Tomatoes of Wrath

Farmers Market vendors march on City Hall for cleaner working conditions and time off

It's peak season down at the Dallas Farmers Market, and the peaches are tasty. Melons are huge and choice, tomatoes ripe and plump, and the flowers are blooming. But not everything is peaceful in the garden. Far from it. The vendors have organized for the first time and have drafted a petition demanding the firing of administrator and manager Gilbert Perales and his assistant Ernie Williams.

This comes as a shock to city administrators and the vendors themselves, who, truth be told, didn't know they had it in them. After all, they are in competition with each other for the few customers who peruse their crops each weekday, and there is a language barrier among them; half don't speak English, half don't speak Spanish, and hardly any speak to each other.

But they mobilized nonetheless, and the result was a march to City Hall on August 7 to deliver a petition signed by 44 vendors. These weren't just the disgruntled Shed Two vendors either, those who have been selling furniture on borrowed time since the city announced plans to lease their shed to the highest bidder for renovation and conversion into a sort of supermarket. Spanish-speaking watermelon vendor J.J. Gonzalez rounded up 28 people, and they marched.

There's trouble at the Farmers Market: Vendors want a better deal from the city.
Mark Graham
There's trouble at the Farmers Market: Vendors want a better deal from the city.

Council member James Fantroy met them at City Hall and promised help, but for the wrong set of problems. Fantroy, who apparently didn't know that Perales is Mexican-American, assumed the vendors thought they were being discriminated against because of "the color of their skin and because they don't speak good English."

That's not it.

The vendors have more mundane problems--rent, mice, and dirt. They claim they have to pay rent on their stall spaces, whether they open or not, making vacations impossible. They pay rent daily, rain or shine, in sickness and in health. The market conditions, vendors claim, are often unsanitary. Mice have been a problem in the past, but that is usually the fault of a vendor for leaving produce lying around unsecured. The bathrooms are filthy, more than likely because many homeless people have easy access to the facilities. Some vendors also report that workers ordered to clean the market as part of court-ordered community service slough off on their duties and are not properly supervised.

Perales and Williams didn't return phone calls from the Dallas Observer, but Wilhemina Boyd, director of convention and event services, promised to send help immediately in the form of a city task force, which likely won't bring mops and brooms.

"I intend to meet with them and put together a task force of people who are committed to making the market the best it can be and to listen to them and what their concerns are," says Boyd, who has ultimate authority over the market. "The market has need for some change.

"They came to my office because, bottom line, that falls on me, but I feel confident that I can come up with a good solution. I'm trying to get past the resistance, and I need them to realize that I'm not trying to run them away. They're not a bother to me."

That news couldn't come soon enough for Maria Luisa Gonzalez. On August 8, she was running El Bigotes stall alone. Her husband was called to a family emergency down on the border, and although she wanted to make the trek south, she couldn't. Rent money has to be earned, and there's no one else to look over her watermelons. A 16-year vendor at the Farmers Market, Gonzalez complains that in all the time she's spent here, this is the worst administration she has dealt with. Which is ironic, considering how for the first time ever, the city-owned Farmers Market is operating in the black.

Speaking through a translator, Gonzalez reminisces about how three years ago, under a previous administration, vendors were allowed to take vacation without paying rent and had good communication with management. Now, she says, the city cares only about the bottom line.

"I have to pay no matter what," Gonzalez says. "And if I turn the rent in five minutes late, he [Perales] charges a $20 late fee."

She says her husband has written Perales repeatedly requesting meetings and has never had an answer. She also complains about how difficult it is to talk to Perales and Williams about problems.

But she is not worried. Gonzalez says Fantroy assured her that everything will be worked out.

Fantroy says he's received 22 complaints from the farmers, and says the city manager is on top of it. Hopefully, for the farmers' sake, he's right, because for all the talk he's spouting about how he's ready to get things done and demand results, in a recent interview, he didn't even know who the administrator and manager was.

"I think the farmers should organize themselves as an organization," Fantroy says. "They should sit in on whatever policy is being made over their living. They should have some say-so in it. It's a matter of whoever is managing that Farmers Market has to sit and listen to them, and he or she, I don't even know if it's a she, whoever it is, can easily change these complaints."

 
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