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'My Roots Are at the Flea Market': As La Pulga Closure Looms Over Vendors, One San José Family Weighs the Future

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Katrina Ramos White closes up the vending stall she runs with her husband on April 2, 2022. Ramos White took over the family business in 2020 after her parents retired. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Katrina Ramos White pulls open the gate of the stall that houses her family’s toy business.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday at San José’s Berryessa Flea Market and dozens of other businesses are already up and running at this swap meet — one of the biggest in the country.

Ramos White and her husband, Russ White, quickly set up their stall: assembling several tables where they place rows of colorful toys of all sizes, plush figurines, board games and bright backpacks all over the stall and winding up mechanical toys so kids walking by can play with them.

Ramos White’s parents, Kim and Tony Ramos, opened up the stand in 1984 and worked there on the weekends for extra income. Monday through Friday, they both worked at Texas Instruments.

Ramos White and her siblings grew up running around the dozens of aisles of La Pulga, as the 61-year-old market is also known, making friends with the kids of other vendors. Their stall, one of more than 700 that make up the market, is now run by Katrina and Russ, who operate it on the weekends and work full-time tech jobs during the week.

Katrina Ramos White and her husband, Russ White, pose for a portrait outside their home in San José. The couple is part of a younger generation of San José residents who entered the tech industry to have financial stability — but still have to work several jobs to get close to achieving their dream of owning their own home.

“The flea market is one of those places where you can still see the same vendors' faces, you can get a bag of roasted peanuts,” Ramos White said. “It's those little parts of what made up San José's energy.”

But La Pulga is only a couple years away from closing down and restructuring itself within the new Berryessa BART Urban Village — construction of which is set to begin in the summer of 2024. San José officials and members of the Bumb family, which owns the 60 acres of land the flea market sits on, have repeatedly told vendors that the market won’t close forever, but instead will shrink to a space of just 5 acres. Office buildings, condominiums and new shops will be built on the remaining space.

City officials approved this plan last summer, but since then, property developers have not provided much information on how hundreds of stalls — which provide an extensive range of goods including furniture, produce, crafts and clothing — will fit inside the much smaller space. This leaves many vendors feeling they have no other choice but to develop their own exit strategies if their business is not included in the transition.

Ramos White is part of a younger generation of San José residents who grew up at the market and are now employed in the tech industry — balancing two sides of San José. “It just feels like Big Tech is coming in and steamrolling all the little people out,” she said, “which is hard to say because I work in Big Tech. But my roots are at the flea market.”

Katrina Ramos White and Russell White stand inside their stall moving metal hangers around and hanging plush figurines. They are surrounded by toys of many shapes, sizes and colors.
Ramos White and her siblings grew up running around the dozens of aisles of La Pulga, while their parents worked at the toy stall. Her parents, Kim and Tony Ramos, are now retired. They worked for decades at the flea market on the weekends at the same time they had full-time jobs during weekdays. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

A safety net

When Kim and Tony Ramos retired at the start of 2020 from both their full-time jobs and the flea market, they gave their children the option of either continuing to run their stall until La Pulga eventually closes, or close it before then, and sell off the inventory. Ramos White wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the stall, so she and her husband have kept the family business open — at least, for now.

“This is something that we could do for the next few years, especially with the end kind of nearing,” Ramos White said.

Ramos White is a community product manager at MyHealthTeam, a social networking app for people who have similar chronic illnesses to cultivate communities. White works in marketing for Dripto, a new cryptocurrency company. Both are in their late 20s, and they want to start a family in a home of their own.

The couple currently lives at home with Ramos White’s parents, just a few miles away from the flea market. By working at both their full-time jobs and at La Pulga on the weekends, they are saving as much as they can to afford buying a house of their own someday — but when they drive around San José today, a future there feels unattainable.

Kim and Tony Ramos (front) have seen many of their children leave the Bay Area due to the high cost of living. 'I don't have any little grandkids around me anymore, like I used to,' Kim Ramos said. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

“Right down the street from where I grew up, these luxury condos and townhouses are popping up,” Ramos White said. “My husband and I, who make a decent amount, still wouldn't be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment. I always dreamed about living in the same neighborhood, sending my kids to the same schools I went to. That's not a reality unless we want to just live with my parents.”

In 2021, only 32% of potential first-time home buyers could afford a median-priced home in Santa Clara County, according to an annual report from Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a think tank organization based in the South Bay. Over the past few years, Ramos White’s older siblings have moved out of California to find cheaper real estate. Now the family gets together a few times a year, as opposed to every night when everyone was living in the Bay Area. It’s been hard for her mom, Kim, to adjust to.

“I don't have any little grandkids around me anymore, like I used to,” Kim Ramos said. “I used to look forward to getting out of work and going to pick up the two little ones and bring them home.”

It would have been impossible for Kim and Tony Ramos to buy their own home and raise their kids without the income from their toy stall, said Tony. The stall served as a sort of safety net that helped smooth over rough patches when their weekday jobs cut back on hours or expenses went up.

“I went to San José State. My older brother and older sister went to San José State, and the flea market paid for all of that,” Ramos White said. “Especially during the recession in 2008. My mom always says that the flea market really kept our family afloat.”

Kim and Tony are now enjoying retirement after decades of working every weekend at the toy stall. They are happy that Ramos White and her siblings went to college and have stable jobs, but realize their family’s relationship with the flea market is different from that of other families who solely rely on the flea market to pay the bills.

“We see people who are totally dependent on the flea market and it’s a different kind of scenario [for them],” said Tony. “There is no way out. They are hurting, but for us, we’re maintaining it [for] those times that Silicon Valley is up and down.”

When the end of the day draws near, Katrina and Russ begin to pack up their stall, including hundreds of toys. Russ worries that a lot of the original essence of La Pulga will be lost if it becomes a digital marketplace. 'How many vendors at the flea market are going to be selling their fruits online?' he asks. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

An online flea market? It's just not the same

The Bumb family and the city of San José have been negotiating about how to downsize the flea market since 2007. That’s when the city voted to rezone the land as a “mixed-use transit village,” surrounding the new BART station, which opened last year.

At the start of 2020, a group of vendors formed the Berryessa Flea Market Vendor Association, a nonprofit that has organized extensively to ensure that no vendors are displaced as the Berryessa BART Urban Village is developed. City officials have been trying to work with vendors to potentially move their small businesses to an online marketplace, in case they do not have a spot in the reimagined indoor marketplace within the Urban Village.

While a few vendors are embracing the shift to a digital marketplace, many lament what will be lost when the sights, sounds, smells and conversations that can be enjoyed in a huge, bustling flea market give way to something much smaller, much more sedate, sandwiched inside a mixed-use development.

“How many vendors at the flea market are going to be selling their fruits online?” asked White. “People will literally drive two hours from home to go to the San José flea market. [Closing it] will forever change things.”

Unlike his wife, White didn’t grow up going to the flea market each weekend; he started working at the toy stall as an adult. In his time working at the stall, he’s learned how other vendors and customers barter and haggle, skills that he believes give swap meets their character and energy — and that can’t be easily substituted online.

La Pulga is a place where so many immigrant families and their children come together to make their dreams of financial stability a reality, Ramos White said. Waking up at dawn, knowing how to pull in customers, haggling to never lose a sale and staying past sunset to clean up — that’s the hustle culture that she says defines the energy of both the market and the families that have made it into a San José landmark.

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“Being children of immigrants, we know that they came to this country to give us a better life and everything that we do was built on their backs,” she said. “If you need to make money, you need to make money.”

She’s inherited this mentality from her parents, but has also incorporated what she’s learned from her own experiences at La Pulga. As she and Russ prepare for potentially letting go of their stall in a couple years, they’re not letting go of their dream of buying a home.

She says that the hundreds of families who work at the flea market are going to keep hustling to survive in the Bay Area, with or without La Pulga. “People's backs are going to be up against the wall and they are going to make it happen because that's all we know how to do,” she said.



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