The San Jose Flea Market, “La Pulga de San José,” is a 61-year-old cultural touchstone and economic juggernaut for millions of California residents. But, for Latinos, it is much more than a marketplace—La Pulga serves as a combination of a plaza and market that provides an irreplaceable recreational and civic space for our community. It is a vibrant Mercado that has given Latinos a cultural and economic foothold in a landscape that has largely ignored our existence.
For Latinos, the plaza and open-air markets are part of a rich history dating back thousands of years. For example, when the Spanish arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortes' men, described with awe the vast and highly organized city markets, with products from every end of the Mesoamerica trade networks. The open-air selling continued—today, the plaza, Mercado, and "tianguis" street vending are an essential part of the urban fabric of Latin American cities.
In San Jose, our central plazas—St. James Park, Cesar Chavez Plaza—have been relegated to modern interpretations of public parks. La Pulga, in comparison, has emerged as an essential center of Latino civic life for over 60 years and is still going strong. La Pulga attracts visitors and vendors from every stratum of the economic spectrum and is especially critical for many of our region’s low-income, working-class and immigrant communities.
La Pulga is the largest open-air market in the U.S. and rivals the markets of Paris and Mexico City in scale and impact. In a typical year, it attracts more visitors than all of the Bay Area’s sports stadiums—combined. A recent historical analysis found “the only permanent outdoor attractions that draw a larger yearly attendance [in the U.S.] are the Disney and Universal Studios theme parks.”
But the Market and the families that depend on it are at risk due to new development plans. The Berryessa Urban Village Plan completely ignores the Flea Market, the cultural significance to our immigrant community, and the economic impact it brings to our city. Instead, the plans proposed will raze the Flea Market to make way for dull and unimaginative buildings with homes, shops, and office space, like many other parts of San Jose.
Recently, an announcement by city leadership and the Market owners was sent out to the press proclaiming the "saving of the Flea Market." The press release describes a 3.5-acre "public market" representing about 5% of the existing site or 11% of the actual Market's footprint. In reality, the 3.5 acres does not represent an increase in the open space initially planned on the site. Unless the Market goes vertical, the 3.5 acres would mean that roughly nine out of ten vendors would be displaced; a proposal, that as one vendor put it, is like "tearing down our home and putting up a tent instead."
Furthermore, details of this “public market” are nowhere to be found, including whether it will actually be public or simply publicly accessible private land (which is therefore not public), how many vending stalls would be included, and if the costs of the vending stalls would be comparable to today’s rents. If the intent is to save the Flea Market, then the city and land owners should say exactly how they will do so, with every vendor accounted for.
Furthermore, the plans were brought together without public input and without consulting or inviting the Flea Market Vendors Association to comment on this last-minute addition. This follows a pattern in which the city and land owner have railed to deeply engage vendors in the plans over the last two years. The city could have conducted direct outreach to vendors at the Flea Market as part of its Urban Village Plan process but chose not to do so.
Adopting a final plan now to eliminate all or most of La Pulga is yet another blow to the San José Latino community that is still reeling from the COVID pandemic. Furthermore, the closing of La Pulga comes at a time when our community is being fragmented and dismantled through the unrelenting wave of gentrification. San Jose’s Urban Village plans have produced few results over the last ten years, but La Pulga has put San José on the map and provided an economic stepping stone for tens of thousands of families.
As owners of the Bay 101 Casino, the Bumb family is used to gambling, but we urge the city not to gamble with the future of the Latino and immigrant community.
James Rojas is a Latino urban planner, community activists, and artists. For the past 30 years Rojas have been researching, and documenting the ways in which Latinos are transforming the US suburban environment to fit their needs.
Peter Ortiz is an East San Jose community leader and Trustee for the Santa Clara County Board of Education. He has been a longtime advocate for Latino and immigrant owned community businesses.