Every Saturday morning, vendors gather on the grounds of Ramona Gardens and turn a largely unused patch of dirt and grass into a festive gathering ground. Cumbias play in the background, drowning out a man yelling “churros” as families rush to their favorite vendors to find affordable clothes, fresh food and everyday needs.
The swap meet, which brings as many as 45 vendors on any given weekend, has faced some difficulties and run-ins with police over the years because it operates without permits. An effort to convert it to a certified farmers’ market failed, but it still creates a small pocket of business opportunity in a housing complex where lack of services is the norm.
“El agachón,” as it was once known, owes its place in the community to a group of Ramona Gardens entrepreneurs who organized to keep it running.
As locals tell it, it began some 20 years ago when a man started selling clothes on a vacant plot along Murchison Street to raise funds for a local church. Ramona Gardens residents were attracted by the low prices–every item cost 25 cents–and people began calling him “el coreano” (a play on “cora,” the way some Spanish speakers pronounce quarter.)
“He began by himself. He would set up with his pickup and display the clothes on a patch of cement,” recalls Carlos Ramos, 68, who began selling used clothes with his wife in 2000.
Other locals began setting their own stands alongside “El Coreano,” who left after a few years. Originally vendors would spread blankets on the floor, so customers would have to bend down–“agacharse” in Spanish– to examine an item, which led to the market being dubbed “el agachón.”
The selection of goods soon grew from clothes and prepared food to produce, electronics, toys and everyday necessities. There is only one small market in the historically isolated neighborhood, and the nearest supermarkets and larger stores are a 15-minute drive away, which makes it a popular convenience for Ramona Gardens residents.
A good economic proposition
“I like coming to the event to get toilet paper and some churros, because it’s cheap,” says Ismael Quezada, a 22-year-old Ramona Gardens resident.
Manuel Blanco, a 50-year-old Lincoln Heights resident, likes to browse the market for new and used tools. “Some items are cheaper than at Home Depot, for instance,” he brags.
The market benefits both local residents and vendors, many of whom say they can’t get jobs anywhere else.
“I sell out of need, because it’s my only income,” says Reina Ortiz, 52, a former Ramona Gardens resident who attracts crowds with her crunchy, warm flautas, filled with charred meat and smothered with guacamole.
She sets up her stand by 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and sells out way before the swap meet ends at 3:30 p.m. On a good day, she takes home as much as $300.
Socorro Vázquez, the first food vendor at the swap meet, recalls having early run-ins with the police.
“Every week the police would run us out of this place,” says the 56-year-old Ramona Gardens resident, who sold food out of a portable cazo filled with hot oil. “Our fear was that we would get a ticket, and sales weren’t good enough to pay a $300 fine.”
Over the years, the event got bigger, attracting people from nearby communities and bringing increased traffic along Murchison.
Organizing to do business
About five years ago, the vendors began organizing, and with the help of L.A. Voice, an interfaith community organization, met with the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) officers to try to smooth out the traffic problem.
In 2011, at the urging of the LAPD and Councilman José Huízar’s office, businesswoman Tonie Juárez was brought in to turn the swap meet into a certified farmers’ market. Juárez, who runs the Boyle Heights farmers’ market in Mariachi Plaza, imposed regulations that she said were necessary to obtain certification. She also raised vendors’ fees to $20 from $5 or $10.
“That would provide tables, chairs, restrooms, canopies and all the permits, says Juárez. “That’s what they were paying for.”
But Vázquez said that many of the vendors could not afford the new fees and were unhappy with the way Juárez ran the market. She said that Juárez banned her from the market and brought in police to keep her away, charges Juárez denied. In February 2013, Juárez left.
“I left because there’s are a lot of people there that don’t like to follow rules and regulations,” says Juárez. “There was really no need for me to be there. ”
After that, the vendors reorganized, and resident Olga Pérez, a volunteer with L.A. Voice, became president of their fledgling organization. Ramos was chosen vice president and Vázquez treasurer.
CSP Sergeant Kenneth Edwards says the group is in the process of getting permits and hopes to become a certified farmers’ market. With some expert help, Edwards says, the market could become a business model that other housing developments can emulate.
Every Saturday, Ramos and Vázquez walk through the packed swap meet with notebooks in one hand and pens in another, collecting fees from vendors. Vázquez says that about 30 vendors selling dry goods are charged $10 each, and up to 10 food vendors are charged $20.
The fees pay for two portable toilets and a portable sink for vendors and customers to wash their hands. They also pay for cleaning and traffic control, plus a $60 stipend for each of the three organizers.
Vázquez says the current group hopes to maintain the market for the benefit of the community.
“We hold this event because of our need,” she states. “We must find a way to take home our daily bread.”