By Stephen Vargha
A native of Cuenca turned what was once a vacant lot on the south end of Av. Fray Vicente Solano into a thriving weekend market for secondhand goods. “There were 65 families working in the streets before I bought the property,” said 72-year-old Jorge Pintado. “They all thanked me for helping them out.”
Pintado wanted to give back to his community after a fulfilling life overseas in the United States and Spain. He spent 26 years living in the New York City borough of Queens, working as a Volkswagen mechanic. In 1996, he moved with his wife to Madrid, before returning to his hometown in 2014.
That is when he decided to help his fellow Cuencanos on an underdeveloped part of Solano Avenue. “There were few buildings around. The lot I bought was open land at the beginning,” said Pintado. “People sold their stuff on the ground. When it rained, water would run down on the land from the street above.”
He quickly made improvements and named the market, Carpas Blancas (White Tents). “I put up stalls and a roof,” said Pintado. “I added a concrete floor with drains so everyone could stay dry. Everyone is now protected from the weather.”
Pintado is a very fair landlord. “I charged them only five dollars per day to sell their goods,” said Pintado. “That is cheap!”
His oldest vendor was given a free stall. “I try to help people,” said Pintado. “These people need work, so I help them here with an affordable, clean, dry place.”
Just down the street from Mercado 27 de Febrero, Carpas Blancas is a weekend event. On Fridays, the 65 vendors come to the southside location to set up for two days of sales.
Pintado is there early Saturday morning to have the market ready by 7 a.m. The market closes for the day at 6 p.m. And it repeats the same hours on Sunday.
It is not the only time he is there. “On other days, I clean things up to have it looking nice,” said Pintado.
Pintado said there are only four markets like Carpas Blancas in Cuenca — and not all are as developed as his market. “There is an uncovered market just up the street that is owned by some Peruvians,” said Pintado. “It is a primitive setup with no protection from the weather.”
He adds that Carpas Blancas has a public bathroom. “It is clean and comfortable,” said Pintado.
Americans may think of Carpas Blancas as a flea market. It is a misnomer, and the origin of the name has never been confirmed. Most believe the name dates back to the Paris bazaars in the 1860s. Supposedly, a bargain hunter sifting through the secondhand wares and vermin-infested furniture nicknamed it le marché aux puces (“market of fleas”).
A second theory is city developers during the reign of Napoleon III wanted to spruce up central Paris. The dealers fled or were forced out. They reopened their shops dubbing them “flee” markets.”
Whatever name you want to apply to Carpas Blancas, Pintado feels that there is something for everyone. “You can find almost anything here,” said Pintado. “You’ll find clothes, bedding, furniture, bathroom cabinets, electronics, hand tools, many objects!”
On a Saturday in mid-November, a vendor in the rear of Carpas Blancas had interesting items for sale. “Look at this,” Pintado said. “This is an old handheld church bell to ring to notify everyone that it was time to eat.”
There is constant turnover as to what is available. During the tour of the market, a table had several small antique items for sale. The vendor had about a dozen antique skeleton keys for $2 each. In the United States, these keys typically are priced around $10, while older skeleton keys or more detailed skeleton keys can cost a lot more. By the end of the day, all of the antique skeleton keys at Carpas Blancas had been purchased.
Another vendor was selling a traditional rustic clay pot that was used for cooking. The outside was black from years of cooking with wood, with specks of the original green showing through. The inside of the clay pot still showed its beautiful green artwork. “It is 25 to 50 years old,” said Pintado.
Since it is the holiday season, there are more items than usual right now. “We currently have lots of Christmas decorations at a very good price,” said Pintado. “The Christmas decorations are made and sold by Colombian women.”
It seems very appropriate right now that a Niño Jesús is at the front entrance to Carpas Blancas. The celebration of Pase Del Niño begins in the morning of Christmas Eve and lasts throughout the day. Musicians follow the religious procession through El Centro.
“Niño Jesús is for the protection of the people at Carpas Blancas,” said Pintado. Every Christmas season, Niño Jesús is blessed by the church.”
Two-dollar bills are visible in the small Baby Jesus shrine. Cuencanos consider the deuce to be good luck.
If you are hungry, there is a small sit-down restaurant at the front of Carpas Blancas. Usually, there are food vendors set up outside with their bike and box food cart.
“There is plenty of food to choose from,” said Pintado. “You can have carne (beef), typical Cuencano food, coffee, and chocolate. Lots of people eat the food.”
That includes the vendors. A young girl can be spotted delivering prepared meals from the market restaurant to the various stalls.
She is not the only one helping out the restaurant owner. “I try to help her with the food,” said Pintado. “The restaurant owner is not married and does it all herself.”
Somewhere between 500 and 600 people visit Carpas Blancas each day. Pintado says that a good number of the visitors are Gringos looking for bargains.
“Everything here is cheap. Clothes are as low as $1. You can leave with a bag full of clothes and shoes for just $10,” said Pintado. “Gringos are surprised by the quality and price. And they come back for more!”
People are not the only visitors to Carpas Blancas. “We are pet-friendly,” said Pintado. “Bring your dog on a lead and shop!”
Pintado does not look like he is 72-years old. And the Cuencano does not act like his age. “Running this market is therapy,” said Pintado. “It is a fun and rewarding thing to do.”
Because of this attitude, it looks like one will have plenty of opportunities to browse the offerings at Carpas Blancas.
“I plan to run this place for as long as possible,” said Pintado with a big smile.
Carpas Blancas, Av. Fray Vicente Solano y Belisario Andrade, Cuenca, Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha