Finding myself for a month in Mexico City, in between traffic jams, delicious cuisine and warm-hearted people, I experienced unexpected situations during my fieldwork on informal employment. I would like to share some of these stories. Part 1 is about my encounters in one of the biggest grey markets of the country, Tepito, where daily more than 10.000 people come to sell their products.
White neon lights and stroboscopes are flashing in the three-floor building. The air is thick, it is hard to breathe. Heavy Hip Hop beats meet cheerful Salsa rhythms, pounding from tall speakers and every two meters a merchant is praising his products – electronics, mobile phones, music CDs and software, contraband of course. My companion searched that day for a statistics software. He asked one of the vendors, where to find the programme. The man wore a billboard with different software brands around his neck and asked us to wait. He rushed to a shop, within two minutes he was back, holding a copy of the programme in his hand. “70 Pesos, my friend, works for both Mac and Windows”. For less than 5 Euro my companion bought a software, which has an original selling price of over 2.100 Euro. Some money was saved that day!
This situation describes briefly the reality of the Federal District – informal commerce is part of the daily business and the dimension is impressive. This type of small-scale business can be seen everywhere in the city: in the centre countless small shops offer copied products, street vendors sell food on public squares, and the markets are full of contraband. Estimates show that more than half of Mexico’s population works informally, meaning they do not have a registered job, no contract, no labour rights, no social security, they do not pay taxes. Many of these workers are self-employed in any type of commerce. Being pushed out of the historic centre to special commercial zones, the vendors find themselves in a vicious cycle: They prefer working informally because the government cannot provide decent jobs, which partically is caused by the lacking taxes, since people work informally on the street. Of course, corruption and shady business practices are always part of the whole picture in Mexico as well.
Going to Tepito for research, I was warned in advance. Do not show too much skin! Leave your valuable things at home! Do not walk alone! The market has a tradition of over 200 years. Selling second hand clothing and other used goods has always been the driver of the market. After World War II, the image of the market changed: products that had been forbidden due to the protective economic policy in Mexico were traded to Tepito. Radios, Televisions, later CD-players, but as well pornographic material were sold. Along with this illegal activity, more danger was drawn to the area. Either way, Tepito has expanded tremendously, offering not only a workplace for more than 10.000 people in tents, shops and small commercial centres but as well a home to dozens of thousands. Until today, people rumour that drugs and arms can still be easily bought there.
I thought the worries were exaggerated, why would I be scared of street vendors selling cheap clothing and CDs? The only thing that could happen to me was that somebody would steal my purse – and this happens everywhere. Arriving in Tepito, I met one of the leaders of the street vendors, Angela*. Street vendors are organized in different groups, similar to trade unions and I was lucky to meet Angela, leading one of these groups, a week earlier. She was calm and modest and as soon as I arrived, she started calling people on her mobile phone. “Listen, here’s a girl from Europe, you are going on a tour with her now.” She called three more people. I assumed they were simply too busy and she searched for somebody to guide me the way. In fact, all four people she had called arrived. I was puzzled. Three men and a woman introduced themselves to me. Angela explained them I was doing research and needed interview partners.
I left her office, one guy walking behind me, another one next to me, the woman and the third guy in front. I never felt as protected as in this moment, nevertheless, taking pictures was not allowed. Walking through the small streets, somebody always pulled me away as soon as a vehicle approached and while I started to interview the vendors, for more than two hours none of Angela’s guys was further than three meters away from me. If a vendor was suspicious, one of my “bodyguards” came and said briefly: “she’s the girl of the boss, it’s ok”. I was the girl of the boss? Perhaps there was something real about the reputation of Tepito.
Soon I entered a shop where a young woman named Sora* worked. She sold socks and underwear. Sora was pretty, slim, wearing a neat white blouse and pink eye shadow. Since she did not look Mexican, I asked her where she came from. “I was born in a little town in South Korea, but I graduated Marketing in Seoul”, she explained. It is common that Mexican university graduates end up selling on the streets, since they cannot find a decently paid job in accordance to their training, but a Korean university graduate selling on one of the biggest illegal markets? That is rare.
“Finding a job in Korea would not be the problem, but… “ Sora stopped and refused to explain how she had gotten to Mexico. “Tepito is a very ugly and dangerous place, I really want to leave, but it is difficult, without all the necessary papers”
Sora explained, that she knew more than 100 Koreans and other Asians, her products were directly imported from South Korea. Angela, the leader of the street vendor’s organization, explained before how well-connected Mexican traders were with the Chinese. She knew around 100 “Chinos” (which includes everyone who looks “typically” Asian) and was well informed whom she needed to call when she needed new products. Angela explained that the Chinese were reliable trade partners, they don’t speak much and work hard. Sometimes they would directly produce clothing, the most popular product at the market, in the warehouses of Tepito. Next to Angela’s office permanently a group of young men were rushing out of an elevator, pushing a cart filled with covered packages to a van. “You just need a machine to print on T-Shirts to make easy money, that’s what the Chinese do upstairs”, one of my “bodyguards” told me. Tepito is more than a market, it is a distribution zone. Products are sold to smaller cities and other parts of the megapolis, traders came from the port cities where Asian goods arrive to sell the new designs and local producers negotiate about business deals.
Informal commerce has offered a solution to the poorest of the country and the ones who do not have the opportunity to find a decent job due to lacking connections. Earning in a formal job sometimes less than 100 pesos per day, which is around 6 Euros, many vendors prefer to stay on the streets. To them, the social welfare system provided by the government does not serve anyway. Moreover, they earn the double to triple of the daily minimum wage and especially women enjoy the flexibility to stay with their children if necessary or bring them to work. Although the government has tolerated the existence of a large number of street vendors for decades, in the last years informal commerce is being gradually criminalized. Being pushed away from public spaces and threatened by the police, street vendors have experienced often violence and fear.
Read “Mexican Street Stories, Part 2” on Sunday, April 26th and learn more about a “business meeting” at a Burger King and a women who has been vending for almost 60 years and doesn’t care to hide her physical and mental bruises of a lifelong struggle.
*Name has been changed.
Photo: Kasper Christensen, Picture of Tepito