Growing up in Anaheim, documentary photographer Alkaid Ramirez frequented the swap meet for groceries, necessities and other finds. But when the pandemic hit, he realized the financial impact of the swap meet on the lives of each vendor who continued to show up day after day even as cases continued to reach record-breaking numbers.
Almost every other weekend for about two months, Ramirez brought along his Fujifilm Instax mini camera to the Cypress College Swap Meet where he walked around the booths doing his usual routine — until he’d come across something familiar.
“Every time I caught a scene, or something that made me feel like that comfort feeling of being around my people, or something that reminded me of my personal identity, I would stop and I would contemplate it and take the shot,” Ramirez said.
The Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim is currently hosting an outdoor display of a collection of 30 Fujifilm Instax mini photographs called “El Jale,” translated from Spanish slang as “The Work.” The photos document the richness of swap meet culture from the Cypress College Swap Meet, and the resilience of local Latino vendors and workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The photographs are shot in monochrome, then the film was enlarged, reprinted on vinyl and installed on the ground to represent Ramirez’s narrative of Latino workers being “walked on,” according to the Muzeo website.
The Socioeconomic Impact of Latino Workers
As an artist, Ramirez focuses his work on civil unrest in his community, specifically on marginalized communities and working-class immigrants in an effort to bring about conversations of inequality.
“I really wanted to document some of the people and some of the scenes in that space, because I feel like it was something that is always overlooked. It’s overlooked as the macroeconomy that holds up the community,” Ramirez said.
While swap meets have been around long before the pandemic, it’s clear that swap meets have become an economic safe haven during the pandemic for the Latino community in Anaheim. Vendors, performers and other workers are continuing to carry out their work even as the pandemic continues to heavily impact communities of color in Orange County.
“A lot of those people who are vendors are also full-time workers and essential workers, and they’re putting in to get double overtime to make some kind of income,” Ramirez said.
Latino workers typically work in labor jobs or as essential workers; some have lost their jobs as a result of being laid off due to a lack of work protection (especially for immigrants) or quitting for the same reason.
But even if they kept their jobs, pay is usually low and Latino workers depend on any extra money they make at the swap meet to keep them financially stable till their next paycheck both pre-pandemic and currently, Ramirez said.
Bringing Awareness to Mutual Aid Efforts
Ramirez also grabs inspiration from his own childhood and cultural factors that helped contribute to his identity as “a child of resilient immigrant parents and a second-generation Chicano who subconsciously assimilated into colonized spaces,” according to his website.
“Every time I go to the swap meet, I feel like I’m around my people. I feel like I’m around in a comfortable space, where I’m very familiar, even though I don’t know anybody. I feel like the lady that’s selling the flowers, or the one that’s selling me all my groceries or the roasted peanuts, even at that, you know, I can get along with them as if they’re my uncle or my aunt,” Ramirez said.
Though the exhibition focuses on cultural factors and the resilience of the Latino community in Anaheim, Ramirez also wanted to use the project as a way to bring awareness around mutual aid organizations and the positive difference it makes in disadvantaged communities.
During the summer of 2020, Ramirez, along with some colleagues, came together to create a mutual aid organization called the Anaheim Autonomous Coalition. The coalition prioritizes the needs of the city, supporting the communities of color in Anaheim by providing them with resources to help with their livelihoods, said William Camargo, a local Anaheim photographer and founder of the coalition.
“Growing up in the city and seeing that there’s at least two different worlds: One that is kind of, like, engulfed by the image of Disneyland, and the other one is predominately Latinx community (that have) a lot of need for basic necessities in their neighborhoods,” Camargo said.
The most recent call for donations focused on cleaning supplies to help slow the spread of COVID-19 among families in Anaheim. Each bag included disinfectant wipes/spray, all-purpose cleaner, gloves, sponges and other essentials.
As of now, the coalition has teamed up with other community-oriented groups such as UCI4COLA and OC Protest to help support neighborhoods in Anaheim and Santa Ana with weekly pop-up grocery shops, giving out fresh produce and dry goods to families in the community, Ramirez said.
“Not only do we want to document the culture, but we also want to use this as an opportunity to voice how the mutual aid efforts can help our people in this dire time,” Ramirez said.
Kristina Garcia is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.