Not Your Average Flea Market: At La Pulga de Alamo, Stars Are Born

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Every weekend, a flea market in Alamo, Texas, transforms from a Latino shopping mecca into a dance floor. The locals’ colorful moves have drawn fans around the world.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In the border city of Alamo, Texas, colorful dancers have turned a local flea market into a global internet sensation.


Reporting from Alamo, Texas.

The punishing heat of late spring does nothing to keep the crowds from descending on La Pulga de Alamo, one of the flea markets that are a center of both commerce and culture in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.

The tables and booths that spread across 70 acres, shaded under tarps and awnings, carry things that might not always be found at the local Walmart: spiro papa, an elaborate spiral of thinly sliced potatoes on a stick; the fragrant roasted corn cobs known as elotes asados; oversize statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe; piñatas that don’t quite resemble the Disney princesses they are supposed to represent.

For as long as anyone can remember, pulgas — Spanish for fleas — have been part of the fabric of El Valle, as the area is known to the large Spanish-speaking population in this part of Texas, a slice of Mexico just north of the border. This is never more true than on the weekend, when the market in Alamo transforms from a shopping mecca into a one-of-a-kind dance hall whose fame has spread across the country and beyond.

This is mainly because of the collection of colorful characters who began showing up for Alamo’s weekend dance afternoons and found themselves turning into internet celebrities.

A local electrician known as El Divino Colombiano, the Divine Colombian, twirls in a pair of tight blue jeans and ruby-red, six-inch heels. A woman with lime-green feathers around her neck pushes a wheelchair onto the floor. In it is her mother, La Reynita de Oro, the Small Gold Queen, who waves her arms, festooned with gold bracelets, as the music swells. And then there’s the construction worker known as El Bronco because of his resemblance to the lead singer of the popular Mexican band Grupo Bronco, with moves that invariably draw cheers and flirty whistles.

Dancing has been a feature of many pulgas across the region over the years, but La Pulga de Alamo has gained popularity beyond anyone’s expectation. It is a dancing utopia that has turned ordinary blue-collar workers into household names with thousands of social media followers around the world, many of them in places with no pulga culture of their own.

“It’s gone viral. All of this exploded around us,” said Nancy Kim, one of the Alamo pulga’s owners. “People know us everywhere now, not just here in the United States, but all over, from Japan, Argentina, Spain.”

It all began with a popular video. In fall 2022, a regular shopper, Alejandro Barron, 60, spotted José Urbina on the dance floor, and noted that he had an uncanny resemblance to the Grupo Bronco lead singer, José Guadalupe Esparza. Mr. Barron uploaded a video of Mr. Urbina to TikTok with an unassuming caption: “Even Lupe of the Bronco band dances at La Pulga de Alamo.” The video became an online sensation.

Soon, others came rushing to La Puga de Alamo’s main dance floor, known as El Domo, to express themselves with unique outfits and dances with attitude. Some of them became social media stars. One who calls himself El Calambres, the Electric Shock, jerks around as if he is being electrocuted. A woman known as La Correcaminos, the Roadrunner, runs in circles around the dance floor. El Caderas, the Waist Man, is famous for his gyrating hips.

On any given day, the dancers stop to pose for photos and sometimes even discuss their personal lives for the crowds of people filming with their cellphone cameras.

When Mr. Urbina was captured on camera at a different dance hall getting into a physical altercation with a romantic rival, he issued an apology to his 134,000 TikTok followers and gave interviews to Spanish-language blogs and other platforms to explain his version of the events.

“I think it was the drinking,” he told an interviewer in May. “The drinking changes a lot of things.”

While pulgas are a staple of Latino border communities, this most famous one is owned by an immigrant from South Korea, Taek Kim, and his Mexican American wife, Nancy.

Mr. Kim said he had arrived with his family in the Rio Grande Valley when he was 8 years old. “I felt like a strange animal,” he said, recalling teasing from classmates at school.

His family first began selling Korean wares at local pulgas and purchased their own small pulga in the nearby city of Mercedes more than three decades ago.

Then in 1996, Mr. Kim and his wife bought La Pulga de Alamo, which at the time was about 28 acres in size. They worked to attract more vendors and shoppers, and over time it grew to its current 70 acres, with an estimated 1,500 vendors. His wife and two adult sons work in the main shop.

The market’s fame on TikTok and other social media outlets is not something he could ever have imagined, Mr. Kim said.

“It’s been good for business,” he said. “It was nothing that we planned. People do what they want, and we are OK with that.”

Mr. Kim isn’t the only one making money. Some of the dancers with large followings take in revenue from TikTok and other platforms, and by appearing at private events like parties and business openings.

On a recent sweltering Saturday afternoon, with temperatures reaching nearly 100 degrees, onlookers immediately recognized Suheidy de Leon, 52, as she arrived pushing her mother, Maty Vargas, in her wheelchair. Wearing matching outfits — black blouses and jeans topped with green feather boas around their necks — the duo settled down next to the band.

They didn’t stay still for long. The band played the first keys of “Hay 40 Grados,” a song from the band Sonora Tropicana about dancing in the heat, and the crowd began chanting for the two women to take the dance floor.

Ms. de Leon, who also does shows impersonating celebrities such as Jenni Rivera and Olga Tañon, stood up, and with a cord tied around her waist, she pulled her mother’s wheelchair forward. Ms. Vargas, in full Reynita de Oro mode, shook her arms in the air to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration.

“For us, dancing is about celebrating life,” Ms. de Leon said in an interview.

Her mother, 88, who grew up in Mexico, had always loved attending all kinds of dances, weddings, quinceañeras and ballroom events, Ms. de Leon said. Late last year, she said, Ms. Vargas had to undergo a delicate surgery to remove a thyroid tumor. When it was over, Ms. Vargas told her daughter that she needed a reason to keep going.

“As soon as she opened her eyes, she asked me, ‘Take me dancing. If you don’t do it, nobody else will,’” Ms. de Leon recalled.

“She loves feeling like a star.”

Also making an appearance that weekend was El Divino Colombiano — Cirilo Treviño, 38, whose followers from around the world often applaud the assortment of burlesque-style high heels he wears. (In a recent video, he waved a Brazilian flag to salute his fans there.) He is usually joined by his brother, Jazziel Treviño, 35, who tends to go for a more demure look, with tall feathers on a cowboy hat, a nod to his love of birds.

“People love it,” Cirilo Treviño said as he prepared to go out for a series of twirls on his towering heels.

But if there is a star of the show, it is almost always Mr. Urbina, El Bronco, who steals everyone’s attention the second he steps into the market. As soon as he arrived that weekend, he was surrounded. He spent more than an hour posing for photos and recording impromptu interviews before busting his moves on the dance floor.

“I never thought that my life would change so dramatically just because people say I look like a singer — and at this age,” said Mr. Urbina, 53, whose satin black shirt exposed part of his chest. “But I love it, and I love my fans, too.”

Moments later, one of his fans, Maria Baltazar, 30, who had driven five hours from Houston to see him, jumped on him on the dance floor and wrapped her legs around his waist.

Dozens of cellphone cameras captured their moves, as if they were celebrity performers on a world tour. When the song was over, Ms. Baltazar planted a kiss on his cheek and walked away, fanning herself with her hands.

“From the moment I saw him online, I knew he was the love of my life,” she said. “My dream came true today. I met El Bronco.”



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