For Mexicans, All Roads Lead to Swap Meet in Calexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come from all over Mexico--by bus, train, car, truck, even airplane--to shop for bargains at Las Palmas Swap Meet in this American border town.

It has become such a phenomenon that late last year, a Mexico City television station sent a news crew to do a feature on why so many Mexicans were traveling such great distances to spend their money at the Calexico swap meet.

The reasons, say vendors and patrons, are basic--good prices and good selection.

Last year, more than 3 million buyers--98% from Mexico--patronized the swap meet's 1,000 stalls, according to its owner.

Many buy for themselves and their family. Others spend several hundred dollars purchasing items, ranging from toys to televisions, that they later resell.

Fifty housewives from Caborca in the Mexican state of Sonora spend 12 hours on buses every other week making the 500-mile round-trip from their homes to the swap meet for a shopping spree.

"We return to Caborca and have our own swap meets, selling shoes, socks, jackets, dresses, shirts, blouses, underclothes, and everything else we buy in Calexico," said Maria Dolores, 60. She said she and her friends have been following this routine for years.

Lupe Garcia, 34, and Margarita Esmero, 29, recently rode the train from Hermosillo, Mexico, to buy clothes for their husbands, children and themselves. It was a 410-mile, 10-hour journey each way. "It's worth it," Garcia said. "The styles are so much better here and the prices much cheaper than at home."

Vendors from throughout the West Coast--the majority from the Los Angeles area--sell their wares at the swap meet, which is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Vendor Jacob Solomon, 37, was a professional soccer player in his homeland, Israel, until he came to America 10 years ago. "I was in Los Angeles, down on my luck, almost broke. Someone told me about the swap meet in Calexico," he recalled.

He came here and started selling women's apparel at a stall. He didn't speak a word of Spanish at first. He learned fast. And today, Solomon is the most successful vendor at Las Palmas.

"I know the swap meet business. I've checked the major ones across the U.S. This is the biggest anywhere, more volume than all the others," he insisted.

"I buy my dresses in New York. I buy in large lots--returns, overcuts, irregulars. I sell my dresses here for one price, $13, dresses you would pay $50 to $100 for in most retail stores. I have more than 20,000 dresses on racks at all times. As fast as we sell them, we empty boxes and replace them with new ones."

He has 25 employees selling his merchandise at the flea market.

The swap meet is owned and operated by Raul Estrada, 55. Estrada came to the United States in 1952 from Puruandiro, a tiny Mexican village 1,500 miles south of the U.S. border.

"I grew up on a small farm," Estrada recalled. "We were very poor. I quit school in second grade to work on the farm. When I was 17, I came to California to pick cotton at 60 cents an hour, a lot of money for me at the time."

He picked crops in Fresno, where he became a labor contractor and where he met and married Alice, his wife of 32 years. They have five children and five grandchildren.

"I worked hard, and was able to buy a farm in Calexico, where I grew cantaloupes. One day, two guys asked me if I would rent them a small corner of my farm I wasn't using. They started selling secondhand clothing from a van to people coming over the border from Mexico. That was 1969, the beginning of the swap meet."

Instead of cantaloupes, Estrada's farm now is dotted with swap-meet stalls. "We never dreamt it would get this big," said his wife, the flea market's treasurer.

The Estradas rent 20-by-20-foot stalls to vendors for $25 on Wednesdays and $10 a day Thursdays through Sundays. They also operate a restaurant on the grounds and rent 100 mini-storage structures to those selling merchandise. They charge 50 cents admission to the swap meet.

"Wednesday is the biggest day of the week. We open at 4 a.m. and close at sundown. On a busy Wednesday, upwards of 20,000 people will go through the gates," Estrada said.

"People come up from Mexico because they can buy clothing and other things much cheaper than they can at home. They prefer the up-to-date American styles," he added.

Those renting space from Estrada include Andy Kim, 34, who moved to Los Angeles from Seoul, South Korea, six years ago. "A friend took me to this swap meet and I knew this was my future. I moved my wife and children here a year ago, and have rented space ever since selling women's clothing," Kim said.

He learned both English and Spanish to help him succeed in business. And it has paid off. "On a good day, I will sell from $1,000 to $1,500 worth of clothes. There's nothing like this in Korea," he said with a laugh.

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