A network of three, twice-weekly fairs hosted just outside of Buenos Aires, La Salada has been referred to as both South America’s biggest mall and as its biggest black market. But for the 20,000 shoppers who flood this famous feria every Tuesday and Sunday, these distinctions are of little importance: La Salada is simply where they go to do their shopping.
La Salada raked in $15bn in 2009 alone, more than the $8.5bn earned by the country’s regular shopping centres combined, according to the government statistic agency INDEC.
Run by three worker’s collectives – Punta Mogote, Urkupiña, and Ocean – La Salada’s success is based largely on its ability to undercut standard prices on items ranging from clothing to food to DVDs.
“When the crisis happened, people were more careful with their money, and so people came here more,” said Jorge Castillo, administrator of Punta Mogote. “We have much more consumption by the people who come for the lower prices.”Stall operators usually produce their own merchandise in nearby workshops, or buy items from local manufacturers.
Lidia Maza, 53, designs and creates a line of women’s clothing in a house nearby the feria, which is located in the suburb Lomas de Zamora.
“I wanted to try to see if I could be clothing maker,” she said, describing her customers as people who live in Argentina’s interior provinces.
Many stalls items that appear to be knock-offs of international brands like Ray-Ban, Dolce and Gabana, and Adidas, as well as countless pirated DVDs. The European Union called La Salada “an emblem of illegal trade”.
Castillo admits that falsified brands are a problem, but he insisted that only 10 to 20 percent of merchandise at Punta Mogote is pirated.
“Most people do not want problems, so they sell their own brands,” he said.
But walking around the market, knock-off merchandise is abundant. Raids by government anti-piracy forces have occurred in the past, and stall operators had different explanations for how they avoid trouble.Anderson Cherres, a 31-year-old who has been selling stuffed animals at La Salada for 10 years, said that while his merchandise resembles popular cartoons like Pepe the Frog, Tigger (from Winnie the Pooh), and the Pink Panther, the plush toys are not explicitly labeled as such.
Olga Subelsa, who works at a clothing stand that sells products baring the Nike logo, said that she is not involved in the items’ production. “Other people make them, and they bring them to us,” she said.
Regardless of the authenticity of the merchandise, it is clear that the three markets have provided many with the opportunity to earn a living. La Salada employs about 6,000 people, including security, maintenance, and administrative staffs, in addition to the owners and operators of the markets’ 30,000 stalls.
“Thanks to La Salada, there is a lot more work,” said Mónica Sambad, who operates a successful clothing stall under the name “Barby Pop”. Referred to as the “Queen of La Salada”, Sambad has become a favourite of the Argentine media, attracting coverage as much for her conspicuous plastic surgery – swelling chest, puffy lips, flat-ironed platinum hair – as for the clothing she designs and sells. “With this, I live. I take care of my kids. I bought my house. I have two cars.”
The markets also provide resources for those who cannot afford department store prices.
“This is more the people who have fewer resources, for the middle class,” said Hernán, a security guard who refused to give his last name.Long-distance buses bring shoppers to Argentina’s most famous feria from interior provinces and neighbouring countries like Uruguay and Paraguay. Many own stores in other parts of the country, and come on Sundays to buy in bulk to bring the merchandise back home.
“A lot more people can afford to buy clothing,” said Sambad. “This is a mall for more humble people.”
Trendy shirts range from 5 to 20 pesos. Sunglasses go for 5 to 15.“There was the EU statement that talked about how this is the most illegal market in the world, but those guys wear a sweater that was made by a kid who is 8 to 9 or 12 in Central America, and they pay 200 dollars for it,” said Castillo. “But people here, they cannot pay 200 dollars for a sweater. What matters to these people is that they can buy their clothing.”
La Salada’s growth in recent years has been exponential. The markets’ origins date back to 1991, when 45 Bolivian immigrants opened a series of stalls on the dilapidated grounds of a swimming pool park that had seen its prime during the Perón years. The workers formed a cooperative that eventually split into today’s three fairs.
Today, 60% of stalls are operated by Bolivians, 30% by Argentines, and 10% by other immigrants, according to Castillo. The number of stalls grew by 30% between 2008 and 2009 in Punta Mogote alone.
Punta Mogote recently debuted a website to sell merchandise online, and has plans to create a hotel/shopping/entertainment/casino complex in the capital that would be 7,100 metres squared.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of La Salada is its hours of operation. Currently, the fairs are open from Tuesday at 1pm to early Wednesday morning and on Sundays from 3am until late morning.
A number of explanations exist for this schedule. Hernán, the security guard, blamed the heat: customers would swelter in the jam-packed aisles between stalls in the middle of day. Castillo attributed the hours to the schedule of shoppers who have to commute.
Tuesday’s opening hours were recently moved up based on consumer demand.
“They [the hours] changed because the people were coming earlier,” Castillo said. “If we were not open, they would be selling on the street, not in La Salada.”