Longform

ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Page 9 of 10

They had reason to be spooked.

Sheriff Joe’s deputies had twice raided the Mercado, another open-air swap meet. Once, in 2007, deputies said they were investigating underage drinking. The second time, in 2009, they said they were investigating complaints of sales of pirated videos. A few arrests were made, but the effects on this once-popular Mexican immigrant market were more than damaging. In the early 1990s, a lumber company owner and palm-tree farmer named Herb Owens noticed that Latinos frequented a nearby swap meet. He figured if he shaded his parking lot, and added bathrooms, he could offer a better venue to these Latino merchants and shoppers. His El Gran Mercado, The Great Market, was an overnight success. He expanded the space, added two dance pavilions and booked some of the best Latino bands in the country. This way, he attracted two crowds—families in the daytime and men and women dressed to the nines for the evening concerts and dances.

Herb Owens was born in 1932, in Phoenix. His parents were local Anglo farmers who eventually branched out into construction. Like most people who grew up in farms around Phoenix, Herb Owens learned Spanish as a child. The agricultural workers were Mexicans and so were his schoolmates. He respected Mexican culture.

When I first wrote about Owens’s Mercado in 1997, 1.5 million people visited it each year. The last time I talked to him, the two raids had taken their toll on his business. Visitor attendance for 2009 had dropped to 750,000—about one-half of the pre-raids count. What’s more, after Sheriff Joe’s second raid, monthly attendance plummeted once again—down from 95,000 visitors in March 2009 to 30,000 visitors in September 2009. He needed 60,000 monthly visitors to break even.

Owens viewed the last raid, in which deputies combed the Mercado for hours and arrested seven adults and three kids in connection with allegedly pirated videos, as “disastrous” and an “abuse of power” that had the intended effect of frightening customers and vendors from the swap meet.

The Mercado had been successful because first-generation Mexican immigrants felt comfortable there. They wanted to buy American goods as well as Mexican imports. But they preferred the Mexican-style open-air market atmosphere to American stores with fixed prices. The raids impacted not only swap meet vendors, but American wholesalers, importers, and, of course, Herb Owens.

Ironically, Owens had for years hired Sheriff Joe’s off-duty deputies to act as security guards for the Mercado. It had been a happy arrangement, Owens told me, until several years ago, when the off-duty deputies were no longer allowed to work for him. “The sheriff withdrew them,” Owens said. That happened about the same time that Sheriff Joe began his raids.

Recently, I visited the Mercado. The Spanish-speaking vendors were dispirited; many said they weren’t making enough money to break even and they were thinking of pulling up stakes and moving to another state.

“We depend on undocumented people,” said Angela, a vendor who sold religious amulets, paintings, statues. Some weekends, Angela didn’t sell enough to cover her $173 rental fee for the stall, and her booth was one of the most popular, because, Angela said, “desperate people pray.”

Jesus icons and rosaries still sold well, she told me. The best selling saint was the Virgen de Guadalupe, the brown-skinned Madonna of Mexico, but St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, came in a close second. After that, Santa Muerte and Malverde and other saints competed for the dollars of those “desperate people” who pray.

One morning, Inocencio let me accompany him on a buying trip to his suppliers – warehouses owned by American companies. Our first stop was at a large Mexican import warehouse in south central Phoenix. The warehouse was owned by an American company and carried American products, too. Inocencio took his sweet time, wandering up and down the aisles looking at cases of prayer candles. Araceli had been after him to buy a case of those thick candles encased in glass stamped with images of religious icons, like the Virgin of Guadalupe. Araceli knew that in hard times these prayer candles sold well. She’d seen them fly off the walls of yerberías, Mexican herbal remedy stores patronized by many newly arrived immigrants.

The warehouse carried the largest variety of candles Inocencio had ever seen. There were cases of Shut Up candles (you lit the candle, and by the time it burned out a few days later the person who’d badmouthed you would shut up) and cases of Come Back to Me candles (for jilted lovers) and cases of Jesus Malverde candles, to name a few.

Inocencio purchased a case of Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles, a case of Mexican Coke in bottles, and a case of Fanta sodas. Soon we were driving down Indian School road in his old van, listening to cumbias.

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Terry Greene Sterling