The temperature this week in Houston is expected to hit 100 degrees every day. Many Houstonians experience the heat only briefly, as they run from their cars into their homes or offices, and back. But for others, their occupations leave them completely exposed to the heat: traffic cops, construction workers, landscapers and others. 

But there is yet another category of Houstonians who are subjected to extreme heat because of the nature of their jobs, which requires them to be close to a heat source. One of those Houstonians is Maria Yañez, a 51-year-old mother of four who sells roasted corn – known as elote – at Sunny Flea Market. 

This past Saturday, Yañez prepared her family’s elote stand, Beto’s Elotes, for what she hoped would be a full day of sales. The elote, a favorite street snack among Latino families, is usually prepared on the cob or as kernels in a cup, en vaso, dressed with mayonnaise, sour cream, cheese and spiced up with chili powder and hot sauce. 

Yañez works beside a large roasting oven, where dozens of elotes can cook at once, in her open-sided stand beneath a corrugated metal roof.

Her skin glistened even though she constantly passed a towel across her face to wipe away the sweat. It was still just 10:30 a.m. and summer temperatures in Houston were already nearing 90 degrees. Working next to that roaster— which reaches internal temperatures of 350 to 400 degrees— it felt like the ambient temperature had already surpassed 100 degrees, easily. The most unbearable part of the day was yet to come. 

Alberto Yañez, left, and Maria Yañez stands near the heat of an oven and in front of a fan
Alberto Yañez, left, and Maria Yañez stands near the heat of an oven and in front of a fan near 5to Patio on Airline Drive north of Houston, Saturday, August 5, 2023. (Darío De León for Houston Landing)

Does Maria Yañez have the hottest job in Houston? 

On Saturday, when I asked her who she thought had the hottest job at Sunny Flea Market, she counted herself among the hottest workers, but quickly added that everyone who works with heat or outdoors is suffering. 

“It does feel, honestly, like it’s hotter this year than before,” Yañez said in Spanish, as she rearranged boxes of corn in preparation for the day. With a bright smile on her face, she proudly said her family has run the stand for 16 years. She still enjoys the work, wagering that if she is going to endure the high temperatures, at least it’s only for a few days a week, on Saturdays and Sundays at Sunny Flea Market.

Pulga culture

Sunny is affectionately known as a pulga among its largely Latino clientele, the Spanish word for “flea.” It’s located on Airline Drive near West Gulf Bank Road in north Houston. It’s the largest of four flea markets in the area, including De Buey y Vaca, Sabadomingo, and Tia Pancha.

Hundreds of small storefronts line the indoor and outdoor halls of these markets. Some sell colorful clothing or uniforms, others sell piñatas and toys, and still others offer spices and veladoras, the prayer candles typical of Latin American Catholic communities. Traditional Latino food and street snacks called antojitos can also be found at the stalls and food trucks scattered throughout the pulga. The markets are especially popular on Sundays, when families come out to spend the day shopping, eating and socializing. 

For over 40 years, these pulgas have offered Houston families an affordable weekend outing and, for business owners like Yañez, a new income opportunity. For others it’s a nostalgic escape, where they can find an item, a flavor, or a sound that reminds them of their cultural background and their roots.

Every time a customer stepped up to order corn, Yañez reached into the roaster to pull out another hot ear. Ironically, the more spaced-out her customers are, the hotter her job becomes. That’s because if she has a line, she can pull out multiple ears of corn at once – as many as she thinks she’ll need. But sporadic visitors means opening the roaster’s trapdoor again and again, and releasing gusts of scorching heat each time. She’s placed a few small oscillating fans on either side of her stand, but these mostly just move around the hot air all day – hot air that is constantly replenished by the massive oven beside her.

She must also open the door to fill the roaster each time it is running low. It fits about 80 ears of corn at once, and these take 15 to 30 minutes to cook, depending on the temperature. On an average Saturday she said they sell about 150 to 200 ears of corn, but on Sundays that number can get closer to 400. In short, she’s opening the door constantly throughout the day.

On Saturday, her son, Alberto Yañez, 25, was around to help her, and on Sunday, her daughter Jessica Yañez, 27, would join the two of them to attend to the larger Sunday crowd. Even with their help, though, Yañez said she sometimes feels overcome by the heat.

“I tell them, ‘ay, my heart is going to stop,’ but it’s because I get too hot,” Yañez said adding her heart starts to accelerate as the temperature rises. “If you raise your arms, you get cramps in your back from the heat,” she said. 

Throughout our conversation, Yañez adjusted a half sleeve to cover her right forearm. It was meant to protect her skin from the scorching edges of the oven door, which has left multiple permanent markings across both her arms.

She keeps a towel in a bucket of ice water and often reaches for it to place on the back of her neck, or else takes a few minutes to sit behind her stand, away from the added heat released with every opening and closing of the roaster’s door.

“I drink a lot of fluids, a lot of water, because I can’t cope otherwise,” she said. “This year we’re also leaving earlier, at around 4 or 5 p.m., when before we used to leave at around 6 or 7 p.m.” 

“We’ll continue until we can’t no more,” she added.

A hot market

Yañez is not alone. 

Every person I asked about who had the hottest job pointed to their neighbor: someone cooking with hot oil, somebody carrying goods to and from the adjacent markets all day, somebody without any help at their business.

Parked outside of the pulga is Antojitos de Guerrero, the food truck where Maria del Rosario Rodriguez and her husband Carlos Vasquez sell aguas frescas, chicharrónes, nachos and more. In the afternoon, the sun hits the metal truck directly, making the inside – where some of the menu items are cooked on a griddle or kept hot in simmering pots – feel like hell’s oven.

This summer, the conditions have been so unbearable that Vazquez resorted to buying a portable air conditioning unit, that he keeps pointed toward the inside of the truck. He said the AC unit cost $600, but he didn’t think they had an option if they wanted to keep working. “When temperatures started getting higher this year, we saw this as a need. We have two other large fans, but these pull nothing but hot air.”

With the aguas frescas – fruit-flavored cold waters – and other items that need to stay cool, the family is also investing about $150 per weekend on dozens of extra bags of ice. “This is only our second year here so we are still getting used to this,” he said.

Supplemental air conditioner units are an expense other flea market vendors are considering as well. 

Armando Landa, the owner of Quesadillas y Mas Los Prados, has a brick-and-mortar spot right in front of one of the large dance halls at Sunny Flea Market. It’s a prime location, with lots of foot traffic, but he says the heat has driven away many customers, and in turn left him wondering if he can afford the AC unit he wishes he had to stay cool himself.

Herman Castillo, left, and Alvaro Reyes, right, complete a parking payment transaction under the sun with a driver entering into the Sabadomingo parking lot, Saturday, August 5, 2023 in Houston. Sabadomingo is an indoor flea market on Airline Drive in Houston. (Darío De León for Houston Landing)

“Other summers have been much better than this one,” Landa said in Spanish. “Although right now there are people, it’s not the lines that we are used to.” He estimates that his sales are down this summer by 30% to 40%, a significant drop that he attributes to the heat. As a result, he’s left without the cushion for big purchases like an AC unit.

Another worker who has suffered this summer is Alvaro Reyes, who works as a parking attendant at the entrance to the Sabadomingo market, which is just across the street from Sunny Flea Market. Throughout the day, he stands in the parking lot and runs around to flag people toward empty spots. “You are forced to stay mostly in the sun. So, you have to be in shape,” Reyes said. His face was shaded by a wide-brim hat with a neck flap and large sunglasses. He wore a long sleeve shirt with areas of the fabric visibly bleached by the sun. But none of this deterred Mr. Reyes from smiling and staying positive. 

“The heat is tremendous,” he said. “It’s so strong, but you have to keep making an effort.”

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Danya Pérez is a diverse communities reporter for the Houston Landing. She returned to Houston after leaving two years ago to work for the San Antonio Express-News, where she reported on K-12 and higher...