At the border, buy clothes by the pound at Ropa Usada stores

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McALLEN, Texas — A mountain of clothes swallowed half of Juani Lira’s tiny body, from the waist down. But the 67-year-old doesn’t seem to care. Ms. Lira closely inspected a pair of rhinestone-studded black shorts and threw them behind her, unimpressed. Too flashy for her teenage granddaughter, she whispered.

Ms Lira then spotted a pearl-coloured long-sleeved blouse, still with an intact tag. Bingo. She looked around, as if she was getting away with something, and put the blouse in the bottom of a gym bag. Priced at 71 cents a pound, Ms. Lira was on her way to pick up loot large enough to clothe most of her 13 grandchildren at Ludy’s Ropa Usada in downtown McAllen.

The sight of people, mostly women, rummaging through large piles of fabrics inside stuffy warehouses is not unusual in the Rio Grande Valley.

While second-hand clothing stores operate all over the country, in one of the country’s poorest regions, the giant stores of ropa usada – a kind of thrift stores on steroids – are part of the cultural and commercial landscape of life. border for decades.

With the further economic dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the stores have become both places to shop and part of the social and economic mix of El Valle, as locals call the area. Shoppers can literally spend hours searching for bargains and can score the occasional Aeropostale or Polo garment. Some of them resell choice items at flea markets.

An endless parade of trucks with deliveries from recycled clothing suppliers drop off loads from across the country, including items discarded by big-box retailers. The clothes are then dumped on floors, some the size of basketball courts.

Everything not sold on site is piled into categories – winter clothes, baby clothes, men’s shirts, women’s sweaters – and shipped in plastic containers and bales to wholesale buyers around the world. , as near as Mexico or as far away as Japan.

The companies, which typically charge shoppers between 35 and 71 cents a pound for anything they find, are hard to miss. Just past the international bridge in Reynosa, Mexico, the towering warehouses appear on the horizon, heralded by towering painted signs that appear to shout “ROPA USADA” to motorists and advertise the sale of “Pacas,” or bulk quantities. Despite their larger-than-life presence in the valley, the shops operate in relative obscurity.

Because many transactions are made in cash, a paper trail is often difficult to find, said Salvador Contreras, director of the Center for Border Economic Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Yet their popularity is evident in a part of the country where multi-generational families often live under the same roof and need very modest resources. (The unemployment rate in the McAllen area recently soared past 8%, nearly double the rate in the rest of Texas.)

During several tours of ropa usada warehouses, including some just a mile from the Rio Grande, store operators protected their businesses and the privacy of their customers. Signs prohibiting photos were often posted at the entrance, a reminder that the stigma of buying discarded clothes persists. Some people hid their faces in the piles of clothing and others avoided eye contact.

But others, like longtime ropa usada client Angelica Gallardo, 64, felt there was no shame in struggling to make ends meet and doing their best to dress their clan in full growth. Mrs. Gallardo spends hours meticulously inspecting an endless pile of potential purchases. “You have to dig!” she says.

Ms Gallardo said it made no sense to spend $20 to $30 on a single item of clothing at a chain store like Wal-Mart or Target. “‘Ta’ muy caro” – it’s too expensive – she says, gesturing with her hands. She has no money to spend. Ms. Gallardo earns $9 an hour working part-time and cleaning offices at McAllen.

Ms. Gallardo, who said she has been shopping at ropa usada outlets since the 1970s, has developed a keen eye for “the good stuff” in “pila” – the pile. “Items with holes, or ones that look really used, stay here,” she said.

Bright colors grab his attention. The same goes for images of popular culture characters printed on clothing. One day in late March, Ms Gallardo sat on the cold concrete at the edge of the clutter and carefully picked up one item at a time thinking of her 11 grandchildren, including one who is about to celebrate a quinceañera.

She found a single sock with an image of a droid from “Star Wars”. “My grandson would love this,” she said. “Where’s the other one?”

She thrust her arm into the pile and shared a victorious smile. “Ahí ‘ta’,” here it is, she said when she found it.

She paused in her search and scanned the room for a familiar face, but could only see randomly moving arms and the tops of dancing heads amid the sea of ​​cotton, polyester, denim, lace and leather.

But then his joy caught Mrs. Lira’s attention. Other women raised their heads.

Ms. Gallardo unfolded a skirt that looked like a tablecloth decorated with roses.

“It’s a big one for the quinceañera,” Ms Lira offered, referring to Ms Gallardo’s granddaughter.

It only took seconds for Ms. Lira to find her own gems, a black bikini bottom and a white top. Summer is coming, she says.

“I don’t wear them! said Mrs. Gallardo. “I am a grandmother.”

“Yes, at the beach,” replied Ms. Lira, clutching the clothes. They both shared a laugh.

Ms. Gallardo paid $24 for around 30 pounds of clothing. Ms. Lira settled for eight books for about $6.

Not everyone who buys at ropa usada stores does so for economic reasons. That day, a 29-year-old visitor from Austin, a French Christian, said he shopped there when crossing the border to do his part for the environment.

“There’s so much trash in this world, you know?” he said, holding up a pile of clothes for friends and family, including a plaid skirt, t-shirts and other items. “They made enough clothes in this world to last us until the sun goes out. There are so many things here.

Ludy’s owner Umair Pariyani said his business goes beyond providing good deals to locals. Mr Pariyani pointed to more than 10 women and men sorting discarded items or returns from big box stores into plastic containers or bales by category for export.

His job is to decide which styles have a better chance of selling in which parts of the world. Miniskirts work well in Japan, he says. Conservative items that cover most of the body do well in places like Pakistan.

At Dos Imperios, a large warehouse with a clear view of a border fence, many customers are Mexican citizens who plan to resell their wares back home.

At the height of the pandemic, most Mexicans were not allowed to travel to the United States. But when the Biden administration lifted travel restrictions for vaccinated foreigners late last year, many, like Carmen Martinez, 53, who lives in the town of Reynosa, Mexico, rediscovered a buoy of financial rescue.

That day, Ms Martinez found herself observing a forklift pushing a pile of used clothes into a heap. Once the machine cleared the ground, Ms. Martinez and several others climbed to the top of the pile, trying to get the first dibs on the top items. She kissed with a carpet, a sheet, a blue tank top and summer shorts.

At 35 cents a pound, she planned to spend about $40 and hoped for a net profit of maybe $10. “I sell them from home,” she said. “People want to buy American brands. Every dollar counts. »

She collected her pila and prepared for her long journey home. She said that the next day she planned to start all over again.

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