McALLEN, Texas — A mountain of clothes swallowed half of Juani Lira’s petite body, from the waist down. But the 67-year-old did not seem to mind. Ms. Lira closely inspected a pair of black shorts studded with rhinestones and tossed them behind her, unimpressed. Too flashy for her teenage granddaughter, she murmured.
Ms. Lira then spotted a long-sleeved, pearl-colored blouse, still with a tag intact. Bingo. She looked around her, as if she were getting away with something, and tucked the blouse at the bottom of a duffle bag. At a price of 71 cents a pound, Ms. Lira was on her way to collecting a haul big 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 heaps of fabric inside sweltering warehouses is hardly unusual in the Rio Grande Valley.
While used clothing stores operate all over the country, in one of the nation’s poorest regions, giant ropa usada stores — sort of thrift shops on steroids — have been part of the cultural and commercial landscape of border life for decades.
With the added economic dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the shops have become both places to shop and part of the social and economic mix of El Valle, as locals call the region. Shoppers can spend hours digging, literally, for bargains, and may 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-clothes suppliers drop loads from all over the country, including discarded items from big-box retailers. The clothing is then dumped on floors, some the size of basketball courts.
Whatever is not sold on the premises is piled into categories — winter wear, baby clothes, men’s shirts, women’s sweaters — and shipped in plastic containers and bales to bulk buyers around the world, as near as Mexico or as far away as Japan.
The businesses, which generally charge shoppers between 35 and 71 cents a pound for whatever they find, are hard to miss. Just past the International Bridge from Reynosa, Mexico, the imposing warehouses appear on the horizon, heralded by towering painted signs that seem to scream “ROPA USADA” at motorists and announce the sale of “Pacas,” or bulk quantities. Despite their larger-than-life presence in the valley, though, the shops operate in relative obscurity.
Because many transactions are made in cash, a paper trail is often hard to come by, said Salvador Contreras, director of the Center for Border Economic Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Still, their popularity is evident in a part of the country where multigenerational families often live under the same roof and need to stretch very modest resources. (The unemployment rate in the McAllen region recently soared to past 8 percent, nearly twice the rate in the rest of Texas).
During several visits to ropa usada warehouses, some of them just a mile from the Rio Grande, store operators were protective of their businesses and their clients’ privacy. Signs prohibiting photos were often posted at the entrance, a reminder that the stigma of shopping for discarded clothes persists. Some people hid their faces in the piles of clothing, and some avoided eye contact.
But others, like the longtime ropa usada shopper Angelica Gallardo, 64, felt there was no shame in struggling to make ends meet and doing the best you could to clothe your growing clan. Ms. Gallardo spends hours at a time meticulously inspecting an endless heap of potential purchases. “You have to dig in!” she said.
Ms. Gallardo said it made no sense to spend $20 to $30 for a single item of clothing at a chain store like Wal-Mart or Target. “‘Ta’ muy caro” — it’s too expensive — she said, gesturing with her hands. She does not have money to spare. Ms. Gallardo makes $9 an hour working part-time, cleaning offices in 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” from the “pila” — the pile. “The items with holes, or the ones that look really used, stay here,” she said.
Bright colors catch her eye. So do images of popular culture characters imprinted on clothing. On a day in late March, Ms. Gallardo sat on the cold concrete at the edge of the clutter and painstakingly picked up one item at time with her 11 grandchildren in mind, including one who is getting ready 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?”
She thrust her arm into the pile and shared a victorious smile. “Ahí ’ta’,” here it is, she said when she found it.
She took a break from her search and scanned the room for a familiar face, but could only see random moving arms and the tops of bobbing heads amid the sea of cotton, polyester, denim, lace and leather.
But then her cheer caught the attention of Ms. Lira. Other women lifted their heads.
Ms. Gallardo unfolded a skirt that resembled a tablecloth decorated with roses.
“That’s a great 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 white top. Summer is around the corner, she said.
“I don’t wear those!” Ms. Gallardo said. “I’m a grandma.”
“I do, at the beach,” Ms. Lira replied, hugging the garments. They both shared a laugh.
Ms. Gallardo paid $24 for around 30 pounds of clothes. Ms. Lira settled for eight pounds for about $6.
Not everyone who shops at ropa usada stores does so for economic reasons. On this day, a 29-year-old visitor from Austin, Christian French, said he shops there when visiting the border to do his part for the environment.
“There is so much waste in this world, you know?” he said, holding a stack of clothing for friends and family, including a plaid skirt, T-shirts and other items. “They have made enough clothes in this world to last us until the sun burns out. There is just so much here.”
The owner of Ludy’s, Umair Pariyani, said his business goes beyond providing locals with bargains. Mr. Pariyani pointed at more than 10 women and men who were sorting discarded items or returns from big-box stores into plastic containers or bales by category for export.
His task includes deciding what styles have a better chance of selling in which parts of the world. Miniskirts do well in Japan, he said. Conservative items that cover up most of the body fare well in places like Pakistan.
Over at Dos Imperios, a large warehouse with a clear view of a border fence, many customers are Mexican citizens planning to resell their wares back home.
During the height of the pandemic, most Mexicans were not permitted 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 city of Reynosa, Mexico, rediscovered a financial lifeline.
On this day Ms. Martinez found herself eyeing a forklift pushing a jumble of used clothing into a pile. Once the machine cleared the floor, Ms. Martinez and several others climbed on top of the pile, trying to get first dibs on the best items. She made out with a rug, a bedsheet, a blue tank-top and a pair of 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 my home,” she said. “People want to buy American brands. Every dollar helps.”
She gathered her pila and got ready for her long trek home. She said that the next day, she planned to do it all over again.