As Immigration Policies Change, So Does Business At Valley Flea Markets

Jul 17, 2018

Jose Robles scrapes up handfuls of dried chilies into a bag for one of his customers at the Cherry Avenue Auction in Fresno County. He’s been selling chilies and other vegetables at flea markets in the San Joaquin Valley for 19 years.

But business has gone down, he says, mostly because people are scared to leave their homes.

"Everyone is scared by all those laws that are happening that the government is getting into," Robles says in Spanish. "A lot of people are traumatized. A lot of people don't want to leave their homes because they have fears of ICE grabbing and deporting them. A lot of people are scared and that's been affecting all vendors and all commerce in general."

President Trump’s strict immigration redirect has many immigrant communities fearful of deportation, especially after the administration announced their zero-tolerance policy. In the Valley, flea market vendors have been taking the hit.

Robles says talk of immigration reform and deportations have Latinos in the Valley on edge, many whom shop at flea markets. He says fewer people have been going to flea markets since the ramp up in immigration policies.

Robles is just one of the many vendors Valley Public Radio spoke to who have seen their businesses suffer since the crackdown on immigration.

“We’re selling a third of what we sold in prior years,” says Lodevena Lopez in Spanish, who also has a stand at the Cherry Avenue Auction.

She’s been selling clothes, shoes, and toys for 11 years. Lopez says she’s seen fewer people coming to flea markets since Trump took office and recently it’s been worse.  

But, it’s not just customers. Lopez says it’s the workers too.

“Because of all the problems we’re experiencing with immigration and all the fear that’s been infused in people and they continue to put in people, they don’t want to return to work here,” she says.  

Lopez says the fear among workers and customers is consistent in other flea markets she works at. She has stands in Selma, Visalia, and Hanford. But, she says people shouldn’t be as frightened as they are.

“It’s not a fear we should have,” Lopez says. “We should keep working like always, but yes, a lot of people get scared.”

The owner of Cherry Avenue Auction has a different perspective. Neil Burson has owned the market for 17 years with his brother. He says the drop in business is not related to immigration issues, but that the weather and economic factors play a larger role.

Frank Parisi, owner of Sunnyside Swap Meet, also says the weather is a main factor when business slows down.

“Well, when it rains no one’s going to come out in the rain because they can’t out their stuff out,” Parisi says. “…  people kind of leave earlier because of the heat factor because you’re on asphalt, so you know it gets pretty hot out. So weather is probably one of our biggest factors for the swap meet.”

Parisi says he has heard of people being fearful to go to flea markets because of recent immigration policies, but he says it doesn’t really affect his swap meet and it depends on what area you’re in. 

“Certain areas like outside in the country there is a lot more of those people who have that type of a situation out there,” Parisi says. “We don’t have that, we have pretty much a better mix of people here. But, I’ve heard about that immigration type of thing, we’ve never had a problem with it here.”

But, it’s the smaller Valley towns in rural areas that do depend more on flea markets.

Dr. Dvera Saxton, an anthropology professor at Fresno State, say’s flea markets play a vital role in immigrant communities throughout the Valley.

“Part of it is there aren’t a lot of grocery stores or malls in a lot of San Joaquin Valley communities,” she says. “Particularly in the smaller towns and unincorporated communities. But even if you do have access to that there is something about the remate or the pulga that harkens back to home.”

Saxton says many Valley residents come from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asian countries where shopping at open-air markets is a tradition.

“You’re able to have conversations with the vendors in your own languages, I mean there’s not just Spanish speaking vendors, there’s Hmong speaking vendors and also a lot of indigenous speaking vendors for Oaxaca and Guerrero and along with those specialty products,” Saxton says. “So you can have conversations with them that perhaps you can’t have in a regular grocery store. So it’s not just a commercial space it’s a very social space too.”

Whether it be going to socialize or to sell merchandise, Saxton says for Latino immigrants these markets have a deeply rooted cultural history. They’re also critical economic spaces.

“Immigrant and low-income entrepreneurs cannot afford retail or storefront space, even in the Valley where rents are lower than they are in the Bay Area, and so being able to pay for your booth in the remate or the pulga and to have your hustle to have your business enables a lot of these families to sustain themselves as well in really critical ways,” she says.

Norma Lopez lives in Fresno and says she goes to flea markets to socialize and walk around. She zig zags through the aisles of vendors at Sunny Side Auction with her grandson. She says he likes coming with her because of the churros.

But since Trump took office, Lopez says, people have been too scared to go out to the flea markets.

“A lot of people that come to flea markets are undocumented and think ICE is going to come and take them,” Lopez says in Spanish.

Like Lopez, many people come to fleas markets for fun and the experience. To take in the smells and tastes of their native countries.

Saxton says she wishes people could think more about what immigrants must go through on a daily basis.

“The Valley is a very low-income area and the flea market is where you can go not just to get a good deal, but to kind of be a human and relax, and to take in the sites and smells and tastes that you enjoy,” Saxton says. “So it’s also I think a really critical place of pleasure and under this administration, people are being repressed and terrified and they can’t even have that simple pleasure of going to the remata anymore. That’s really disturbing.”