My grandmother spent her golden years selling kitchen appliances and pajamas at a Long Island flea market. Frying pans and nightgowns never struck me as the most intuitive pairing. But my grandma’s stand was a hit. Every Saturday and Sunday, she, accompanied by her two sisters, peddled their wares to throngs of bargain hunters. They made enough money to pay off their mortgages and even finance a joint condominium in Delray Beach, Florida. It was an ingenious operation and it was fun. My grandma and great aunts knew their customers and fellow vendors. They discussed politics and shared notes about the latest Rogers and Hammerstein revival on Broadway. They forged a community.
Sarah Goldstein, Beverly Bernstein, and Eve Cohen seated in front of their flea market stand in Long Island, New York, ca. 1993.
As a child, I developed an appreciation for the socio-cultural function of the flea market. But it was not until I became a social studies teacher in the San Fernando Valley that I began to view the flea market as a site of historical inquiry. My eighth grade students constantly spoke about a said “San Fernando Swap Meet.” They mentioned spending their weekends there, either helping family members sell goods or perusing the aisles with their parents. Coming from New York City, I had never heard of a “swap meet” but I quickly grasped the concept.
Like a flea market, a swap meet is a large indoor or outdoor market. According to the California State Board of Equalization, a swap meet is characterized by two or more persons/businesses that offer merchandise for sale or exchange; prospective vendors are charged a fee for renting a space; and prospective buyers are charged a fee of admission. Vendors rent their tables on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis and sell a mélange of used and new products.
Aerial view of Kobey’s Swap Meet, San Diego, California.
Prospective buyers purchasing tickets to the San Fernando Swap Meet.
Throughout my career as a teacher, I often thought about the San Fernando Swap Meet. What role did it play in the lives of its vendors and in the broader San Fernando Valley community? Did its vendors develop a kinship with one another and their customers as my grandma and great aunts had back east? What regional and cultural markers distinguished the San Fernando Swap Meet from the Long Island Flea Market and others across the nation?
Years of pondering these questions helped steer me back to graduate school. I discovered that swap meets are an underexplored phenomenon in United States historiography. Scholars have typically referenced swap meets to make broader arguments about how immigrant groups remap the urban environment to reflect their respective cultures and meet their everyday needs. But swap meets have scarcely been examined as their own sociospatial phenomenon, wedged between the informal economy of “street vending” and the more formal arena of private business. With this in mind, I spent much of my first year of graduate school out in the field or deep in the archives researching Southern California’s swap meet industry. What follows is merely an introduction to what I hope will become a more expansive literature on one of the region’s most important cultural institutions.
The Southern California swap meet industry began in the late 1950s as a predominately Anglo space. As the sociologist Magdalena Barros Nock has noted, in the postwar era swap meets were populated by Anglo vendors who made an extra dollar by selling the flotsam and jetsam of their middle-class suburban homes. Consumers frequented the swap meets largely for leisure and curiosity as many do today with garage sales. Southern California swap meets garnered the reputation as an eclectic and eccentric “Wild West”—an image aided by the region’s climate and pervasive stereotypes of its transience, vagrancy, and “frontier” mentality.
The 1979 film, “Swap Meet,” directed by Brice Mack.
By the late 1960s, California’s immigrant population increased and swap meets became more ethnically and linguistically diverse. The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 and its eradication of national origin quotas accelerated the number of immigrant vendors in the region’s swap meets. Immigrants of Asian origin were among the first ethnic groups to sell at swap meets. They introduced new merchandise in the market to supplement produce and second-hand commodities.
The Hart-Celler Act, which also legislated the first numerical restriction on the Western Hemisphere, contributed to a growing presence of Latinx immigrants in the swap meet industry. As historian Mae Ngai has argued, the Hart-Celler Act not only increased undocumented immigration—creating a caste of “illegal aliens”—but its family reunification provision actually led to the settlement of a greater number of Latinx immigrants than was stipulated under the law. California’s swap meet industry thus grew in relation to the number of immigrants who either arrived or settled permanently in the aftermath of the 1965 Immigration Act. By the early 1970s, Latinx immigrants began trying their hand as vendors. They gradually displaced Asian vendors at the swap meets.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Hart Celler Act, 1965, New York City.
The growth of Central American vendors also reflected the geopolitics of the time. U.S. sponsored military coups in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s led to an outpouring of asylum seekers and migrants. Upon arriving in California, refugees found that outdoor markets, like swap meets, offered an informal refuge alongside the official sanctuary provided by churches and Central American-run organizations.
By the late 1970s, swap meets across Southern California boasted a majority Latinx vendor and consumer base. Swap meets came to resemble the tianguis, a massive outdoor market in Mexico whose origins stem back to the pre-Hispanic Tlatelolco market outside Tenochtitlan. In fact, vendors today assert that the swap meet is exactly the same as the tianguis only adapted to meet the needs of Latin American origin populations living in Southern California. The pre-Hispanic tianguis and its post-conquest iterations offer a valuable context in which to study the swap meet because not only were they the nexus of commercial exchange, but they also facilitated the interchange of cultural knowledge and experience. Mexica people swapped stories about agricultural and manufacturing techniques and they exposed each other to regional dialects and belief systems.
Collectivism was a defining feature of the pre-Hispanic tianguis. Merchants exchanged their products as a means of individual and communal subsistence. They traded with others to satisfy reciprocal needs. Yet it was the barter system that most distinguished the pre-Hispanic tianguis from its subsequent adaptations. For the Mexica, bartering was a way of life that pervaded more than the economic realm. It represented a mutualism characteristic of many indigenous communities: the prosperity of the individual hinged on the welfare of the collective. As the nucleus of the Aztec Empire, it is no surprise that the Spanish Conquistadors staked their conquest on the siege of Tlatelolco.
“El Mercado de Tlatelolco” by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico.
By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, Southern California’s swap meet industry increasingly reflected this long-stemming Mesoamerican tradition of collectivism. Individual swap meet entrepreneurs evolved into extended swap meet families. Vendors relied on their relatives to donate unwanted products and support the business through their own labor. They also developed relationships with vendors from Asia and other parts of Latin America, which allowed vendors to break into globalized markets. As one scholar has noted, it was not unusual to find Virgins of Guadalupe made in China or quinceañera dresses made in Taiwan.
The continued growth of Latinx swap meet vendors during the Reagan Administration resulted from changes in domestic immigration policy. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the amnesty program, and the family reunification program, led to the permanent settlement of 2.3 million immigrants, the vast majority from Mexico. Heightened policing along the U.S.-Mexico border also caused formerly circular migrants to live permanently in the United States. A shift in the settlement patterns of migrant families helped solidify the swap meet industry as viable source of income. In agricultural areas, for example, swap meets became an alternative for immigrant women whose husbands worked seasonally in the agricultural sector, and who, due to gender or racial discrimination, struggled to secure steady employment.
President Ronald Reagan signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act, 1986, Washington D.C.
Most of all, vendors forged multiracial coalitions to advocate for the industry in local politics. Outdoor swap meets emerged predominantly in Los Angeles’ (sub)urban areas, which by Reagan’s first term, were already in the throes of rapid demographic change. In areas like the San Fernando Valley or the Inland Empire, outdoor swap meets were housed in former airports and racetracks—spaces that historically emblematized white suburban recreation. Yet the biggest supporter of the swap meet industry was the drive-in movie owner who looked to the burgeoning industry to fill an economic vacuum left by the drive-in’s waning popularity.
Starlite Swap Meet and Drive-In, El Monte, California.
Santa Fe Springs Drive-In Theater and Swap Meet, Santa Fe Springs, California.
As swap meets proliferated in the (sub)urban landscape, they became racially encoded entities that threatened the “character” of historically Anglo neighborhoods. Beginning in the early 1980s, suburban homeowners in cities like Santa Ana, Long Beach, and El Cajón organized neighborhood coalitions aimed at curbing, if not outright eradicating, outdoor swap meets from the area. For instance, in 1980 Long Beach homeowners organized the Veterans Stadium Citizens Committee to oppose a Recreation Department plan for city-sanctioned swap meets. In addition to parking and traffic complaints, one Long Beach resident insisted that, “it would be reasonable to expect home and car burglaries to rise in the residential area around the stadium…anytime you have an influx of outsiders—especially undesirables—into the area.”
Pat Sullivan and Sue Christensen, among 600 residents opposing a proposed swap meet at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, Long Beach, California, 1980.
At no moment was this local resistance more evident than in the four-year crusade to prohibit outdoor swap meets in Santa Ana between 1987 and 1991. By the summer of 1987, two outdoor swap meets operated in the city–one at the Rancho Santiago College and another at the Eddie West Field Stadium. At the time, the neighborhoods surrounding the two swap meets were largely Anglo while the swap meets were comprised predominantly of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Despite bringing the city $300,000 in annual revenue and providing scores of jobs, the swap meets came under attack by two neighborhood coalitions: one known as Santa Ana Neighbors for Excellence or SANE (which included representatives from 16 different city neighborhoods) and the other as the Washington Square Neighborhood Association. Opponents lobbied heavily to shut down the swap meets, citing a litany of concerns including reduced property values, increased traffic, parking problems, litter, and noise. At the heart of their campaign was the fear that swap meets negatively impacted the neighborhood and contributed to urban blight.
A map of the two swap meets in the city of Santa, Ana, July 1987.
In response to these calls to close the swap meets, vendors and other supporters mobilized around a city council meeting slated for the evening of July 6th, 1987. Wearing black armbands and toting small U.S. flags, swap meet vendors carried posters, one stating “Swap Meets Feed Our Children.” But swap meet supporters were outnumbered by their opponents who wore stickers that simply stated “Voter.” Over 600 people showed up on that Monday night, leading one reporter to remark that, “what initially appeared to be a minor zoning issue has emerged as a full-scale battle to shut the city’s two swap meets.” The most explosive moment of the evening came around midnight when both Richard Norton, the two swap meets’ operator, and John Acosta, one of two Latino councilmembers, leveled allegations of racism against swap meet opponents, especially SANE. Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young assailed Acosta for his provocation. The council voted to permanently close the Stadium Swap Meet. Four years later, it closed the Rancho College Swap Meet and passed an ordinance barring swap meets in the city of Santa Ana.
As historian Natalia Molina has argued, such racial scripts, like those ascribed to the vendors of the Eddie West Field and Rancho Santiago Swap Meets, could easily transfer to other communities with growing Latinx populations. By the 1990s, swap meets across the region were seen as markers of an imperiled community and signaled to white residents the presence of an imminent “Latino threat.” Mainstream media highlighted isolated incidents of robberies, counterfeit goods, noise, littering, and overall resistance to swap meets. In response, organizations like the California Swap Meet Association and the National Flea Market Association more forcefully advocated for the swap meet industry. Over the last two decades, their work has discredited many of the myths borne out of the Santa Ana controversy and improved the industry’s public image. But the swap meet has largely receded from view. The mainstream media has given the swap meet industry little attention save for a handful of articles that still portray them as a lawless space.
Due both to its history and my own personal connections to the flea market, I spent the first four months of 2019 ensconced in the aisles of one of Los Angeles’ oldest and longest running swap meets in the city of San Fernando. On my first day of “field work” a former student, now 18, recognized me and quickly transformed into my key informant. I went back on six consecutive Saturdays to conduct interviews and visited every Tuesday and Thursday for five weeks to do participant observations. In total, I conducted and transcribed twelve interviews, which form the source base of my project.
San Fernando Swap Meet layout.
The San Fernando Swap Meet opened in the early 1970s, just a few blocks from the historic mission site. It was first owned by Pacific Theatres, a film company that used its drive-in lots as daytime swap meets. And I’d be remiss if I don’t point out the irony that the drive-in theater, which in many ways epitomized Anglo suburban recreation, was now serving a dual purpose as what the OC Weekly now calls “the working man’s mall.” The San Fernando Swap Meet now operates as a limited liability cooperation and is the largest in Los Angeles county, boasting over 1 million vendors and shoppers a year.
Three themes emerged from my research that illustrate the social and cultural functions of the San Fernando Swap Meet.
Cultural Hybridity. By this I mean the effort to maintain a balance among the practices, values, and customs of two or more cultures. Vendors construct a dual identity that fuses vestiges of their cultural and ethnic heritage—in this case, largely Mexican (though from different states), with an awareness of their position both within and outside the margins of nationality and citizenship. This theme was especially evident in my interview with Juan Pedredo, a twenty-year swap meet musician, who played Pedro Infante and Augstin Lara ballads on his guitar. As he noted, “The people like to remember the past, right? It reminds them of their uncle or their brother who played the guitar, no? It is our tradition.” Indeed, even the opening chords of the country’s most popular rancheras or corridos evoke a sense of nostalgia. Pedredo sees his musical performances as a countervailing force against a collective forgetting: “The people now they’re forgetting Mexico, with all the bad things there, with all the atrocities the government has committed, the politicians, business CEOs, capitalism, it’s all destroying humanity….here too, if you even move your hand they kill you.” Mr. Pedredo operates within what Alicia Schmidt Camacho has called a “migrant imaginary.” That is, he lives in the United States but resides in an existential borderlands—he wants his listeners to remember what Mexico once was as he laments what it has become. And he does so while struggling to make a livable wage from his post at the northwest corner of the San Fernando Swap Meet.
Swap meet vendors also see themselves as the torchbearers of the tianguis tradition in Southern California. As Ricardo Zavala proclaims, “vendors and buyers come because this is our culture, our origin.” He elaborates, “the origins of the swap meet are in Mexico, there they call it ‘tianguis’ and it’s exactly the same as here.” While more work needs to be done to determine whether the tianguis and the swap meet are exactly “the same,” there is no doubt that vendors are aware that the swap meet is the descendant of the tianguis, and they its reinterpreters in Los Angeles. But just as the tianguis has adapted to tectonic forces shaping society today (globalization, neoliberalism, climate change, etc…), so too has the swap meet. While it possesses residual aspects of the pre-Hispanic tianguis—its collectivism especially, though not its bartering—it must negotiate between the world of unbridled capitalism while also maintaining the informality of a pre-industrial market.
San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.
Collectivism. To be sure, the vendors work to support themselves and their families. But they also see their business contributing to a communal well-being. Individuals advocate for their needs and support their neighbors, making the swap meet what George Lipsitz has called a “Latinx spatial imaginary.” For vendors, the swap meet is a home away from home, where they develop a close relationship with each other and their customers. As Ricardo Zavala stated, “with the neighbors, you make a kind of family environment because you see them every day. I mean, you basically live together, more sometimes even than the people in your house because here you arrive around five, six, or seven in the morning and stay until three, four, sometimes five in the afternoon and you’re here almost every day. It’s a family more than a business… because for example, your clients come and they tell you their stories, and sometimes you even become like a handkerchief for them to cry on. And yeah, it’s a big diverse family.”
This collectivism becomes especially evident when politics come into play, as Maria Garcés, a thirty-nine year vendor noted, “when Donald Trump came into office, the swap meet was deserted for two or three weeks. The people were scared, they wouldn’t come. We all suffered.” Note: “we” all suffered. Or as David Angelo, reflected, “there were a couple times when we thought ICE was going to do a raid, we called all the vendors we could. At this swap meet and at the others we sell at.”
San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.
Class Solidarity. A final theme I would like to highlight is that while swap meet vendors develop a collective spirit, where the success of the individual hinges on the success of the whole, the basis of this ethos stems from their class consciousness. For many vendors, the swap meet is a reminder of their status within the city’s segregated labor and housing market. Many vendors turned to the swap meet out of a need to survive when they could not get a job in their trained profession and because it was within blocks of their homes. Others attributed their swap meet career to discriminatory practices by employers. And yet others pursued swap meet vending as a means to attain economic mobility and independence in an environment that consigned them to the working class. This was not just the case for Mexican immigrants. Mr. Mirzoyan, an Armenian national who has sold Levi jeans at the San Fernando Swap Meet since 1992, ended up at the swap meet on a tip from a neighbor because he could not find a job in his field of mechanical engineering. “The people is taking care of each other,” he states. Mr. Mirzoyan learned Spanish through his customers. Spanish, he asserts, is a requisite for swap meet vendors: “This is San Fernando, first stop of Latinos from Mexico. Most of them when they come here, they come to San Fernando swap meet. Seventy percent speak only Spanish.” While swap meet vending has become an alternative career for Mirzoyan, it is not easy work. “See this merchandise behind, it’s not easy to set up and pick up. It’s a lot of work. Everybody same. See how much merchandise they put there?” he says, pointing to his swap meet neighbor. Although they hail from different parts of the world, Mr. Mirzoyan identifies with his fellow vendors and feels a sense of solidarity with them. The job is taxing for everyone and they do it together, five times a week.
San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.
Southern California’s swap meet industry has a deep and rich history. And this is just a starting point in the study of the region’s swap meets. Despite attempts to expunge swap meets from the cityscape, swap meets continue to serve the same function they have for over forty years as the tianguis market has for over five hundred. And despite fears that the swap meet’s days are numbered due to the rise of e-commerce conglomerates and the looming threat of gentrification, the swap meet has lasting power. Its unparalleled economic function and its deep cultural resonance place the odds of survival in its favor. And many vendors agree.
But I do think the swap meet industry raises important questions about how we understand the recent past. Swap meet vendors exhibited a working-class collectivism reminiscent of—perhaps not seen since—the Progressive or New Deal eras. And they rose to their height at the same time that the 1970s—famously dubbed the “Me Decade”—and the 1980s saw the country embrace an ethos of individualism. Plenty of volumes address how the “Reagan Revolution” played out in the realm of electoral politics. But fewer works explore how these political transformations impacted local communities, especially those with burgeoning immigrant populations. What’s more, suburban resistance to the swap meet industry can perhaps shed light on this current iteration of the restrictionist movement with individuals like President Donald Trump, Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell, and Stephen Miller at the helm. Future research can examine in more depth how alternative spaces like the San Fernando Swap Meet set a model for economic and cultural persistence when Washington and local neighbors reject it in both form and function.