Being from Guatemala, where families wish they could own a radio, a television, or any of those electrical appliances I saw being dumped, I was tempted to pick up every item. But I knew my new American family would not approve.
Then spring arrived. This was back in 1981, and I recall going for a walk to a pond near where my wife and I were living. That’s when I saw all these people gathered in someone’s front yard. 
As I approached to see what was happening I got my first introduction to yard sales. For the few dollars I had in my wallet, I was able to buy my own seven-inch black-andwhite portable TV. I also bought a flashlight in a country that almost never goes dark, because my mind was still thinking of Guatemala where the electricity goes out every night during the raining season. 
The following weekend, at another yard sale, I saw a 14-inch color TV being sold for almost nothing. I felt I could not miss this offer and bought it. Now I had two sets and couldn’t wait to see what else I could afford the next weekend. Spring ended, and by then I had accumulated almost every type of electronic equipment I had always wished to have back home.

In conversations with my family in Guatemala, they were amazed to hear the deals I got and the number of things I had acquired in such a short time living in North America. Then this new idea came to mind. I had heard about a fellow Guatemalan who lived in the next town over and traveled back home every few months. He drove a truck from Massachusetts to Guatemala stacked high with boxes that people were sending to relatives, each full of new and used stuff. I called my father in San Marcos and made an agreement with him that I would send as many types of items as I could so that he could start his own resale business. Every few months I would gather several boxes of American “junk” – televisions, toasters, fans, deep fryers, hair dryers, electric shavers, videotapes of cartoons and action movies (even though my family didn’t understand English), car audio systems, trinkets from people’s travels, etc.—and ship them off. 

Of course, I was losing money on every front. I paid for the objects and I paid for the transportation. But it was a way to help my family. My father sold what the family didn’t need and kept the profits, while my mother and brother filled the house with one of every possible type of electrical appliance. If items were broken, my brother would fix them and that would automatically mean he got a share of the profit. Three years later, when I visited my family for the first time since leaving Guatemala, I learned that many of the families in our neighborhood had in their living room a piece of “trash” someone in North America had discarded. As word got out about my father’s up-market “trash,” people started to travel up to two hours to buy their first TV, radio, VCR, Walkman, tape player, and more. Demand was huge! At first people bought whatever was available. Then they started making special orders. That forced me to get up even earlier on the weekends and travel from town to town, looking for these particular housewares in yard sales where the wealthiest lived and the best items were on offer. 

At the same time, competition started to build in San Marcos, and my father decided to partner with a friend who was in charge of “advertising.” For each new client the friend brought to the house, he would get a commission. Years later, my father found out that he could buy similar items along the border with Mexico, where many Guatemalans (returning from the United States a nd loaded with secondhand goods) were selling their belongings, because they didn’t want to pay import duties. With that new source of supply, my father became independent from me. 

After my father passed away six years ago, his business closed. But I have continued to acquire goods for relatives and friends because I still have a hard time letting people throw out anything that’s in working order. Once in a while, I ship a box full of PCs, cellphones, printers, digital cameras, etc., because, as you can understand, I have to keep the people back home up to date with the latest technology you no longer need. 

 Being from Guatemala, where families wish they could own a radio, a television, or any of those electrical appliances I saw being dumped, I was tempted to pick up every item. But I knew my new American family would not approve. "For a Guatemalan immigrant, yard sales were a bonanza— and an export opportunity." 

© 2011 The Christian Science Monitor