This story was reported by El Tímpano, a civic media organization serving and covering the Bay Area’s Latino and Mayan immigrants. 

Like swap meets throughout the country, the Coliseum Swap Meet, an open-air market known as La Pulga in East Oakland, is a reflection of the community it serves. Here, all are welcome to taste the flavors of Mexico, enjoy a Michelada under the shade, buy household goods, produce, sweets, croc charms, flowers, hardware, clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, electronics, and more at a discounted price.

Children can run around a playground or ride a colorful choo-choo train that snakes around the aisles. Friends can meet for a beer and dance to live bands that perform on weekend evenings. La Pulga certainly provides.

For three Saturdays in October, the El Tímpano team set up a booth at La Pulga to engage with the community. We offered instant film portraits for free, and nearly everyone who participated in the portrait session agreed to a recorded interview. Almost 60 patrons and 14 vendors spoke to El Tímpano about how they spend their time and money at La Pulga.

We heard tales of celebration, camaraderie, and some of heartbreak, but mostly we heard stories of survival.

Nearly every day, 73-year-old Samuelin Martinez can be found walking the grounds of La Pulga. Martinez calls his laps around the market “prayer walks.” 

Martinez describes it as if he’s talking about a sacred place. He has long been a community activist, and he’s keenly aware of the area’s history — he used to live in High Street Homes, temporary public housing that once stood near where La Pulga stands now. With the help of his cane, Martinez now spends his days slowly walking among hundreds of booths run mostly by Spanish-speaking vendors. He talks to anyone who crosses his path and greets them with a wide, mustachioed smile. 

“I go where the people are. I do traditional healing.”

– Samuelin Martinez, 73, Oakland

“Samuelin Martínez, the voice of the ocean. And Samuelin, because my mom called me ‘Samuel lindo,’ like ‘You are beautiful, Samuelín.’ My mom said that our experience is our education,” Martinez said. “Therefore I have 73 years of schooling, very educational. I have what they call a traditional healing practice. My mom, since I was young, cured me of fears, nerves, and anxiety. It’s part of my traditional healing. I go where the people are. I’m on a prayer walk right now with my mom. My mom is here, encouraging me, comforting me, so I can comfort others.” 

La Pulga patrons dance to covers of popular Mexican music by Los Corsarios Musical, a local Mexican music cover band, on Sunday afternoon, November 12, 2023. Bands take to La Pulga’s two stages, located on polar ends of the market, starting in the early afternoon through closing time on weekends. When one group’s set nears its end, another starts. Meanwhile, dancers follow the music from one side of the market to the other.

Many vendors have found it hard to stay afloat in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation has also impacted sales. Many told El Tímpano that the flea market isn’t as large or packed with people as it was prior to the pandemic. 

Maria Villa, 77, an immigrant from Mexico, was a single mother of two. She’s known around La Pulga as “Tía María,” and has sold artisan jugs, pots, toys, and decorations for 30 years. The sales from her booth helped put her children in college. But, Villa adds, business recently has been slow. 

“I’m happy selling my things, talking with my neighbors…I’m the happiest woman in this life.” 

– Maria Villa, 77, Oakland

“The pandemic hurt our business a lot. From the pandemic, we are left with zero — zero … I closed for six months,” Villa said. “These months have been low, but we hope to recover. We hope to recover. Because, well, I have faith in God. I have a lot of faith in God, that God is going to help us.”

Blanca Luna, 62, is an immigrant from Guatemala who has also sold at La Pulga for 30 years. Between the flashy lights of LED signs for sale, and the noises coming from the small electronic toys she sells, her booth is hard to miss. 

Still, Luna says her profits today are not as good as they were when she first opened up shop. On a good weekend, she says, she might take home between $200-$250. 

She has noticed that patrons are spending less, and she cannot compete with online sales. On top of that, her booth location will be auctioned in December and she’s unsure if she can afford to keep it if she is out-bid.

“Thank god we have always gotten by because our people don’t abandon us,” Luna says in Spanish. “Our Latinos always support us.”

– Blanca Luna, 62, Richmond

La Pulga has also made recent headlines. Two men were arrested in August for allegedly selling $85,000 worth of stolen merchandise.

On Oct. 21, Omar Oñate Rivas told El Tímpano he was visiting La Pulga for the first time to try to find stolen construction tools that were taken from his friend’s car in San Jose. 

Though Oñate Rivas didn’t find the stolen items that day, he was able to purchase budget-friendly construction supplies he could use for his job as a day laborer. 

“When you’re stolen from, they bring those used things to La Pulga and sell them.” 

– Omar Oñate Rivas, 44, San Jose

“I came because my friend was robbed,” Rivas said. “They robbed his van in San José and I wanted to come to see if by chance I could find his things here in the tools area. Because you see that when they rob you of used things, they come and sell them at La Pulga.”

Though El Tímpano’s goal at La Pulga was not to verify whether goods sold at the market were stolen, we were able to observe a cycle of supply and demand that makes clear how challenging it can be to afford living in the Bay Area. Immigrants might find work as day laborers or in construction, but they often need to buy their own tools — equipment that could amount to hundreds of dollars that they may not have. 

Cesar, who El Tímpano is identifying by first name only because he is underage, has sold used construction tools at La Pulga for nearly a year with three partners. Their hundreds of tools for sale are laid out on the floor in chunky rows that resemble farm fields. 

“We help people who likely don’t have enough money to buy good tools, and need to buy them used.”

– Cesar, 17, Oakland

Ultimately, La Pulga’s ecosystem is a microcosm of life in East Oakland, like a terrarium filled with loud music and the smell of new leather. 

“This is the only work I’ve been able to invent in order to survive,” says Patricia Beltrán in Spanish. She lost her job during the pandemic, and recently separated from her husband. She sells a mish-mash of items from craft supplies to clothes. At La Pulga, she can bring her children with her so that she doesn’t have to pay for childcare. 

“Oakland is a beautiful city … I respect everyone, from the young people who make donuts — you’ve got to be brave to make donuts, you’ve got to be brave for everything,” Beltrán says.

 “[Oakland] has given me the opportunity to reinvent myself, and make a dignified job for myself.”

– Patricia Beltrán, Novato
A patron at La Pulga in Oakland’s Coliseum Industrial neighborhood poses for a portrait of her back tattoos on September, 9, 2023.

This is part one of a four-part package. Click on to read La Pulga vendor Luis Urbina’s story about sobriety and finding peace as an immigrant in Oakland, hear the voices of the market’s patrons and vendors in a photo essay, and read about the behind-the-scenes steps it took to see this project to fruition.


Photography: Hiram Durán 

Project managers: Mayra Sierra, Hirám Durán, Katherine Nagasawa

Text: Jasmine Aguilera

Interviews: Hiram Durán, Jasmine Aguilera, Mayra Sierra, Vanessa Flores, Ximena Loeza, Maye Primera

Translation: Jasmine Aguilera, Katherine Nagasawa, Maye Primera

For more El Tímpano, visit