Bargain Bazaar: A Pulga History and Remembering Gentrified Spaces

Words by Laura Barrera Lamb

Edited by Abigail Vela

“Se Tenia Que Decir” is an article series that focuses on chisme, hot takes, and the things we’re all thinking about but no one wants to say out loud. Uncover something we all need to know in the RGV.

There is no place quite like the Rio Grande Valley. On a hot weekend afternoon, people indulge in an icy raspa or mangonada.  From Tejano music and eloteros to fresh fruit and clothing varieties, pulgas, also known as flea markets, are integral to the RGV’s unique community. 

 

Most flea markets are located in Latino/e communities. Recent research has shown that about 70 percent of vendors in the United States and customers are Latinos, and over the past decades, spaces like these have become commodified and gentrified. This process has impacted local businesses, cultural spaces, and the overall RGV community. A unique pulga that was once an integral part of this Valley vibe was Bargain Bazaar.

 

Bargain Bazaar is a significant flea market for the RGV community because it characterizes culture and shifts in the changing economy. Bargain Bazaar’s history and how it is remembered is part of preserving the memory of Valley culture despite gentrification. 

Black and white image of a storefront with “Bargain Bazaar” in large words.
Image of Bargain Bazaar courtesy of The Monitor from January 28, 1983.

A History of Bargain Bazaar

Bargain Bazaar was an indoor flea market established in 1983 on 23rd Street and Nolana in McAllen, Texas. It provided a space for residents to sell and purchase food and products at affordable prices. The owners began advertising in The Monitor to attract people. The attraction was that it was the only flea market that had air-conditioning and was indoors. 

 

“[The] indoor AC, the small stores, quieter, cleaner, and had a clean food court and ice cream shop” were all things local Valley resident and a frequent visitor of Bargain Bazaar, Mr. Toren, remembers. He also mentioned “their North end parking lot— when it rained, it became a mud pit, and when it dried, it was just pothole city.”  

 

Bargain Bazaar has had many owners over the decades. One previous owner, Buck Rogers, explained that it gave residents an opportunity to obtain additional income. For many low-income valley residents, Bargain Bazaar created affordable business opportunities for local businesses, providing an inexpensive rental space for shop owners. Furthermore, Bargain Bazaar created a vibrant community where shop owners and customers built relationships.

 

Like many other pulgas, Bargain Bazaar was a place where you could take your family or even go on a date. 

 

“In the mid to late 90’s, I was dating my spouse. We wanted to find places just to visit and spend time together,” explains Mr. Toren.  

 

Upon entering the building, there used to be an ice cream shop located in the front of the building. Further down the aisles was a psychic and someone who sold swords. Other shops included a comic book shop, a record shop, clothing, and musical instruments. These shops represented important characteristics of our region: economic independence, cultural exchange, and a space of belonging.

 

Bargain Bazaar was so successful as an indoor pulga that it lasted over 35 years. However, by 2019, the owners sold the building.

Outdoor view of a storefront with the shop's name in large red letters that read “Bargain Bazaar.”
Photo from Bargain Bazaar’s Facebook page.
Image of a new warehouse named with a sign that reads“Mercado District” at the front.
Source: Bargain Bazaar on Trip Advisor. January 2022.

The Gentrification Of Bargain Bazaar

The current storefront of a warehouse has a sign that reads “Mercado District” and other store signs.
Mercado District on March 7, 2024. Images courtesy of Trucha.

The transition of Bargain Bazaar within Mercado District shows how flea markets shift from a community of collective economically independent people to a gentrified commodity. Jesus Gonzalez, the current owner of what is now Mercado District, serves on the board of a non-profit focused on “beautifying” McAllen

 

Unfortunately, in this case, gentrification is occurring directly from within the community itself, and wealthy owners have changed this space into a high-end market with high prices and rent, according to an anonymous source.

 

Bargain Bazaar is nothing like it used to be. Upon entering the building, it is as if you enter uptown in New York City, a far cry from the RGV pulga shopping experience. The interior resembles a high-end shopping center, erasing the pulga-like feeling of community. The walls are freshly painted, and the lighting gives an ambiance of class and stature, while the diverse food vendors appear like you are not in the Valley at all. Fresh white walls divide the Mercado shops, which are enclosed with glass doors and windows. 

 

According to Gonzalez, the Bargain Bazaar shop owners “are happy,” yet their voices and experiences were excluded from this article. Retaliation from the new owners is a genuine concern. The lack of the shop owners’ voices shows how gentrification erases and changes communities into something that does not represent what and who they are. 

In the center of the building remain two rows of the tarp-covered shops of Bargain Bazaar, enclosed by locked doors during the week. These shops do not have Mercado’s “window shopping” experience. They are still open-air shops with little to no enclosure. Many shop owners have kept up with the changing times by updating their payment options to electronic forms and offering more upscale or modern products in their shops.  At the time of the Mercado acquisition, the Northern part of the building was still Bargain Bazaar. Following new ownership, the shops have been moved throughout the building to accommodate the more upscale shops and vendors.

The final two rows of Bargain Bazaar sell products like Mexican artisanal clothing, men’s sombreros, flowers, jewelry, and toys. One shop vendor sells Loteria-inspired t-shirts, bags, and the Loteria game.

An indoor flea market. The shops are covered by blue tarps with string lights throughout the ceiling.
Inside look at Bargain Bazaar. Photos courtesy of Laura Lamb.

Remembering Bargain Bazaar

Bargain Bazaar is now a place remembered through memories. In the book, “Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Bordertown,” historian Monica Perales talks about the power of collective memory in Latino communities in which the destruction of our physical communities can be empowered through collective memory. 

Records scattered and stacked at a record shop.
Photo courtesy of Imanol Miranda.

Bargain Bazaar’s original shop owners were mainly pushed out after the transition to Mercado District. Imanol Miranda, the son of the owner of a vinyl shop, remembers Bargain Bazaar as a place where people could explore their hobbies. Like many others, he remembers the ice cream shop.

The committed clientele is something that shop owners, both current and past, recall. Mr. Miranda remembers the repeat customers who would come and visit the record shop. Sometimes, it was just to talk and catch up. 

Mr. Toren remembers going on dates at Bargain Bazaar and eventually marrying his wife. 

“They had quirky small shops that, for example, sold vinyl LPs, one Asian business owner that sold Chinese curios,” he said. “When I got married, my wife and I would go with our child to chill and eat ice cream.” 

Toren recalls Bargain Bazaar being a space of warmth during bad weather and remembers the barbershop and their constant battle with the faulty A/C. 

This kind of collective memory shows the vibrancy of the community that Bargain Bazaar once produced. With the rise of gentrification of RGV businesses and communities, our spaces are becoming mere memories that will one day vanish. 

At least for a brief time, there was no place like Bargain Bazaar.

As recently as March 2024, Bargain Bazaar has been undergoing construction. Photos courtesy of Trucha.

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