University City

Latino market brings spice to Newell

There's a magical realism about the Elizabeth Flea Market, a Latino "Mercado de Pulgas" ("flea market") in Newell.

Sitting at a rickety table, listening the musical rhythm of a woman slapping handmade tortillas, you could be in a marketplace in San Salvador or Acapulco. Only the North Carolina license plates let you know you're still in University City.

The market is easy to miss. It sets up only on weekends in a former junked car lot at Orr and Old Concord roads, just west of the railroad tracks. The small sign tacked to a gnarled oak by the entrance gate reads simply, "Elizabeth Flea Market - SAB 6 AM - 7 PM, DOM 6 AM - 7 PM."

The goods on the tables are mostly unexceptional street market fare - old clothes and an assortment of household and kitchen items. With winter in "El Norte" just around the corner, here are lots of knit hats and warm clothing. Shoppers can get good buys with a little bargaining, but you won't find many antiques or artsy treasures here.

On the other hand, this is a flea market, so you never know. I discovered a fine selection of soccer jerseys, featuring Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Barcelona, and a big table full of Latino music CDs and videos, from a variety of genres.

But the food is worth a visit, no matter what's for sale.

The several food vendors at the site offer Mexican and Salvadoran fare. A specialty is pupusas, the thick, delicious tortillas from El Salvador, stuffed with various fillings.

Edna Luna, a student at Central Piedmont Community College, helps her uncle sell vegetables and herbs with a Latin flavor. Truly bilingual, she speaks both English and Spanish perfectly and is gracious about translating for Spanish-limited visitors.

Luna sells fresh Mexican coffee and cocoa and mysterious, savory-smelling bags of herbs and spices. There's a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables, emerald green tomatillos, red-orange mangoes, several varieties of golden bananas and dozens of fresh, dry red and brown chilies. There are some hard-to-find surprises, too, such as fresh nopales (cactus leaves) and stalks of freshly cut sugar cane.

Luna said her family has been involved with the market from the beginning. The market began four years ago with a couple of tables set up beside a Dollar Store on Tryon Street. It then moved to a larger site, beside Harbor Baptist Church, just down Old Concord Road. When that area was redeveloped, the market moved again to its present location.

The market takes its name, "Elizabeth," from the market's organizer and manager, Nora Elizabeth Marataya, a vivacious entrepreneur originally from El Salvador. She is the successful owner-manager of two beauty salons, but this is her first try at an open-air market. She seems to know everybody, greeting her vendors with smiles and small talk. She's clearly proud of what she has accomplished. She plans to stay open all year, in spite of the open-air arrangement under tarps.

While we were talking, Donna Thomas walked up and asked Marataya, "Are you the person in charge? I have some fine ladies' suits I'd like to sell."

Marataya quickly got Thomas set up with a table. Clearly this isn't a Latino-only project.

"We want lots of people." Marataya said, flashing a big smile. "White people, black people, Chinese people - everybody!"

Thomas, a Greensboro native, agreed, though she admitted she is a little nostalgic for the old location by the church, which attracted more customers.

"I love these markets because of the people, all colors, rich, poor and in between," Thomas said. "And I think it helps society when people can buy something a little bit cheaper."

According to census data, more than 112,000 Latinos live in Mecklenburg County, 12 percent of the total population. That number is increasing, and the Newell area is one of Charlotte's most popular for Latinos.

The market in Newell may be tiny compared to the Buckhorn Flea Market in Mebane (near Hillsborough), a "Mercado de Pulgas" that attracts an estimated 25,000 visitors on a good weekend. But the Elizabeth Flea Market succeeds in bringing a welcome (and delicious) taste of Latino culture to University City.