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ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Page 8 of 10

In the undocumented underground, all police and law enforcement agencies had been lumped in with Sheriff Joe.

Distrust that began with Sheriff Joe’s raids was re-enforced by media reports detailing how law-enforcement officials had double crossed immigrants. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported in 2010 that some ICE agents reneged on promises of legal status to undocumented immigrants who had acted as valuable informants.

As far as Inocencio and Araceli were concerned, it was better to stay under the radar.

Competition for customers was fierce and unrelenting.

As many immigrants in Phoenix lost their jobs to the recession or to ramifications from the Employer Sanctions Act, unemployed immigrants took to selling whatever they could to other immigrants. Yard sales became more prevalent and frequent. Paloteros, those energetic Mexican vendors who sold icy treats from their handcarts, fanned out after school and sold ice cream late into the night. Spanish speakers with driver’s licenses ran informal taxi and shuttle services for those who feared driving. Peddlers took orders for everything from vegetables to tee shirts and made home deliveries. Corn vendors set up impromptu storefronts in vacant parking lots.

Just down the street from Inocencio and Araceli’s dollar store, a sixty-something-year-old former construction worker we’ll call Samuel parked his old truck in an empty lot every day and sold fresh corn, roasted peanuts, and citrus from the back of his pickup. Samuel told me he netted from $5 to $140 daily, depending on blind luck. His wife raised chickens (she bought the chicken feed at Costco) and sold eggs door-to-door.

I asked Samuel why a customer would buy corn from him or eggs from his wife instead of purchasing the same food at the grocery store, and he said: “We let them sample it.”

He and his wife had total monthly expenses, including rent, of about $2,000. Their kids, who were grown, helped them with expenses if the egg sales and corn vending didn’t pay the bills.

They were undocumented, and got by, he told me, just hoping Obama would make good on his promise and bring about that elusive immigration reform.

Samuel hoped to return to construction work when the recession ended. He wouldn’t go back to Mexico, not if he could help it, even if he could only make ends meet by standing around all day in an empty parking lot waiting for other immigrants to buy corn and peanuts from the back of his truck.

“My whole life is here in Phoenix,” he said.

Samuel’s sentiment was the sentiment of many migrant vendors at Los Perros, which means The Dogs. Los Perros is a large Phoenix swap meet that resembles an open-air market in a big city in southern Mexico. Spanish speakers call the place Los Perros because the complex of storage sheds and shaded stalls sits on the parking lot of a shuttered dog racing park in southeast Phoenix. The Anglos have another name for it: Park N Swap. It’s been around for at least thirty years.

Park N Swap had once been entirely Anglo, but on the day in 2010 that I visited, the crowd was predominantly Latino. A few Anglo holdouts (mostly middle-aged men with straggly goatees and tattoos) still manned booths stocked with knives and martial arts paraphernalia. One Anglo woman sold rocks and gems and tie-died tee shirts. Mostly, though, Spanish speakers sold other Spanish speakers a variety of goods, including brand new rakes, tamale steamers, overalls, gloves, sheets, towels, Malverde (the drug saint) dashboard ornaments, St. Jude medals, used cars, shoes, candles, CD’s, saddles, parakeets, blankets, Chihuahua puppies, mangoes, caramels, cucumbers, plastic jewelry made in China, toilet paper. People cued up to get their computers fixed at various computer booths, and others bought curative herb formulas for colds and coughs from herbalists.

Kids rode the Tilt a Whirl. Some of the wares for sale were garage sale junk, like used toasters or old shoes, but most of the products were new, and of these, most were either made in America or imported by American companies.

What’s key is that vendors used Mexican marketing to sell goods they purchased from American companies. In produce stalls, for instance, some vendors displayed fruits and vegetables on small paper plates on long tables. A plate of small tomatoes sold for a dollar. The same tomatoes could be found in bins in local grocery stores, for about the same price, but newly arrived immigrants preferred the small-plate-for-a-dollar marketing. It reminded them of home.

About 15 percent of the stalls in Los Perros were empty, an indication that people had either left town, or were too spooked by the sheriff and the laws to shop in an open marketplace.

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Terry Greene Sterling