Every weekend at 1600 East Pettigrew Street in Durham, you can find an authentic, delicious breadth of Latin foods that can be found nowhere else in North Carolina—or at least, not all in one big parking lot. Without breaking the bank, you might, in just one visit, try freshly fried pork rinds, walk 20 feet and have a loroco pupusa, then round the bend and round out your feast with a refreshing agua fresca.

The Durham Green Flea Market, which has been open since 2008, offers your typical flea market wares—stalls with electronics, household items, and used clothing are all on offer—but it’s the smells that waft through La Pulga (literally “The Flea”), as regulars call it, that truly transport visitors. But this beloved mainstay of Durham’s Hispanic community has recently been the subject of closure rumors, making the future of La Pulga and the more than 100 businesses that operate there uncertain.

On a recent visit to La Pulga, I approached three popular vendors. At each truck, stall, and tent that I visited, I asked the young person working the cash register if I could speak to the owner for an article; all three were family members of the vendor owner.

It was a Saturday, typically the quieter day of the weekend, and even slower because it was a bit chilly, so Edy Epitacio offered to take a break from her work and translate for her dad, Nicolas Epitacio Santos, the owner of Aca Fruit. The two spoke to me from behind the colorful fruit- and snack-filled counter.

“It’s mostly Hispanics who come here,” explains Epitacio Santos. For many families, he says, the market is a place to get familiar dishes from the countries where they were raised. The market serves a significant segment of the local community.

As of 2019, Hispanic and Latino populations make up 13.7 percent of Durham County residents. Latin American vendors at the market represent the diversity in that population, selling an array of specialty dishes and regional cuisines that go beyond the typical fare available at taco trucks or fast-casual burrito shops.

From his stand, Epitacio Santos points out some of his favorite foods at the market, like the tacos al pastor and the carnitas. You have to try it all to appreciate the differences, unique spices, and techniques.

“There are different areas of Mexico and they make tacos, but there’s a different flavor to each one,” Epitacio Santos says. “It’s a traditional thing, but it’s also very authentic to their region.”

Nicolas Epitacio Santos moved to the United States about 20 years ago from Acapulco, the resort town on the west coast of Mexico that has long been popular with foreign tourists. He says he initially moved here for “a better life, the American dream, basically”; after he had worked and sent money back to his family for four years, his wife and five children joined him in the United States.

About seven years ago, after working in local restaurants, Epitacio Santos decided to open Aca Fruit at the flea market. Since the beginning, Edy, who is now 19, has been helping out on weekends; like many other stalls at the market, Aca Fruit is a family-run business.

“This is what our work is—apart from this, my dad isn’t working, so we dedicate our whole lives to the business, and thankfully, thank God, we are able to get something from it,” Edy says. “As well as bringing a little piece of Mexico here.”

The flea market itself is also somewhat of a family endeavor: father and son Robert and Trans Perry are co-owners of the eight-acre market and surrounding land. Robert has lived and worked as a lawyer in Durham for 39 years, raising his family, including his son, Trans, in the city. The green industrial building at the center of the market, he explains, was initially a tobacco warehouse. Later, he says, it “was in decay back in the nineties, and [at] the turn of the century it basically sat vacant and was used somewhat for storage.”

The market opened in 2008 with just five vendors, and over the years it has gradually grown into the bustling hub for culture and local business that it is today.

Trans Perry describes the opportunities the market creates.

“An entrepreneurial mindset started the market and now it’s entrepreneurs that are keeping it going,” he says. “It’s a place for commerce, a place for people to come in and start their new product; it’s just an entrepreneurial hub for small businesses here in Durham, and all over North Carolina, in fact. We have vendors that come from all over the state.” (Robert Perry also acknowledges an additional benefit the market has given him: “Quite frankly, I get a lot of clients from the market. It benefits my law practice for me to interact with the vendors and the patrons.”)

The market would seem to be a winning proposition for everyone—owners, vendors, and customers alike—but in recent months, its future has seemed uncertain. 

“There have been rumors that it [the market] is for sale, but apart from that, we haven’t heard a word from the owners. So it’s kind of weird and we’re kind of confused about it too,” Edy explains. “We actually didn’t find out until some of the customers came to us and they were asking us, ‘What are you gonna do after the flea market closes?’ So yeah, that caught us by surprise.”

The Perrys confirmed that under the right circumstances, they would sell the land that La Pulga occupies. Increased development and rising prices make a sale enticing: just between 2012 and 2018, the median price per square foot for East Durham homes went from $37 to $122.

But despite major development and the booming real estate market in Durham, Robert is not sure that major change is imminent.

“If someone were to come by and offer you a large sum of money that you can’t refuse, we probably would sell it,” he says. “But, we’re asking a price that we really don’t think we’re gonna get. I don’t think the prospect of it selling now is that feasible.”

The property, which is located in an Opportunity Zone in East Durham and zoned IL/Light Industrial, was listed for sale with Reformation Asset Management over a year and a half ago at $11 million.

While the property has not yet sold, rumors have understandably drummed up anxiety among vendors. The Perrys, though, reassured me that the flea market is not going away anytime soon.

“If somebody was to buy this, we have property that we’re eyeing to build another market here in Durham,” Trans says, explaining that in the case of a sale, “we would work out something for operating the market while we potentially close on another property and develop it and open up another market …. Hopefully the operation wouldn’t be interrupted in the sale.”

Epitacio Santos also hopes this is the case.

“After we were being told multiple times, I was wondering, what we are going to do if the flea market closes?” he says, “This is what we dedicate our lives to.”

Epitacio Santos describes some of the vibrant-looking and-tasting beverages he sells that are authentic to Acapulco.

“What’s more popular with us are the tornados and the rusas,” he says. “When we first started people were scared to try it. But over the years it got more popular and now that’s what people like the most.”

Edy describes the tornado on their menu: “Orange juice with diced-up fruit. We put all different types of fruit, some Japanese-style peanuts, tamarind, and chamoy, which is an authentic Mexican hot sauce—it’s not too hot, it’s bitter and sweet.”

La Pulga offers a taste of home for many immigrant communities, but it also gives those communities a sense of rootedness and belonging.

“People like to go to the market to interact with their friends and buy things, they really enjoy the food, they enjoy the produce and the clothes,” Robert Perry says, describing the market as “a joyful place to be.”

“We are happy to bring a little piece [of Mexico] over here and share [it] with the rest of the people, especially with those who are from Mexico,” Epitacio Santos says. “They usually try food from our region. That’s also a way for us as a community to share a little bit of our background.”

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