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Finding Everything and Anything at Bolivia's 16 de Julio Fair

What are you looking to buy? If you need a new bed, vintage books, or a used car, then chances are you will find that and much more at the 16 de Julio (July 16th) Fair in the city of El Alto, Bolivia.

Every Thursday and Sunday, thousands flock to this bustling open-air market to find a much-needed object or to stumble upon an unexpected item to purchase at a reasonable price.

Starting at the early hour of 5 a.m., tens of thousands of vendors set up their stands waiting for customers to file by their goods. The saying goes that a buyer can find anything at the Fair, everything from a “pin to a tractor” [es].

Vendor setting up his booth at the July 16 fair. Photo by Carlos Sanchez, copyright Demotix.

Vendor setting up his stand at the July 16 Fair. Photo by Carlos Sanchez, copyright Demotix.

Some have stated that there are currently 500,000 vendors that are registered and eligible to set up shop [es], but at any one time, there may be 10,000 stands. Electronic goods, furniture, agricultural and construction tools are just some of the items on display at the Fair.

The Fair is an important part of the commercial side of El Alto, which attracts many residents from nearby La Paz for this informal marketplace.

Stretching for 100 city blocks, one of the Fair's primary attractions is the vehicle market. Used motorcycles, cars, and transport trucks are parked near and around Pacajes Plaza. The sale of these motorized vehicles led to the sale of related products such as replacement parts. There has even been the establishment of mobile legal offices, where lawyers can process and legally register your new purchase in no time.

The Fair has been the subject of a series of sociological studies, and Simón Yampara shares some of his findings on the Pukara online newspaper. He connects some of the phenomena seen within the Fair with Andean culture [es]:

El orden y desorden de la exposición de los productos, que en función de algún producto principal complementan los otros productos, por ejemplo la venta de automóviles, automáticamente ha abierto espacios para la venta de variedad de accesorios de auto-partes así como los bufetes-abogados de transacciones legales, pero también la serie de servicios complementarios como comidas, heladeros, refresqueros y hasta cervezas para la ch’alla de las transacciones de compra y venta. Eso tiene implicancias de lógicas: donde una cosa es el orden occidental y otra el orden andino que se guía más por complementaciones interactivas.

The order and disorder of the display of products, which in relation to a primary product, complements other products. For example, the sale of automobiles automatically opened spaces for the sale of a variety of accessories such as auto parts, as well as the offices of lawyers for legal transactions. There are other complementary services such as the sale of food, ice cream, drinks, even beer for the ch'alla (blessing) of the newly purchased items. This means logical implications: where one thing is in the Western order the other in the Andean order, which is guided more towards the interactive complementation.

The variety of items available for purchase also includes some that are not to everyone's liking. The ongoing controversy surrounding the availability of used clothing that arrives from abroad vs. new clothing made locally continues with supporters on both side of the issue. While the used clothing is generally cheaper and more accessible to families with limited incomes, the sale of new clothing creates jobs in El Alto and other parts of the country.

Other critics of the Fair cite the low control of products, such as natural medicines, that are sold without oversight and without expiration dates.

Animals are also a major seller including illegally obtained wildlife and domestic animals that may come from mills or bred under poor conditions. Facebook groups [es] have been created to bring together people against this practice.

The colorful sights and diversity of sounds is an attraction not only to potential buyers, but also foreign tourists who read about this attraction in their guide books [es]. Local blogger Ronald Vallejos Durán wrote about his experience arriving from nearby La Paz [es].

En el ambiente de fondo los sonidos son variadísimos. Cumbias nacionales, peruanas, todo al son de la moda actual; voces nasales que anuncian curas contra la diabetes, el cáncer, en base a antídotos milenarios y naturales.

En el sector autos pude constatarme que el precio de los vehículos están elevados; y otro dato curioso es que la industria china en automóviles se ha incrementado considerablemente.

Un poco más adentro me esperaban cuadras y cuadras de ropa americana a medio uso. Ropa que por cierto más de una vez fue prohibida su venta, bastará recordar que un par de años atrás hubo muchas movilizaciones y polémica en torno a éste tema.

The background ambiance was quite varied – Bolivian and Peruvian cumbias [type of music], all the latest hits; nasal voices that announce the cure for diabetes and cancer, made from ancient and natural remedies.

In the automobile sector, I found that the price of vehicles was high; and that the availability of Chinese cars were on the rise.

Advancing a little more inside the Fair, blocks and blocks of used American clothing were waiting for me. Clothing that was once prohibited from being sold reminded me that a couple of years ago there were a lot of protests and controversy around this product.

While the items for sale at the Fair are the draw, there are interesting characters whose work makes the day run smoothly. Blogger Mario Durán of the blog Palabras Libres arrived to the fair with “an open mind” following the saying “seek and you shall find.” He recounts two of the interactions with key characters of the fair [es], including Pedro the taxi driver and Juan the porter:

Juan es parte de la asociación de carritos de transporte, que llevan cosas hasta los puntos de parada de taxis, tiene uniforme único con bordado de la asociacion, sombrero de ala ancha y … tarifa única, por trasladar cosas te cobran 10 Bs. Mientras carga los muebles adquiridos y los transporta, empezamos a recorrer la feria, va pidiendo permiso, atropella a una persona, blasfema quedito con la trancadera que se arma cuando vehículos empiezan a ir en contraruta. En cierta esquina me dice: ¿a cual lado, joven?, donde los taxistas cobren mas barato – le respondo. Me ayuda a cargar las cosas en el taxi. Pago la tarifa.

Juan is part of the Association of Cart Transport, which carries items [from the market] to the taxi stands. He has a unique uniform with trim of the Association, a wide brimmed hat, and… a fixed fare. To transport items, they charge 10 Bs. (about US$1.45) While he carries the purchased furniture, we begin to cross the Fair, excusing himself asking for space, he runs over someone. When we reach an intersection, he asks, “where to, young man?” I answer by saying to where the taxis charge less. He helps me carry the items into the taxi. I pay the fare.

Whether you are looking for a pin or a tractor, surely someone has it for sale at the 16 de Julio Fair; you just need a little patience to find exactly what you are looking for.

You can see more photographs of the Fair on Cesar Angel Zaragoza's Flickr set.

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