La Pulga flea market in San José will be moved by the new BART village
But the project, which is expected to begin construction in three years, only sets aside five acres – up from 60 – for a so-called “urban market” in the midst of development. It’s a space that advocates say isn’t big enough to accommodate the more than 400 vendors who show up at La Pulga every week for a living.
And there is no doubt: the design overhaul is likely to have dire consequences for longtime family businesses that have established a base in the flea market, who depend on this place for a steady income. Many traders, like Cruz the juice seller, are about to retire and confused by the uncertainty as to where their stall will land. At this point, however, they have little choice but to continue their business.
On this particular Saturday in September, Cruz lists the juices and aguas frescas offered by the stand: nanche, guanÃ¡bana, tamarindo, tunita (or spicy fruit), strawberry horchata, maracuyÃ¡, lemon cucumber and more. âWe believe in freshness,â he says. âWhat doesn’t sell, unfortunately, we throw it away. “
For Cruz, it is more than a simple marketing statement; it is a source of pride. He has worked in the market for over 50 years and since then he has understood the needs of the thousands of people who walk the halls of La Pulga every week. The need for accessible fresh fruit, for example, is particularly acute in parts of the south bay.
“We didn’t have half of all [these juices] when we started, âsays Cruz. Since the stand opened about eight years ago, more and more families from Latin America, especially Central America, have made their home in San JosÃ© and have come looking for fruits that remind them a little their home.
âDo people want guanÃ¡bana? Go and steal it from Guatemala. Do they want passion fruit? Then, Honduras.
Cruz wonders where his customers can find flavors like his if his stall is not included in the new Urban Village plan. Although FruJuice So So Fresh operates several other stalls in San Jose, the outdoor flea market atmosphere is what allows this particular place to really thrive. Without it, the future of his entire business is uncertain.
A family tradition
While La Pulga’s transformation – and dramatic downsizing – is still a few years away, MarÃa PiÃ±eda is nervous about what these changes might mean for her family’s future. With her husband, she owns Virrueta’s Tacos, a Mexican food truck parked a few corridors from FruJuice.
âIt’s so sad,â she said in Spanish. âI started coming here with my grandmother when I was a little girl.
The flea market tradition is steeped in his blood. So many of his relatives have worked at La Pulga at some point in their lives, and currently his family also owns a pistachio business operating there. Throughout PiÃ±eda’s childhood, she came with her family every Sunday to help and to do the shopping.
Virrueta’s tacos started out as a dream that PiÃ±eda and her husband had had for many years. This year, they finally secured the food truck and started cooking recipes handed down from PiÃ±eda’s mother, dishes specific to the town of ApzingÃ¡n, in the southwestern state of MichoacÃ¡n.
âThe flavors of MichoacÃ¡n are very special,â she says, pointing to her chavindecas, a variation of quesadillas that typically includes a stuffing of carne asada, and her morisquetas, a dish that combines rice, refried beans, tomato sauce, queso fresco and flautas (fried tacos).
But what customers love the most is birria, a slow-cooked stew that combines goat meat, garlic, thyme, and a unique combination of peppers and spices. The exact combination varies depending on the family recipe and the region.
Even on a hot day, a cup of birria and consomÃ© (the broth in which the birria is cooked), goes down quite easily. Better yet, quesabirrias, or quesadillas stuffed with birria, with the consomme on the side to soak to avoid the mess.
These trendy tacos have become a staple in the Mexican food scene in South Bay, and the spicy and tangy version of PiÃ±eda is particularly good. The slightly crunchy tortilla wraps the melted cheese and tender, shredded goat meat, with radishes and thinly sliced ââcucumber to serve as a cool relief.
PiÃ±eda smiles when asked for the secret of her family’s recipe. âIt’s a lot of affection, a lot of love,â she said.
Already, she is mentally preparing for a future outside of La Pulga, but she says it won’t be easy. His taco truck is relatively easy to move, but finding a new home for his family’s pistachio stand will be much more difficult.
âThey don’t let you sell pistachios anywhere,â says PiÃ±eda.
The fight to save La Pulga
Many vendors feel the same about their stalls: La Pulga offers them a place to display their products and attract customers in a way that no other market could. And so, they still hope that they could all fit into the redesigned market space, or at least negotiate terms that will make exiting the market less painful. To that end, they formed the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association (BFVA), a nonprofit organization that has been at the forefront of the fight to protect vendors in the redevelopment of the flea market.
Before the big City Council vote in June to approve the BART Urban Village Plan, some BFVA members went on a hunger strike, requiring flea market space in the new design and financial support during the transition. After all, the developers’ initial proposal did not guarantee all space for La Pulga vendors. City council and the Bumb family, who still own the market, ultimately agreed to include 5 acres of flea market space in the urban village design plan and $ 5 million for a vendor transition fund. However, the redevelopment plans have strained the relationship between landlord and tenants.