Patrons and vendors of the Coliseum Swap Meet in Oakland, known affectionately as La Pulga, share the significance of the market in their daily lives at El Tímpano’s photo booth.

Over three Saturdays in October, El Tímpano offered free instant polaroid portraits at the Coliseum Swap Meet in Oakland, known affectionately as La Pulga. Patrons asked if the hand-drawn sign pinned to our merchant table reading “Fotos Gratis” (“Free Photos”) in bold letters was true and, if so, was there a catch? There was no catch. El Tímpano simply wanted to engage with La Pulga community to better understand the role the market plays in the lives of Oaklanders. We interviewed more than 75 people as a result, and these are some of their stories.

Here, since they sell alcohol and groups come, well it’s really easy to come with friends and drink and have fun for a while. As a matter of fact, here you can find anything that you want to buy in a physical store. Here, what is awesome is that you can find it much cheaper because normally things come at a discount because it’s used but in good condition. So basically, this market is made for people with lower incomes but who like nice things. So it really is worth it. Additionally, it’s really fun to be here.

“You can find anything you want”

– Carlos Uribe, 35
I sell artisan Mexican goods, clothes, and accessories. See, two years ago, during the pandemic, everything shut down and that’s when I opened my business. Well, I love being here at La Pulga. I destress watching all the people pass by, and more than anything, this is how I connect with people. I really like the connections with clients. In other words, I really like what I do, and I like being here. Some advice that I’d give a new vendor is to not be afraid. Put your fear to the side and always go for your dreams because dreams can come true. I always dreamed of having my own business. And here it is.

“I dreamed of having my own business”

– Eliana Ornelas, 37, artisan and clothes vendor
Sometimes we see things that we don’t know what they are or what they’re for but here we can ask and discover together. We learn something new together. So that’s the best part.

“We learn new things here”

– Jessica Orellana
It has changed a lot. It [La Pulga] used to be much bigger. Now it is smaller. Business has gone down so much, a lot. It isn’t the same as it was before. There are many differences now that it isn’t the same. But yes, a lot of people still do come. We sell a lot of exotic things, like guanábana, chirimoya, jocote ciruela. Lot’s of things, lots of greens, beans, yerba mora [tea], chipilín. All that is what sells fastest at our business.

“We sell a lot of exotic things”

– Marta Elida Montano, 45, produce vendor
I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, my parents brought me here, when I was five, six years old. This is just always been one of my favorite traditions since they started bringing me as a kid. You can hear ’em in the background now. The little fire poppers. I would get those. They used to be like 25 cents a box I used to love just getting a box of those and just throwing ’em around everywhere. I’m passing down this tradition and hopefully when he gets older, he likes to come to the flea market and, you know, hopefully I get to see him bring his kids here one day too.

“I’m passing down this tradition”

 – Matthew Levy
This was a place that my grandma liked to come to a lot, and well she passed away but I feel like by being here I can remember when she was still here. She always liked to look and buy things. She liked to buy a lot of accessories and things that she found , like, strange. She’d look at hats and shoes or things. And also, well sometimes [I’d come] with my friends, we also came a lot to buy food. Sometimes — you see that they sell tacos. Sometimes they also do, they bring bands. So we come and, well, listen to music and all that.

“My grandma liked to come here”

– Martha Duarte
My name is Michael Worthham and I just made 62 years old, two days ago. I’m feeling great, I like this flea market ’cause it’s like bargain basement with, sometimes they have like, brand new things, items. I’ve been coming here for years. I try to support our town, but it seemed like all the businesses, the major businesses are moving out because, uh, because of the violence and crime. We need a sanctuary, places to come where we can shop freely. But, you know, pretty soon I got a feeling that it’s gonna get even worse. I hate to see the city decline like this, you know, because I’m a big supporter of trying to help heal it, because at one time I was ignorant and I was into the street life selling drugs, using drugs. I went to prison and all kind of things. But since then, I changed my life around. And, and a couple of days ago, on October the 19th, I celebrated two birthdays. I celebrated 28 years cleaning, sobriety, no drugs, no alcohol. I don’t really smoke weeded cigarettes or nothing. And I celebrate 62 years on Earth. I started thinking about all the people I harmed and, and I felt that, you know, who am I to impose my wrath on somebody else, you know? Uh, they don’t deserve that, you know, and I felt bad for mainly family and friends too. I work at a detox, uh, center. I’m a registered counselor and a detox specialist. I just got a promotion, uh, work around clients, helping them overcome drug addictions from fentanyl, alcohol, crack, cocaine, heroin, you name it. Pills. And it’s rewarding to me because it helps keep me grounded and help me know that, that my services is needed and, you know, to help, heal the community.

“We need a sanctuary, places to come”

– Michael Worthham