Mexican Street Stories, Part 2

Mexican Street Stories deals with the observations and experiences during the fieldwork in Mexico City about the grey market, informal economy and the lives of the street vendors. It offers a new grassroot-perspective on the lowest end of globalization and local politics: the people struggling on the streets. Read as well Part 1 about one of the biggest grey markets in the country, in case you missed it.

The heat was unbearable this noon in the historic centre of Mexico City. In a side street of the main square Zócalo where an enormous Mexican flag is waving, I passed dozens of street vendors. This zone was officially taboo for them. City policies had pushed street vendors out of the historic centre to particular markets and bazars, which are too small to offer enough space to all vendors. Nevertheless, dozens tried to sell their products, which had been placed on blankets, towels, suitcases and small portable tables.

Mainly middle-aged and elderly women were selling in this street, sometimes along with their family members. As well handicapped people in wheelchairs were trying to sell something. I asked a women, who wore a traditional blue dress if she could tell me where all the vendors came from and why they were sitting in a taboo zone. Wrinkles covered her entire face, she had blue ribbons in the braids she made of her long white hair and she explained that most people in this area belong to the poorest. They were coming from outskirts and villages to try to sell cheap products, she said, and simply could not afford to rent a stand in one of the markets.

I continued, wondering about the products – batteries, cigarettes, pencils, junk jewellery, nail polish, toys and other small goods were placed. Almost everything was Chinese, distributors from Tepito were visiting the vendors in order to deliver whatever they needed. The professor I was working with and a friend of his, Juan*, had joined me that day. Juan worked for more than four decades as a consultant of street vendors’ organizations and knew most people vending in the centre. He wanted to introduce me to the representative of the street. We met her – a chubby 65-year-old woman, who wore a brown t-shirt and white trousers. She sat on a chair, two of her children, were helping her with the business. Explaining that I was interested in the lives of Mexican street vendors, she was pleasantly surprised and immediately stood up. “Let’s go to my office”, she winked at me.

Her son, bold, probably in his early 30s led us to the entrance of the nearby Burger King restaurant. I was confused. “Come on, enter”, he asked me. Inside, the chubby lady, who had introduced herself as Yatana*, wanted to go to the second floor. A security guard stopped us: “Only for clients, do you have a bill?” Yatana’s son approached him, whispering: “Look, man, do my mom the favour, you know we will return it.” Without further questions, the security guard let us pass, so we searched for a silent spot on the second floor. The heat was even worse with hardly any fresh air to breathe. Teenagers and business men were having a quick lunch on the tables around us, but Yatana wasn’t bothered by their presence.

She started to explain that she had been selling on the street since she was five years old, her parents were doing the same. As a teenager she had come to the Federal District, hoping to improve her life. She had six children and 22 grandchildren. One of them lived in the USA, Yatana hoped he was studying, but had not heard anything from him for a year. “Have you ever wondered why there are so many women on the streets, and especially in leading positions?”, she asked me. It was true – only recently I had met Angela, the leader of an important organization in Tepito. It was in fact surprising that so many women were fighting for their rights in a country where patriarchy is still dominant and sometimes even oppressive. “It’s because of the family – if the mother stops caring, the whole family falls apart, the father is not that important in this country”, Yatana explained. Her husband had died soon after she gave birth to her sixth child, therefore she was constantly vending on the streets.

Suddenly the sound of countless whistles could be heard. Yatana jumped up to the edge of the second floor, where she could see what was happening on the streets. The younger vendors started running, the elderly ones entered the Burger King restaurant and other shops with their suitcases, the employees helping them. Within a minute, all vendors had disappeared from the street. “Nothing happened, they warned each other early enough this time, they’ll be back soon”, Yatana said while she returned to our table. She explained that due to the new laws, it had become more difficult to survive on the streets and the police had become more aggressive in the recent years. She pulled up her sleeve and showed me a scar on her shoulder, “I have a bigger one, around 20 cm on my back, too. Rubber bats”, she added.

“We are here on the streets, because we don’t have a choice and they treat us like dirty criminals, but all we do is selling stuff. But they just hate us, they never respected us.” Yatana did not fear the violence anymore, it had happened to her many times that she got hit and insulted by the authorities, but she was scared that the police might confiscate her products. She and the other vendors were used to running away, therefore they put everything on towels or suitcases, so it was only necessary to fold them and be quick. Nobody could afford the loss of their products and informality, which accounts for almost a third of the country’s GDP, was the only option most of them had.

I asked her if she regrets anything, her response was clear: “Look, street vending is not that bad, especially when you are a mother – you are more flexible and you get a better salary than in many shops. Of course, sometimes it is hard, really hard, but to me the only problem is how we are treated by the authorities – everyone in Mexico City buys things from street vendors, but instead of supporting us, they try to smash us like insects and I have no idea how we will cope with this in the future.”

*Name has been changed

Photo credits: flickr.com (Creative Commons), user: Yumian Deng