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North of the border in Little Mexico

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Photo: Richard Brian

A lime green low-rider pulled up to me in a Green Valley parking lot, and the young Mexican driver informed me that I was in the wrong Las Vegas neighborhood. “In North Las Vegas, hay mucho más diversión” (it’s much more fun). He listed street racing, dance clubs and pick-up soccer games as some of the diversión in a community that has been developing over the past few years into a Little Mexico, or at least a Little Tijuana.

Broadacres Swapmeet

So that Sunday I headed north to three Mexican markets. I came away with a picante pico de gallo taste in my mouth, a couple of reggaeton CDs and a Rita Hayworth memoir.

At Los Compadres, a Mexican supermarket in North Las Vegas, I shopped for produce alongside a tanned Mexican cowboy. Mariachi music poured from overhead corners, and the aisles were stocked with an array of fruits and vegetables you would never find at Albertsons: mamey (a tropical fruit I had thought was only obtainable in Miami), nopal (edible cactus), three varieties of plantains, mass quantities of dried chilies, chunks of sugarcane and membrillo, stacks of cinnamon sticks, head-sized coconuts and avocados as big as ostrich-eggs.

The Details

Broadacres Swapmeet
2930 Las Vegas Blvd. N., North Las Vegas, 642-3777.
Friday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m.-4 p.m.
Tickets $0.50 on Friday; $1 on Saturday and Sunday, children under 12 free.

In other aisles I discovered pickled pig ears and feet, powdered horchata mix, sheets of banana leaves and ice cream bars in flavors like eggnog, lime, coconut, walnut, rum raisin and tamarind. In Spanish, the popsicles are known as paletas, a word that sounds as creamy as a frozen chunk of fruit.

I wish I lived next door to Los Compadres just so I could make a daily stop for fresh-squeezed orange, carrot and pineapple juice, a couple of pupusas (toasted tortillas filled with melted beans and cheese like a flattened Hot Pocket) and a take-out cup of flan.

At nearby La Bonita, you can get warm, freshly made tortillas and watch while they are made. Purple and silver piñatas hang from the ceiling and gallons of neon red, blue, orange and green Tampico punch decorate the aisles. Piped-in music from popular Mexican rock band Maná completes the festive ambiance as Latin families and unsmiling men sit down to heavy plates of rice and beans and chicharrónes (fried pork skin).

A few blocks north, past the Palomino, the Silver Nugget and a cemetery, more than 1000 booths sprawl across 41 acres of desert. The open-air Broadacres Swapmeet has been growing for over thirty years. For a dollar, you can sift through endless amounts of clothing, toys, antiques, tools, appliances and much more.

I didn’t buy much during my visit, just two reggaeton compilations for 10 bucks and coconut water from a freshly macheted coconut. I resisted the temptation of a Mexican national soccer team backpack and declined a cute little boy’s offer of an equally cute Chihuahua. For free, I played the original Super Mario I played when I was younger, and while playing I met a flirtatious young Chicano.

“Half of these people are illegal,” he told me. “You really can’t get mad at them, because they are trying to make a buck, striving for a better life. They do things that many Americans wouldn’t do.”

One of those things seems to be attending the swap meet.

“Just in the last three to four years the Mexicans came,” Cowboy George explained. “Now it’s 90% Mexican; there are hardly any white people. They gradually took over; most of the stores around here are Hispanic. They’re good people, but when you work for minimum wage you can’t afford to buy the things you want, like antiques.”

Cowboy George looks just how you’d think a man named Cowboy George would look: old, sunburned, with a wide frame and piercing blue eyes. George wore nothing but a cowboy hat and half-hitched overalls. Bare under his denim and barefoot, he reclined in a chair by his pickup full of sleeping puppies and a blanket displaying dozens of antiques.

He’s been coming to the swap meet from Pioche, Nevada (170 miles away) every weekend for over thirty years. “I used to do the ponies here years ago,” Cowboy George recalls. He remembers the good ol’ days of the swap meet as better than the current ones. “It will pick up when the weather cools down, when the snowbirds come down from the north for the winter. They like to stop here.”

A man stopped by to admire one of George’s items, a genuine Native American tomahawk, which he put back down when he heard the price. He moved onto a hand-carved silver eagle. “I’m big on eagles,” he told George and me, displaying an eagle tattoo on his bicep. He tried to get George to accept $5 instead of $10, but George just stared up at the man with a stoic expression. After three decades at the swap meet he’s far too experienced to ever lose out in a haggle, but when he saw me flipping through an old memoir on Rita Hayworth, he told me it was a gift.

For those who set up their stands every weekend and sweat out the hours, the swap meet has probably lost its novelty and luster, but for me, the permeating sunshine and norteño music, the friendly faces, churros, mango slices, piles of California grapes and puppies for sale made for a memorable Sunday afternoon.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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