Markets Evoke Memories of Mexico
Published: August 2, 2011
MADERA, Calif. — Every Sunday, Juan Enriquez, a former farmworker from Mexico, shows off his culinary art, sculpturing sweet white meat from young coconuts with a knife and briskly sprinkling it with salt and lime.
“It is better than working in the fields,” Mr. Enriquez said of his new job as a vendor at the Madera Flea Market. “Here at least there is shade.”
In the Latino communities along Highway 99, the artery of the San Joaquin Valley, the grand tradition of the Sunday flea market — fly swatters, car parts, plastic Betty Boop purses and all — has been transformed into the famed open-air bazaar or tianguis that is a fixture of daily life throughout Mexico.
Madera is a mecca for the state’s estimated 120,000 indigenous Mexican-Indian farmworkers, many of whom are from Oaxaca and speak a pre-Columbian language called Mixtec. And its Sunday flea market is a colorful world-within-a-Latino-world, recreating the weekly gatherings around hundreds of village plazas. Upwards of 6,000 marketgoers banter over cucumbers laced with fiery pico de gallo, buy CDs of Mixtec bands and scout the best prices for pápalo, an aromatic green that grows wild in the mountains of Mexico. Music shifts like living radio from vendor to vendor, from the Beatles to Chilenas con violin, lilting traditional sounds. It is a backdrop to the array of sombreros, tomatillos, copal incense for Mass and simulated ostrich ranchero boots.
For a linguistically and socially marginalized population grasping the bottom rung of the labor ladder, “it is a place to remind yourself who you are,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a project director for the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Mixtec farmworkers are recent arrivals, having migrated first within Mexico where they picked cotton or cut sugar cane. Many hail from home villages that are specks on the map, like San Martin Peras, an impoverished community of fewer than 1,500 people.
For Antonio Barrera, originally from the state of Guerrero, who rises long before dawn to pick onions, the market is “an entertainment” that reminds him of home. Many farmworkers have come from remote villages without electricity, down tortuous gravel roads, hours from a semblance of a supermarket. Arriving in the Central Valley, they might earn $8 an hour if they are lucky, and often what amounts to $3 an hour for a piece rate.
Speaking in 16 indigenous Oaxacan languages, the laborers trade recipes, discuss politics back home and exchange intelligence on who is hiring around the valley and what the job pays. They argue over whether it is better to buy nopales, the fleshy pads of edible prickly pear cactuses, cut up or whole.
There are roughly 7,000 Mixtec people in greater Madera, said Edward Kissam, a farm labor researcher and consultant. The Madera School District had a Mixtec interpreter until last year, when the position was eliminated because of budget cuts.
In California, indigenous Mexican farmworkers are the poorest of the poor, with a median family income of $13,750 compared with $22,500 for their mestizo — the Spanish term for people of mixed European and Indian heritage — counterparts, according to a 2007-9 Indigenous Farmworker study done in conjunction with California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.
Language is a pressing issue: Farmworkers from Oaxaca speak neither Spanish nor English, making it difficult to follow a doctor’s prescription or respond to a criminal charge. It also makes indigenous migrants vulnerable to exploitation, like getting short-changed on hours or piece-rates, said Irma Luna, a community worker for California Rural Legal Assistance.
“It’s very difficult to get by, and because of language barriers, people don’t complain,” Ms. Luna said.
Within the material culture of the market, the subtleties of everyday life are revealed: washboards instead of washing machines, for instance, or bicycle parts for the many shoppers who do not own cars.
Rey Rodriguez, the 36-year-old son of Zapotec farmworkers, grew up in Oceanside, Calif., and has a thriving business selling Mixtecs $10 DVD videos from annual village fiestas.
“They want to see who is dancing with whom,” observed Hugo Morales, a former MacArthur fellow and founder of Radio Bilingüe, the country’s largest Spanish-language public radio network.
“The women often dance together because the men are absent,” said Mr. Morales, who is Mixtec. “We Mixtecos yearn to be back in our villages, but many of us don’t have the legal papers or the money to go back, so the Madera market is a space for comfort — despite the over 100-degree heat.”
Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of clinical internal medicine and director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, said that in addition to supporting the traditional diet, the market had a mental-health dimension. “It counteracts a host of stressors, such as social exclusion,” he said.
At the market, the stress is often disguised with beauty. Sitting beside a mountain of chiles, Socorro Guiterrez was selling crepe-paper flowers that she fashions by hand. Her deepest sadness, a serious injury and the death of nine companions in a van accident while coming home from the fields, was not readily apparent — invisible in colorful crepe-paper petals, as delicate as life.