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L.A. at Large

Among Familia in El Lay

At the North Hollywood Swap Meet, somewhere amid the dulces and the stuffed toys is a little bit of home.

February 19, 2001|ALEX ABELLA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mexican food! Chinese food! Armenian food! Videos! CDs! Leather boots! Underwear! Toys! Housewares! Knickknacks! Mexican medicines! Money exchanged! Weddings! Music! Love and happiness!!!--The crowd by the stage of the North Hollywood Swap Meet is going wild.

About 50 or 60 people, mostly working-class Mexican Americans drawn to this corner of the San Fernando Valley by the behemoth emporium's cheap prices and goods, are being teased mercilessly by Ray Santillan, the promoter who hired the band that's now blasting a mighty Colombian cumbia full tilt.

Wearing a black-satin shirt, spangled vest and 3-inch-heel cowboy boots, Santillan is taking stuffed toys out of his bag and throwing them wildly into the air, making grown-ups and kids alike run and wave and squeal as they try to get their hands on Woody Woodpeckers, Tweety Birds, multicolored clowns and plush mice, things they probably wouldn't care about any other time, but this Sunday afternoon they love them, they need them, they gotta have 'em!

"I pay for the toys out of my own pocket," Santillan says later. "We've been coming here every Sunday for five years now. I do it for the love that I have for the children and the public, so they will have a nice time."

And a fine time is, indeed, being had by all as Santillan tosses toys as if they were bridal bouquets and the audience tipsy bridesmaids. Here's another one--an alligator! Gone! Taken by the skinny little kid scurrying away. And how about a velvet frog? Here we go! And a big, fat, stuffed black cat, which is definitely worth some money, goes sailing through the air, and who's going to get it? Four people leap for it at the same time, but the skinny kid wrests that one away too, a great big grin on his face. It doesn't matter; there's more where that came from. The band finishes its number, and Santillan bows, and everyone claps as he announces in Spanish, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a hand to Grupo Frontera Show!" and everyone cheers and claps and whistles because, hey, where else can you get this kind of fun for free? In El Lay!

Of course, that is precisely the point. Where many of the customers come from, market day is an occasion for celebration, for meeting neighbors for a good deal and a little fun. It's not just business, it's familia.

"Back home, there is a marketplace just like this. It's the same kind of music," says Ricardo Campos, who is originally from the Mexican state of Michoacan but has been living in Los Angeles for 26 years. He says he still prefers the shopping customs of his native land: "All I have to do is use my imagination, and it's just like I was back there, more or less."

"We come here for the entertainment," adds Juan Hernandez, pushing a stroller while he shops with his wife and children. "There's also a lot of good offers. Prices are good in comparison with other meets, and even with Wal-Mart and Kmart."

Some young, lanky cowboy types, dressed in the typical Mexican ranchero outfit--white hat, cowboy shirt, Wrangler jeans and boots--are also hovering around the stage. "They have very good groups here, and, well, we come here to spend some time, look at the groups," says Jose Luevano, 22, who is with a clique of similarly dressed vaqueros. Hailing from Aguas Calientes, Mexico--which is like saying Laramie, Wyo.--Luevano eyes a lissome girl wearing a black bandeau top, on her back a tattoo, "In Loving Memory of Chino," splayed like a ribbon across her shoulder blades. She gives Jose the eye, then giggles with her girlfriends.

"Oh, yes, this is like home," adds Luevano.

Home wasn't what I had in mind when I stumbled on this market. To this Cuban American, visiting the North Hollywood Swap Meet (one of only nine licensed swap meets in the city of Los Angeles) seems as alien as shopping for turbans in a Punjab bazaar. Even neighborhood mami and papi markets, though bewildering in their variety of foodstuffs, are never this crazy, this full of people, of life, of . . . stuff.

I was driven there by a need for boots for my 4-year-old. Inspired by the Power Rangers, Nicolas insisted on a particular type of boot I couldn't find in any store. Then I thought to myself, wait a minute, Mexicans are great at working leather. Heck, they were the original cowboys, teaching the white interlopers all there was to know about roping, steering and branding. Maybe I should forget Payless and Nordstrom.

Endless Variety of Goods

So I looked up the Mexican shoe store closest to my house, and, lo and behold, I found it inside a whale of a building housing 130 vendors in 60,000 square feet of commerce: the North Hollywood Swap Meet, or, as the signs outside 7355 Lankershim Blvd. would have it, "Discount Store, Swap Meet, El Mercado del Campesino, Real Discounts, 98 cents and up, Dept. of Lankershim Inc., Swap Meet, Price, Checks Cashed, Western Union, ATM."

The Beverly Center, it's not.

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