related. We're making a statement about alcohol." He says they were either underage drinkers, or giving alcohol to minors.

Back inside, Macklin's words about babies and speakers come to life. A young boy, maybe a year old, is being bounced around by an excited plus-size woman. It's nearing midnight and the baby's cries are inaudible, although you can see his mouth opening to squawk. That's because the woman and child are about five feet from stacks of large and booming speakers pushed to their limit. They are surrounded by three other women equal in size who take turns passing the exhausted tot, so they can dance. The kid alternates sleeping and crying.

Others are tired, too, and the place is finally emptying out. Mexican cabs shuttle away stragglers. Pickup trucks weave around broken bottles in the parking lot. The night is over, and another hard week lies ahead.

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