Donelia Duarte fled Guatemala in the wake of its quarter-century civil war to escape poverty and violence that claimed the lives of loved ones. It was 1996, the year of her native country’s peace accord, when she began her pursuit of the American Dream.
“I came here alone,” she recounts in Spanish. “I came here with nothing.”
From nothing, she built enough to scrape by. From subsistence, she built enough to become her own boss as a jewelry vendor at San Jose’s Berryessa Flea Market. From that business, Duarte went on to support not only her own family, but nine others back in her homeland and her husband’s hometown in El Salvador.
“This gave me the strength to start over again,” the 59-year-old says, motioning toward the sparkling wares at one of a few stalls she rents at the open-air market.
It paid for a house and a car and a comfortable life.
When she fell sick with cancer, it funded her treatment. When her daughter had kids, it offered a legacy to share with a new generation.
The concentric circles of impact extend in similar ways for countless others at The Flea, known as La Pulga by its largely Latinx vendors and patrons.
At a nearby stall adorned with brightly embroidered tunics and purses, 52-year-old Maria Lourdes employs six people, each with their own families to support. After a bout with the coronavirus sent her to the hospital for five days, she says the business became her only means of paying down the $50,000 she now owes in medical bills.
Just a quick walk away, Daniel Ramirez, 38, staffs a booth that puts food on the table for his immigrant parents, 37-year-old wife Maria Campos and their four kids—in addition to the artisans who make the woven-leather chanclas, belts and cotton dresses sourced from rural villages in Mexico. Ramirez, who named his business Rampos MX, a portmanteau of his and his wife’s surnames, says he feels “very grateful” for the flea market providing a place to continue working amid a job-killing pandemic.
The market’s Asian and Middle Eastern sellers share similar stories, recounting how livelihoods intertwine with friends, family and wholesale suppliers from the South Bay to Vietnam, India, China and other far-flung corners of the world.
There’s no official measure of the market’s economic footprint, but rough estimates suggest it’s one of the key drivers of immigrant entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.
Of the 750 or so who sell their wares at the Berryessa Flea, many employ a few to five workers in addition to family. For undocumented workers who might otherwise labor away for low-wage under-the-table cash, the market offers an increasingly rare shot at upward mobility. An untold number—untold because no one has yet made the effort to track it—grew into some of East Side’s marquee brick-and-mortar businesses, including the Shoe Palace, Ramos Furniture and Calderon Tires.
In the 60 years since the late George Bumb Sr. founded the Berryessa Flea as a humble swap meet, the market evolved into one of the most significant cultural and commercial centers in Silicon Valley, and one of the nation’s largest ongoing outdoor markets.
Effectively, it’s a business incubator that’s pumped fortunes into the local economy and public coffers. It’s a launchpad for startups of the blue-collar variety. It’s a bridge that leads first-generation immigrants out of poverty. It’s also a tourist attraction, whose bargains, beer and singular spectacle draw as many as four million visitors a year to a city with relatively few sights to see compared to other metropolitan destinations.
But La Pulga’s historical and commercial import may not be enough to secure its future.
An Urban Vision
Plans 20 years in the making to bring 3,450 homes and 3.4 million square feet of commercial space to the 120-acre property are approaching an important milestone.
Come May, the City Council expects to vote on rezoning the flea market to pave way for a $2.5 billion development pitched as a crowning glory to San Jose’s Berryessa BART Urban Village, a blueprint for the dense, transit-centered development needed to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
Conspicuously absent from the vision laid out in hundreds of pages of planning documents and glossy visual renderings, however, is the Berryessa Flea.
With the market at risk of being displaced out of existence, sellers are organizing.
The Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association—a nascent advocacy group that aims to do for La Pulga what the San Jose Downtown Association does for the city’s core—posted an online petition demanding more say in the fate of the property.
By Tuesday, nearly 5,800 people had signed their name to the drive, which also calls for relocation payments should the market close and research on ways to keep it up and running in some form or another.
“We’re the primary stakeholders and we’re not getting the consideration of the city or the landowners,” says Roberto Gonzalez, a 29-year-old cofounder of the vendors association. “We’re just trying to fight for what’s fair.”
It’s a familiar fight for his father, 56-year-old Rigoberto Gonzalez, who began vending at the Berryessa Flea after emigrating from a suburb outside Mexico City in the early 1990s.
“We learned a long time ago that we basically have no rights” he says on a recent morning from his stall, where he sells chili-spiced Mexican candy and piñatas.
When the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) began the process of extending BART from Fremont to San Jose in the early 2000s, the Bumb family hired a consultant to draw up plans to densify the flea market site. With apparently little input from vendors, the city granted the Bumbs’ initial rezoning request in 2002 and a revised proposal five years later.
Brian Bumb, a co-owner, expressed hopes at the time of finding a new home for the market, which had become as much a community legacy as his family’s tradition.
The elder Gonzalez says many vendors were taken aback after learning about the plans from newspaper articles instead of the market owners. “A lot of people, a lot of us, we got depressed,” he says. “We got very angry.”
Amid pressure from vendors, the council voted to explore an alternate side and relocation benefits. Not much came of that promise. Time passed. The uproar simmered down.
Over the ensuing 14 years, various pieces of urban village development sprang up around the market. New condos and a shopping center replaced parking lots across from La Pulga on the north side of Berryessa Road. The vendor count shrank as the Bumb family carved out more of the market for parking and leased some of the lot to Amazon.
In 2018, the city revived community outreach about the market’s development. Though landowners and city officials say they gave folks plenty of notice about the outreach, many vendors say they had no idea the plans had picked up that kind of momentum.
“Nothing was really resolved, but it felt like things went back to normal for a while,” says Kaled Escobedo Vega, 21, a vendor association cofounder whose family’s flea market stall helped send her to UC Santa Cruz. “Until last December.”
“That’s when I first heard about it, when a lot of us first heard about it for the first time in, like, 10 years. Then we were like, ‘Here we go again.’”
On March 24, the Planning Commission voted 6-1—with Pierluigi Oliverio dissenting—to study whether a “community benefits” deal could resolve the matter. Since there’s a limit to the city’s enforcement powers, commissioners urged the market owners to work something out with vendors before the advisory committee revisits the matter on May 12.
Erik Schoennauer, a land-use lobbyist representing the Bumb family, says he’s setting up meetings with vendors to get those talks going. Despite rumors suggesting imminent closure, he adds, there’s “plenty of time” to work out a solution and that vendors will get a year’s notice before having to move.
And despite suggestions to the contrary, he says it should be noted that the owners have an interest in sustaining the market, too. “Nothing’s going to happen anytime soon,” he says. “The flea market is open for business.”
While he speaks with vendors about how to prepare for changes on the horizon, he says local governments should start thinking about their role in protecting the market.
“We do need the city or county to step up,” he says in a recent phone call with San Jose Inside. “Because the flea market can’t afford to exist on market-rate land—the rents vendors pay to operate just don’t support that.”
What would help, Schoennauer proceeds to say, is “a public-private partnership” to maintain the market in some shape or form.
Trash to Riches
The Berryessa Flea Market began as a sort of side-hustle.
Enough people were paying George Bumb Sr. for the privilege of picking through his landfill that he thought he’d capitalize on the demand by starting a swap meet.
Inspired by profit potential as much as his travels to the Saint-Ouen rag-and-bone market on the outskirts of Paris and trade fairs on the suburban fringes of Los Angeles, the serial entrepreneur transformed the 120-acre site of an old meat-processing plant into what eventually became known as La Pulga.
On opening day, George Sr. and his business partners Joe Kokes and Larry Headrick welcomed about 20 sellers and 100 bargain hunters.
A July 3, 1960, article in the San Jose Mercury News described the scene: “The former cattle feed lot’s vast spaces of asphalt paving has been cleared of most stalls to make way for a modern-day buy-sell-trade fair …”
By 1966, the market’s 1.5 million annual visitors and multimillion-dollar revenue stream led San Jose to cash in on the tax stream by annexing the site into the city proper.
The market expanded through 1980, when it raked in a record $12 million in revenue from more than 2,400 vendors and four million visitors, according to a report commissioned by the city in 2007 to evaluate the site’s historical significance. The Bumbs employed 500 people to help with parking, clean-up, security and concessions. For a time, the market became Anheuser-Busch’s top account, selling up to 250 kegs worth of beer on busy days, and the fifth-largest purchaser of Coca-Cola products.
People drove from hours away to enjoy La Pulga’s pony rides, $1-a-head helicopter tours (inspired by the late George Sr.’s aviation hobby), carousel, slides, karaoke, mariachi and other forms of live entertainment.
The now-15-year-old analysis by four historians described the Berryessa Flea as “unique,” “a premier open market that remains one of the largest and most successful” of the 5,000 others scattered throughout the U.S. and “a major commercial center for the region.” Only Disney and Universal Studios draw more annual visitors, the report noted.
George Sr.’s flea market emerged during a nationwide boom in outdoor sellers fairs and auctions, which cropped up by the thousands during the latter half of the last century at drive-in movie theaters, stadium parking lots and school campuses.
They assumed a wide variety of operational structures, with some managed by private owners like the Bumbs and others run by chambers of commerce, educational institutions, nonprofits, vendor associations or local governments.
Though architecturally indistinct with its mixture of vernacular structures and sprawling asphalt parking lots, the Berryessa Flea Market marks a “significant contribution to the broad patterns of local and regional history,” the analysts wrote in the city’s 2007 report, by allowing “a distinctive economic and social culture to flourish in San Jose.” As such, they concluded, it merits further research and preservation, whether by incorporating its defining elements into new development or finding another site altogether.
For a hub of commerce and culture that historians cast as so connected to so many lives and livelihoods, the city has done surprisingly little since that report to explore either option. Now, urban planning nonprofit Catalyze SV is calling for essentially the same thing. In an email to city officials and supporters last week, the group called it unfortunate that the urban village plan fails to consider how the flea market—“a huge benefit to our community”—could be preserved or “reimagined.”
Escobedo-Vega was 7 years old when the historical study came out in the wake of the updated zoning allowance. She says she remembers how much anxiety the development proposal caused her parents, who joined other vendors in questioning why the fate of their family businesses should rest in the hands of private property owners and why the city or some other public entity couldn’t do more to intervene.
A similar conversation would arise years later when the region’s skyrocketing land costs threatened to displace thousands of people who owned mobile homes but not the land beneath them. In response to demands from at-risk residents, the City Council in 2015 enacted a moratorium on mobile home park conversions. The city has offered no such protection for vulnerable businesses.
“We’ve been asking for answers and asking for help for 15 years—from the owners, from the city,” Escobedo-Vega says. “But we’re still in this gray area, which is not OK.”
A New Lens
In many respects, history seems to be repeating itself.
As in the late aughts, vendors speaking up about the latest advances in the Berryessa urban village proposal are imploring the city to prevent displacement and gentrification. They’re again decrying a public outreach effort seemingly hampered by language barriers and mixed messages. They’re again asking for a seat at the table.
Jesus Flores, 53, the founding president of Latino Business Foundation Silicon Valley, says he sees at least one meaningful difference this time.
The national reckoning over racial justice sparked by the George Floyd protests prompted cities throughout the U.S.—including San Jose—to apply a “racial equity lens” to every aspect of governance, he notes. “All of a sudden, all these people were talking about equity, equity, equity,” he says. “You started to hear that word everywhere.”
That professed commitment to equity by local leaders gives the public a new standard by which to hold them accountable, Flores notes. To that end, the East Side business owner cosigned a letter with Latinos United for a New America (LUNA) Treasurer Chava Bustamante and veteran vendor advocate Chris Lepe urging the city to reconsider the market’s potential displacement as an equity issue.
“In order to create a win-win for developers and the community,” they write, “it is essential that the city go above and beyond the legal minimum requirements and devote the kind of attention, initiative, creativity, strategies and resources typically put forth to attract major events and major corporations to town.”
The letter goes on to call the flea market’s potential displacement “an issue of institutional racism” and a prime example of the city needing to walk the talk on racial justice in planning future development.
“What were the equity goals and outcomes of the plan and project?” Flores, Bustamante and Lepe ask in the 21-page communique to city leaders. “Equity is not mentioned at all in either staff report. If a proposal of this sort were proposed on Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen, would this be the city’s response to displacement of the businesses there? Would such a proposal even be allowed? Would the city be so quick to claim that they have no power or responsibility to address the displacement?”
Merchants deserve better than just a one-year heads up before their ouster, they add. And the city will have to do better than convening an Office of Racial Equity to build trust with marginalized communities.
“At the very least, the city should give them relocation assistance,” Flores suggests.
The bigger aim, he continues, is for local governments to provide resources proportional to the needs and contributions of such a sizable share of the local economy. Of the 55,000 small businesses recorded by San Jose’s Office of Economic Development, more than half are owned by immigrants and more than 60 percent by people of color—demographics disproportionately bypassed by government service and subsidies.
Last year, Flores, through his foundation, teamed up with the city to analyze the business needs of San Jose’s East Side. Officials obliged, conducting a pair of surveys, one of which confirmed Flores’ suspicion that micro-businesses—those with fewer than five employees—were less likely to access the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal subsidy to keep workers employed during pandemic-related shutdowns.
Results from the second survey have yet to be published.
But Flores says preliminary findings show that a larger-than-previously-known portion of East Side businesses are owned by undocumented entrepreneurs and single moms, groups far less likely to access or qualify for public help. Flores says he hopes more accurate data will translate to more targeted service.
Several members of the Berryessa vendor association call San Jose’s branding as the Capital of Silicon Valley misleading, saying it obscures the small-time blue-collar entrepreneurship that, according to the city, comprises 43 percent of its jobs and 97 percent of its active businesses.
“When the city thinks of business owners, I doubt they’re thinking of me,” says Mariana Mejia, 19, who took after her parents by launching a flea market venture of her own earlier this year. “I doubt they’re thinking of vendors as startups. But that’s what we are.”