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A New Life for Castoff Americana

COLUMN ONE

From kitsch to kitchen appliances, mountains of used goods are trucked from the Southland to Baja's segundas. Some fear stores' impact on Mexican industries, but the poor say they fill crucial needs.

October 30, 1997|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — If Southern California ever is truly engulfed in an apocalyptic lava flow, archeologists of the future might be able to reconstruct the millennium from the piles of unwanted Americana headed south of the border on Carlos Corona's truck.

His white Ford pickup is swallowed by a towering load of used stuff. Sofas bulge four feet over the rear. Chair legs bristle like porcupine quills atop stacked mattresses. People laugh, point, snap photos and shout that Corona will "never make it to Ensenada." The impenetrably charming Corona smiles and waves, as if he were Julio Iglesias in an impromptu appearance.

Corona, 25, is one of legions of hard-working road warriors who make their living hauling away mountains of secondhand stuff cast off by the world's most conspicuous consumer society. Each week, he and other proprietors of Baja California's segundas--secondhand stores--gather up the urban debris of the Southland and truck it off to new incarnations in Mexico.

From this avalanche of kaleidoscopic kitsch--Lion King games, framed photos of prize heifers, decoupage inspirational plaques, Rod McKuen records--the segundas somehow excavate an ecologically sound industry that employs tens of thousands of Mexicans, and empowers many times more.

The segundas and their worn castoffs are a lifesaver for the huge numbers of poor migrants who resettle in the growing colonias of cities like Tijuana and Ensenada. Deep in Baja's shantytowns, segundas mask the poverty of children whose parents cannot afford new school clothes. They shatter the isolation of slum dwellers for whom the price of a new radio or television is a mockery. And they improve the nutrition of migrants who otherwise could not buy refrigerators for milk, eggs and meat.

"The segundas are the boutique of the poor," said Jose Manuel Valenzuela Arce, a respected researcher at a Baja think tank. "Segundas do not abolish poverty or racism, but they do camouflage the poor in the social landscape. They are a tremendous facilitator of upward mobility."

Every day, buyers from the Baja segundas scour Southern California for rejected treasures. There are the weekend flea markets in Los Angeles, the auctions of abandoned storage lockers sold sight unseen in San Bernardino, the estate sales in Riverside, the mountains of discarded mattresses at hotels.

For the segunda empire of Carlos Corona's 60-member clan, ground zero is the sunbaked concrete lot of a Goodwill Industries store in a Santa Ana neighborhood that looks like a piece of Latin America that broke off and drifted north.

This is the last-chance lot for Goodwill merchandise rejected by bargain shoppers, Goodwill directors say. Were it not for the segundas, much of what Corona's clan buys here would be sold as rags or end up as landfill, they say.

Each Friday morning, Corona and a dozen or so other family members slog through this intimidating assemblage of American cultural detritus. On display is every consumer fad to hit Southern California since the Atomic Age.

Most the stuff is packed for sale in wood-framed bins priced at $80-$300. There are bins of battered computers--jumbled with plastic Halloween pumpkins and '50s housewares--and bins of vacuum cleaners with the odd antique sewing machine with gold lettering.

NordicTracks and fleets of exercise bikes silently reproach abandoned resolutions. Mystery novels with cracked spines betray sleepless nights. Hundreds of teddy bears--pink, coffee-splashed, classic taffy brown--wait for a new nose and a child to love them off again. Lonely golf clubs and skis rest alongside crutches.

Before the weekly auction begins, Corona's clan has picked the best of these obscure objects of desire. They bid on each bin as a family, and flip coins to divide up the loot afterward.

Their fellow shoppers--the competition--are a jumble of nationalities and intentions. A buyer from the multimillion-dollar international used clothes trade who sends clothes for sale to India. Central American immigrants buying housewares. A feverishly competitive vintage clothes businessman with punk hair and earrings. The only other white shopper is Santa Ana native Charles Bright, 81, who stares incredulously as Carlos Corona's pickup truck sways out of the lot.

"Vaya con Dios!" Bright yells, shaking his head. Then he mutters: "He'll never make it."

At sundown, Corona's bionic pickup pulls into the Mexican customs station on the border at Otay Mesa, dragging his brother-in-law's van that broke down along the way.

Here is where the shifting sands of global economic policy drift into the world of the segundas.

Once, the segundas were so unregulated that their owners would even haul small American houses across the border. When they got to the border, segunda proprietors simply peeled off $25 and a Mexican customs agent pocketed it.

In the late 1980s, the Mexican government banned the importation of used clothes, citing health concerns, though most officials say it was to protect local industry.

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