NOGALES, Sonora — A battered 13-inch Sanyo TV-VCR combo. Action figures from the ’80s. Tony Hawk’s “Proving Ground” video game from the outdated Playstation 2.
Much of the stuff Tucsonans haul to thrift shops or leave out on their curbs finds new life here, at 11 makeshift flea markets — known as “tianguis” — that border residents flock to each weekend.
At Tianguis Colosio, one of the biggest, hundreds of tents, canopies and canvas carpets lure buyers with discarded furniture, tools, electronics and passé dishware. David Barrón, a fifty-something mustachioed vendor in a black baseball cap, is among the impromptu entrepreneurs called “fayuqueros,” a word derived from the Mexican slang fayuca, which means contraband goods. They drive north to Tucson to scour residential areas, looking to snatch discarded goodies before recycling collectors show up. Afterwards, if they still have room as treasures pile up high in the back of their trucks, they canvas yard sales and secondhand stores in search of used items that working-class Mexicans crave.
“Whatever I can find, I bring it here,” Barrón says proudly as he screws a glass door onto a bookshelf, prepping a wooden entertainment center for sale. “Here, we fix it up.”
Most every weekend, in or south of Tucson you’ll see fayuqueros hauling their merchandise down Interstate 19 to the border in trucks filled far beyond the brim with everything from bicycles to television sets. They break it down into smaller loads before crossing into Mexico in hopes of avoiding Mexican customs tariffs.
Stores like the Goodwill Outlet on East Irvington and South Campbell Avenue are favorites for vendors, who take their goods to border towns or deeper into Mexico at places like Los Mochis, in the state of Sinaloa about 550 miles south of Tucson. On a recent Friday morning, buyers from Nogales and Hermosillo pounced on the Goodwill Outlet, where about 40 percent of the customers come from Mexico.
In Nogales, Sonora, Reynaldo Gutiérrez Gutiérrez, a Nogales, Sonora, city councilman and a former city planner, says the influx of migrant workers from all over Mexico and Central America has made swap meets popular. Buyers can find everything from clothing to electronic appliances “without having to sacrifice your children’s food rations,” he says.
Once a dirt road and an environmental hazard that turned into a mud pit during monsoon season and a dust bowl during dry months, Colosio Boulevard was paved two years ago after U.S. environmental experts suggested it needed improvement, Gutiérrez says. The tianguis, which run the length of about nine blocks, have flourished ever since.
And the sellers — who get their spaces on a first-come, first-served basis and pay a small city tax to sell their wares — have thrived, too.
“The quality of life has improved,” Gutiérrez says.
The city’s many tianguis are part of Mexico’s “informal economy,” which often fills voids for the working poor. And it goes both ways: Gladys Medel, who lives in Tucson and works as a janitor at a Catholic school here, regularly scours neighborhoods and secondhand stores and sells her loot to finance visits to relatives in Mexicali, Baja California.
“I don’t make real money,” she says, “but it helps pay for my trips.”
Iris Navarrete, a Phoenix bank teller, sells used vases and dishware she picked up back home. Her reason for selling at the tianguis are twofold: She makes extra money and she gets to see her husband, José Navarrete, who used to live in Phoenix but moved to Nogales to get his immigration documents in order.
A slim, churchgoing man with a three-day stubble and an easy smile, Navarrete says he made a good living in the Phoenix construction industry, but after the real estate crash the couple’s finances spiraled downward. The money they make selling Arizona’s castoffs has helped keep his commuter marriage alive and stable.
Francisco Mendoza, 60, haggles with a customer over a battered metal buffer set in the middle of a canvas alongside construction tools, chains and a few worn cowboy boots — all hauled from Tucson in his Chevy S10 truck. Selling fayuca has helped him get by since he retired as a factory worker.
“I grab everything, especially tools,” he says. “You never know what is going to sell.”