Market comes to the people of Elias Piña
Twice weekly market day brings sights and goods to the city
Editor's note: In June, Compass editor Tony Staley was part of a
group from the Green Bay Diocese that visited the diocesan mission in Elias Piña, Dominican Republic.
Last in a five-week World Mission Month series
By Tony Staley
ELIAS PIÑA, Dominican Republic - In the United States, when
people want to shop, they get in their cars and drive to the
In Elias Piña, where the Green Bay Diocese has had a mission
parish for more than 35 years, the mall, in a manner of speaking,
comes to the people every Monday and Friday - market days.
On those days, Haitians come streaming across the nearby border
laden with the material basics of life and turn the center of
Elias Piña into an enormous outdoor shopping center.
Haitians bearing goods arrive at the market in a variety of ways.
Some - usually women - walk, balancing items on their heads just
like the pictures in magazines. Others carry their goods on
horses, mules or burros.
Others are more dramatic and prefer to announce their coming with
a cloud of blue smoke and the roar of small motorcycles each
bearing two, three - or more - people clutching more items than
seems possible. Still others ride jammed in the back of Toyota or
Nissan pickups, while others come on larger flat-bed trucks.
In order to bring their goods to market, the Haitians must first
go through the border checkpoint. Shortly before our visit, Fr.
Mike Seis, the Green Bay diocesan priest serving as pastor in
Elias Piña, intervened on behalf of the Haitians.
The authorities, Fr. Seis said, were stopping the Haitians from
bringing in some items, but had no signs saying what wasn't
allowed. He convinced them to put up signs listing the rules,
thus easing the border crossing process.
A short distance from the heart of the market, one finds on the
streets the trailings of horses, goats and oxen - and then the
beasts themselves tied up, possibly awaiting a change in
Excitement builds and the feeling is electric - much like walking
toward Lambeau Field in Green Bay before a Packers game.
Ahead are the treasures - new and used clothing, hats, shoes -
huge piles of shoes stretching for a block - cosmetics,
toiletries, hardware (including nuts and bolts), bananas still
spiraling around their stalks, mangoes, rice, corn and spices,
huge machetes for working in the sugar cane fields or for
chopping through brush.
Off to the side, you can buy a live chicken for 80-100 pesos ($5-6) and either take it home that way or have it slaughtered and
cleaned. Or, if you're the sporting type, perhaps you'd prefer a
Almost everything is stacked in huge piles on top of blankets
covering the ground, making it an adventure to thread one's way
through the goods, the buyers and the sellers without stepping on
anyone or anything.
Young boys constantly work their way through the market, ready to
haul away larger purchases on a crude device that looks like the
offspring of a marriage between a stepladder and a wheelbarrow.
Mobile vendors working their way through the crowd hawking their
wares further complicate mobility.
And all the while the hot tropical sun beats down and a constant
babel of Spanish, French, Creole and a smattering of English
serenades the ears while the eyes feast on the rainbow of colors.
The nose too finds much to occupy itself with the smells of
cooking foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and humanity.
Prices - at least for visiting Americans - often seem like
bargains. Over there is a Tom Cruise brand shirt - just like the
ones you'd buy in an American store for $20 or more - selling
here for about a third of that at 100 pesos.
Just past that are hats to provide a straw barrier between the
hot tropical sun and the white flesh that is quickly being
transformed into flaming red. At 30 pesos (less than $2), who can
resist, even though with some persistent bargaining it could be
had for a third of that. But $2 already seems like a deal, until
rainfall a few days later turns it and my head into a sticky mess
as the mystery coating on it washes away. But that was then and
this is now.
Over there, a half-dozen, sweet, juicy mangoes - at 10 pesos -
beckon irresistibly. Comparing the taste of these mangoes to the
ones sold in U.S. stores is like comparing grocery store tomatoes
or strawberries to the ones grown in your garden or the taste of
cardboard to fresh, home-baked bread.
While it's possible to bargain with the vendors on at least some
items, it takes some command of the language - usually French or
Creole, though Spanish might work with some - to get further than
an exchange of blank stares.
Elsewhere, vendors have set up little stands to sell their
versions of fast foods. And almost everyone is calling out -
either in hopes of convincing a passerby to buy - or to use your
camera to take their photograph. In some countries, it can be
dangerous to take someone's picture. In Elias Piña, refusing to
take a picture isn't dangerous, but it is almost impossible.
Across the street from the parish center, a large sound system
rapidly hammers out a loud, nonstop message - apparently on a
tape loop - to sell something. What comes through most clearly
every 30 or so seconds are the words, aye-yi-yi-yi and senorita.
Eventually, customers drift away, the Haitians grace time in the
Dominican Republic nears an end drawing them back across the
border, so the market closes.
The only thing left behind is the sort of garbage that large
crowds of people everywhere seem to leave as a memorial to their
existence. Young boys are picking it up and sweeping to restore
the area to normalcy before the next market.