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KQED’s San Jose: The Bay Area’s Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose’s wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29.
ial Cruz deftly maneuvers his way through the crowded aisle in front of the FruJuice So So Fresh stand at the San Jose Flea Market. Behind the counter, his coworkers chop fruit of all different colors and sizes, blending them together to make fresh juices and aguas frescas.
“Pásenle, pásenle,” Cruz calls out to the people walking by. “You have to try this fruit, there’s nothing fresher.”
On a hot September afternoon, FruiJuice stands as an oasis under the unrelenting South Bay sun. A sip of the cucumber-lime agua fresca provides immediate relief from the heat—a mix of tangy sweetness and coolness that washes over you, reaching all the way up to the top-of-the-scalp spot where the sun almost seems to sit.
The juice stand is located in the produce corridor of the flea market—also known as La Pulga—where dozens of stalls sell spices, nuts and vegetables from California, Latin America and the rest of the world. Elsewhere in the market’s 60 acres of winding passageways, merchants buy and sell almost anything you can imagine: plants, rugs, craftwork, toys, clothes, furniture and the list goes on. It’s one of the biggest outdoor swap meets in California.
La Pulga’s sprawling nature evokes a bygone era, when Silicon Valley was an agricultural hub and empty tracts of land were plentiful—something the first owners of the market took advantage of when they opened up in 1960. The founder of the market, George Bumb Sr., worked in the solid waste and landfill management business and wanted to resell items that would otherwise be discarded.
Originally called the Berryessa Flea Market, the market was built off of land that used to house an old meat processing plant. Produce stands opened up, selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The farmers who brought that produce were predominantly Latino, and soon enough they brought their foods and other cultural products into the market. Thus, La Pulga was born.
Fast forward 60 years, and San Jose has become the largest city in the Bay Area and one of the global capitals of the tech industry. The orchards that used to surround the flea market have been replaced by modern, brand-name shopping complexes and sleek, modular high-rise apartments. This transformation has put the city between two possible futures: continue embracing the tradition of large, loud, sprawling spaces like La Pulga or move towards a more urbanized and sleeker version of itself that’s more in line with the needs and wants of Silicon Valley.
In June of this year, San Jose city officials approved a plan to rezone the north San Jose flea market site to make way for a major mixed-use development called the Berryessa BART Urban Village, which includes more than 3 million square feet of office and retail space and 3,400 housing units, a quarter of which the City promises will be affordable to “very low, low and moderate-income households”—though it’s not clear what that breakdown will be. Plans to redesign the flea market’s layout had been in the works for almost two decades when the city council voted in 2007 to rezone the market as a “mixed-use transit village” surrounding the new BART station, which opened last year. When San Jose’s current city council unanimously approved the Urban Village plan this year, council members said the project would bring more housing, jobs and business to the city.
But the project, expected to begin construction in three years, sets aside only five acres—down from 60—for a so-called “urban market” in the middle of the development. It’s a space advocates say is not nearly large enough to fit the more than 400 vendors who show up to La Pulga every week to make a living.
And there’s no question: The design shake-up is likely to have dire consequences for the long-running family businesses that have established a base at the flea market—that rely on the place for steady income. Many of the merchants—like Cruz, the juice vendor—are close to retirement and troubled by the uncertainty of where their stall will land. At this point, however, they have little choice but to carry on with their business.
On this particular Saturday in September, Cruz lists off the juices and aguas frescas the stall offers: nanche, guanábana, tamarindo, tunita (or prickly fruit), strawberry horchata, maracuyá, lemon cucumber and more. “We believe in freshness,” he says. “What doesn’t sell, sadly enough, we throw away.”
For Cruz, this is more than a marketing statement; it’s a point of pride. He’s worked at the market for more than 50 years, and in that time he has come to understand the needs of the thousands of people who walk through the corridors of La Pulga each week. The need for accessible fresh fruit, for instance, is especially acute in some parts of the South Bay.
“We didn’t have half of all of [these juices] when we started,” Cruz says. Since the stall opened its doors roughly eight years ago, more families from Latin America, specifically Central America, have made their home in San Jose and have come looking for fruits that remind them a bit of home.
“People want guanábana? Go fly it from Guatemala. They want passion fruit? Then, Honduras.”
Cruz wonders where his customers will be able to find flavors like his if his stall isn’t included in the new Urban Village plan. Although FruJuice So So Fresh operates several other stands in San Jose, the flea market’s outdoor atmosphere is what allows this particular location to really thrive. Without it, his entire business’s future is uncertain.
While La Pulga’s transformation—and dramatic down-sizing—is still a few years away, María Piñeda is nervous about what these changes could mean for her family’s future. Along with her husband, she owns Virrueta’s Tacos, a Mexican food truck that’s parked a few corridors down from FruJuice.
“This is so sad,” she says in Spanish. “I first started coming here with my grandmother when I was a little girl.”
The flea market tradition runs deep in her blood. So many of her relatives worked at La Pulga at some point in their lives, and currently, her family also owns a pistachio business that operates there. All through Piñeda’s childhood, she would come with her family every Sunday to help out and shop.
Virrueta’s Tacos started as a dream that Piñeda and her husband had for many years. This year, they finally secured the food truck and began cooking recipes handed down by Piñeda’s mother—dishes specific to the town of Apatzingán, in the southwest state of Michoacán.
“The flavors of Michoacán are very special,” she says, pointing out her chavindecas, a variation of quesadillas that usually includes a stuffing of carne asada, and her morisquetas, a dish that combines rice, refried beans, tomato sauce, queso fresco and flautas (crisp-fried tacos).
But what customers love the most is the birria, a slowly-cooked stew that brings together goat meat, garlic, thyme and a unique combination of chiles and spices—the exact combination varies by family recipe and region.
Even on a hot day, a cup of birria and consomé (the broth the birria is cooked in), go down quite easily. Even better are the quesabirrias, or quesadillas stuffed with birria, with the consomé on the side for dipping to avoid a mess.
These trendy tacos have become commonplace in the South Bay’s Mexican food scene, and Piñeda’s spicy, tangy version is especially great. The slightly crunchy tortilla envelops the melted cheese and tender, shredded goat meat, with thinly sliced radish and cucumber to serve as cool relief.
Piñeda smiles when asked about the secret to her family’s recipe. “It’s a lot of affection, a lot of love,” she says.
Already, she is mentally preparing for a future outside of La Pulga, but she says it won’t be easy. Her taco truck is relatively easy to move, but finding a new home for her family’s pistachio stand will be much harder.
“It’s not just anywhere they’ll let you sell pistachios,” Piñeda says.
Many vendors feel the same way about their stalls—that La Pulga provides a place for them to display their products and reel in customers in ways no other market could. And so, they’re still holding out hope that they might all fit into the redesigned market’s space, or at least negotiate terms that will make leaving the market less painful. Toward that end, they formed the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association (BFVA), a nonprofit organization that has been on the forefront of the fight to protect vendors in the flea market’s redevelopment.
Before the City Council’s big vote in June to approve the BART Urban Village Plan, some BFVA members led a hunger strike, demanding flea market space in the new design and monetary support during the transition. After all, the developers’ initial proposal didn’t guarantee any space for La Pulga’s vendors. The City Council and the Bumb family—which still owns the market—eventually agreed to include 5 acres of designated flea market space in the Urban Village’s design plan and $5 million for a vendor transition fund. Still, the redevelopment plans have strained the relationship between the landlord and the tenants.
The most recent battle was over license agreement rates. Vendors currently hold license agreements for a space in the market on a month-to-month basis, and for the past year, they’ve been asking the Bumb family to make those agreements longer. In mid-September, the flea market owners did offer six-month license agreements, but with a catch: The rent for those six months had to be paid fully up front.
BFVA President Roberto Gonzalez, who runs a piñata stand at La Pulga, says the terms of the new license agreement felt like a “spit in the face” to vendors who just wanted more stability for their small business’s space in the flea market. “It’s really unfortunate that these terms are laid out that way, and the way we see it is that they’re not working in good faith with us,” he says. “More than anything, it’s them posturing and puffing out their chests to say, ‘Hey, we’re the ones who rule this land.’”
Speaking on behalf of the Bumbs, Rich Alvari, the flea market’s director of marketing, said in a press release that the license agreement is similar to buying season tickets for a football game—that to “reserve the same seat for future football games, a season pass is required” and is usually paid for up front. The market owners are also asking the vendors to pay a $300 damage deposit—another fee that hadn’t been required in the past.
The net effect is that Gonzalez and the other vendors feel they’re being taken advantage of.
There is at least one other option: La Pulga’s vendors could simply leave and try to form their own market. Gonzales has expressed interest in finding another space for the displaced vendors, but that won’t exactly be an easy task given how expensive real estate is in San Jose, especially as more and more of the city gets developed into office spaces, shopping centers and apartment complexes.
As the afternoon rolls in and the lunchtime crowd dissipates across the flea market, one stall stays busy. From a distance, all that is visible are several shiny glass cabinets with a large sign above that reads “Ricarmi Bakery.” But start moving closer and the smell hits you first: the familiar smell of a panadería, that sensation that somehow combines sweetness, comfort and memory.
Don’t worry about keeping your eyes open as you make your way there. Your feet know the way with just the smell.
Opened by couple Armida Rodriguez and Ricardo Lopez, Ricarmi operates a small stall in La Pulga in addition to its main bakery in Watsonville. Fernanda Urbina, the couple’s daughter, works at the flea market bakery stand along with her brothers. It features traditional Mexican sweet breads and cakes with a twist.
“We like to elevate them with new colors, different flavors,” Urbina says. “We specialize in vanilla fillings, arroz con leche fillings.”
Ricarmi Bakery’s conchas, sweet rolls decorated with a sugary shell, are different from those sold at other bakeries because each color represents a different flavor: turquoise for pistachio, white for horchata, yellow for piña colada and so on. Some of the conchas are filled with a vanilla bean custard while others have soft, subtly sweet rice pudding inside.
Urbina’s dad, Ricardo, is a third-generation Mexican baker. But Urbina says it’s her mom, Armida, who is the one who invented all of the creative new flavors. And that’s ultimately the reason for the business’s success at La Pulga—the reason there’s always a long line of customers peering into the bakery’s glass cases.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t this popular, but I don’t know, COVID-19 brought everyone,” Urbina says. “Most businesses were starting to go down, but ours actually went up. It’s because more people started coming to the flea market because that’s all that was open.”
Indeed, La Pulga has provided a lifeline to the community during the past year and a half. Unlike most shopping centers which had to close for several months at the start of the pandemic, the outdoor flea market reopened in mid-May, providing an outlet for visitors to walk around after being cooped up at home. Even more importantly, it helped allow the vendors, many of whom have no other source of income, to keep their head above water.
Ultimately, that’s the role that the flea market has played in the community for decades now, giving working class immigrants the opportunity to work alongside their families and earn a modest, dignified living in the heart of ever-expensive Silicon Valley. It has allowed low-income families to pass on legacy businesses, like spicy nut stands and Mexican candy stalls, that couldn’t exist anywhere else in the Bay Area.
In Ricarmi Bakery’s case, the entire business isn’t dependent on its spot in La Pulga, but Urbina says it’ll be a real loss if they can’t find a spot in the Urban Village’s reimagined configuration. There are still so many new creations they want to share with the city that has seen their business grow.
Meanwhile, Rial Cruz of FruJuice is determined to stay at the flea market, no matter what the future holds. “This is a well requested service,” Cruz says. “I mean, just imagine right now, as you stand here, imagine you don’t have this in a flea market? This is the attraction right here.”
He believes La Pulga can’t exist without a juice stand any more than San Jose would be in any way the same without its flea market. Unlike the sleek high-rises that have been sprouting up around the Bay, La Pulga is loud and colorful and doesn’t fit as neatly within organized lines. And while it offers a glimpse into San Jose’s past and present, the future remains an open question.
One thing is clear, however: This is almost certainly the end of La Pulga as we know it. Even if the flea market does reopen at the new Berryessa BART Urban Village three years from now, it won’t exist the way it does today—not after it’s gotten packed into an indoor space that’s less than 10 percent of its current, wonderfully sprawling form. Whatever promises its owners might make about the modern “indoor marketplace,” it can’t possibly recreate the outdoor heat; the pedestrians’ passing glances; and the mingling of sights, smells and sounds that you can only get from walking around an open-air market.
And if this is the end, what a run it has been. What a spectacular gift to the San Jose community to have provided a place to belong and so many memories—and, of course, so much delicious food—for all these years. And what a gift it will continue to be for at least the next three years, until this chapter finally comes to a close.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many of the vendors themselves are reluctant to give up their belief that La Pulga might still be saved. Vendors like Rial Cruz have spent literal decades at the market. They’ve greeted the same familiar faces week after week, seen their kids grow up into enterprising adults running their own stalls at the market. Whatever form the new iteration of the flea market might take, he’s determined to be a part of it—to help turn it into something good. “It’s like I was here when it began and I’ll be here,” Cruz says with a grin. “I’ll be here till the end.”
Adhiti Bandlamudi is a reporter on KQED’s Silicon Valley Desk, where she covers anything related to the South Bay. Follow her on Twitter @oddity_adhiti.
Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí is a reporter and producer with KQED News and KQED en Español. He grew up in San Francisco but spent weekends in the South Bay. Every time he visits San Jose, he learns—and tastes—something completely new. Follow him on Twitter @LomeliCabrera.