In this essay, I will be exploring the evolution of informal street vending in Mexico City and its influential factors. This will occur on different scales from the urban to the smaller scales of the stalls and products of the market stalls themselves, in relation to the different case studies referenced. The first part of the essay will preface this by introducing the history and different types of street vending that occur and following that, tracing why the locals value the freedom of the appropriation of spaces throughout the city, which stem from reasons ranging from the financial to the cultural. Finally, to investigate the spatial and social impacts of the appropriation on the city, where I argue that these temporary spaces and events that take place can lead to permanent imprints of its physical surroundings.
Street vending in Mexico City has its history dating back to the pre-Hispanic era, where the government has since had difficulty in controlling it, and presently there is up to 200,000 street vendors within the city. The activity of street vending started as early as 1541, however only began proliferating in the 1970s in the city, where in 1993 the government began to take efforts to remove vendors from the streets through the construction of plazas comerciales to relocate and concentrate the stalls at controlled areas of the city. As such, vendors had to adhere to the same regulations and taxes as official retailers in order to continue their operation.
Street vending in Mexico City occur in varying manners, which include mobile markets or tianguis, which are markets that open only on certain days of the week and are supervised by city officials. Another form of market stalls which often occur in clusters within the city is referred to as ambulantes, where they are not as organized or officially managed as the previous example mentioned. Often these market stalls sell illegal or counterfeit goods, where the supply and distribution of such goods remain uncontrolled by the government.
Presently, these market stalls are still proliferating throughout the city because of a number of reasons – whether political, financial, social, or otherwise. Many street vendors set up market stalls as an alternative to their main job for additional income, especially in the lower income areas in the east and south of Mexico City. Additionally, to evade taxes, many street vendors tend to set up stalls without licenses. This is in tandem of the nature of the goods on sale, where the sale of illegal or counterfeit goods brought from China or the US (fayuca) is an additional reason why some street vendors prefer not to obtain a license for their stall. Some of the goods they sell also tend to be bartered beforehand among themselves, and as such go against the standard supply and distribution flow of the tianguis that are more officially managed.
Consumers still go to these tianguis for several reasons. Firstly, these street vendors usually appropriate spaces that are near their homes and provide as both a more convenient and cheaper alternative to the retailers that provide similar goods. Additionally, certain goods that the locals demand for are sometimes not legal or readily available in the official retailers (such as items related to religion), where the nature of these goods only available at vendors is very much intertwined with the traditions and beliefs of the locals in Mexico.
The following discussion will involve the different scales of appropriation within the city, and trace how, on each scale, the market stalls have adapted to the existing urban conditions. It will discuss why the markets have persisted in the form that they have over the years in relation to the type of products on sale, and in return, how it impacts the city during this temporary occupation of the street spaces.
In Mercado de Tepito, one of the largest tianguis to exist in the city, the market stalls occupy up to 30 streets in the city with up to 12000 merchants who set up business in this market. In this market, the appropriation of the spaces extends to the street where market stalls overtake existing roads, and is typically extremely crowded to the degree where cars and buses slow to a halt in order to safely meander through these streets, whilst being extremely close to the crowd and stalls.
The market is known for the sale of fayuca (counterfeit goods, especially audio or video products) for extremely low prices, ranging from clothing to electronics, or black-market items such guns, drugs and even stolen passports. The sale of fayuca only began and proliferated since the 1970s, where these goods were brought in from the United States and China and products such as DVDs are copied within the city for sales. Because of the introduction of these goods, many families became rich quickly and the majority of the community in the Tepito neighborhood began to depend on their livelihoods as street vendors.
Often, to advertise the video products, vendors illegally tap electricity to the cables along the streets. The existing system in place at this market – whether with regards to the supply and distribution of the video products or the existing infrastructure for electricity – has become an encouraging force at Mercado de Tepito and established it as a central commercial capital for the sale of these products. As a result of this illegal activity, the neighboring buildings often experience either shortages or interruptions of electricity as the market stalls are sporadically set up.
The sale of highly illegal black-market items such as guns and drugs has led to Mercado de Tepito gaining a reputation of crime and danger, and as such has become an area that local residents in the city tend to avoid.
As such, the city officials have found difficulty in controlling the sale of the goods in this market not only because of the large number of residents which depend on their jobs as merchants for a source of income, which is compounded by the fact that the merchants of this market have formed unions to deter any control from the police or political parties.
In contrast to Mercado de Tepito, Mercado de Sonora is an established market where the government built this market for stalls to occupy within a building in the 1950s. It primarily specializes in products such as medicine, items related to magic, party favors and pottery. It is one of the mercados publicos (public markets) that the government set up in an effort for better regulation and organization of commerce in the 1950s, with an adjacent parking area for vehicles.
Although it does not overtake the streets to the degree that Mercado de Tepito does, this market, however, has a similar impact on the traffic in its surrounding area where the market stalls have spilled beyond the building officially allocated for the market stalls, into the surrounding roads. Street vendors often appropriate the spaces around the building and the parking lot, and thereafter into the surrounding roads and infrastructure.
More often than not, locals tend to take taxis and stop in the middle of road lanes to purchase their goods, carry it to the cars and then shortly leave after. Those who take public transportation like the public bus often experience congestion at the perimeter of these market spaces, where the street once again becomes subsumed by the appropriation of the stalls.
Despite concerted efforts by the government to clear the streets of the vendors, street vendors have repeatedly set up their stalls and defied the attempts for regulation in this area because, similar to Mercado de Tepito, of the nature of the goods they sell. However, for Mercado Sonora, the demand for their goods comes from the avid tourism that occurs in this neighborhood, along with the locals’ demand for medicinal goods and items related to magic or the occult.
Mercado de Sonora is widely known for its sale of medicinal goods, and because of the locals’ culture and traditional beliefs that medicine is related to magic and religion, merchants tend to sell these two categories of products together. These market stalls still exist because its competitors, such as pharmacies that are officially set up in neighboring buildings and licensed by the government, do not provide products that relate to the local’s beliefs in religion, or that are illegal. For instance, before the 1990s when abortion was still illegal in the city, locals sought herbal remedies in this market that would allow this procedure to take place. Another example of which would be in the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, where most medicinal retailers in the city lost business, but these informal street vendors managed to maintain their sales because of a high demand for a ’10-herb blend’ and ‘Santa Muerte paraphernalia’ (associated with health and purity in religion), which only these informal market stalls provided.
Apart from the lack of provision by official retailers for certain products that locals seek, the proliferation of these market spaces are also because of how the government has failed to respond to the logic of the street vending, or the interests of the local community.
An additional reason as to why the appropriation of street spaces is so prominent in this area can also be attributed to the Housing Renovation Program in 1985 (after the earthquake) where a total of 46, 000 dwellings along with 2750 commercial boutiques were rebuilt. However, what proved problematic was that the Tepito community strongly believed that the streets and vecindades (a building containing several low-income housing units) could not be separated, which the housing program was attempting to do. After this reconstruction, property rights were handed over to residents, where residents had the ‘opportunistic idea’ that they were also legitimate owners of the sitting places on the streets. They then rented out their own houses as storage places and spaces on the streets to new coming street vendors.
In Tepito, 3,176 dwellings were expropriated and then 5,553 were constructed in the same plots. In the central area of the city, a total of 44,437 dwellings were expropriated and 45,969 were constructed.
Other attempts by the city to rid the streets of vendors include mayors such as Federal District Major Manuel Camacho’s (1988-93) administration that sought to contrate market activities to controlled locations and purpose-built covered markets, where 10000 street traders that operated in 300 blocks were targeted. Also in 1993, 24 markets were designed by 16 private architect firms working in conjunction with the Public Works office and mandated to develop designs with facades which were in accord with the historic context of the area. However only half of the amrkets were successful, those of which faciliated walk-in traffic through the market and which, in effect, most closely replicated the traditional street-vending practice. Even in the successful cases, some vendors used the official market sites as store areas and continued to ply the streets as traders, which was later exacerbated by the recession and resistance under the Espinoza administration.
This has been a major source of conflict with local businesses that have been ‘complain[ing] vociferously’, as it takes trade away from them and causes disruption in front of their shops (Cámara Nacional 1993). Ironically, the city’s efforts to rebuild the neighborhood only led to a further development of these informal market stalls which was only aggravated by the introduction of issues such as fayuca or periods of economic crisis.
The failure of such efforts by governmental institutions to either build formal markets for the street vendors or to displace them is also to do with how these schemes tend to view cultural patrimony in purely physical terms: as objects rather than as processes. This is to say that the government generally ignores the rich cultural patrimony embedded in the local population, namely its social patrimony, where Tamayo argues that conservation schemes must seek to restore and maintain the physical fabric without displacing the population either directly through evictions, or indirectly through influencing the prevailing ideology of popular culture and the valuing of buildings and built environments such that they will embrace modernization projects and reject historic patrimony – as threatened to occur in Mexico City’s inner city.
Redevelopment schemes thus far have only managed to either displace the existing street vendors, or to concentrate them in certain locations of the city without a full understanding of the operation of the market to begin with and the context of the community, as mentioned in the earlier segment of the essay. As such, the response of the street vendors is not a cooperative one, where they tend to let the constructed formal markets to deteriorate continuously along with lack of sanitation, which in return has ‘ramifications upon tourism’. Consequently, the impacts on the surrounding areas of the informal street vendors are often adversely affected economically and spatially, where competitors often lose out to the market stalls and cannot afford to sustain the lease on the spaces, they use to run their businesses. As such, in the city, it is not rare to find empty units of spaces in the surrounding buildings of the markets. A further and more dire consequence of the activity of street vending includes the worsening of the existing traffic congestion within the city when these stalls take over the streets, as well as disrupting the circulation along sidewalks and access to formal businesses. In 1993, the government negotiated with the street vendors where ‘plazas’ were constructed to relocate the street vendors, however many of them were highly reluctant to cooperate with this move. Additionally, the consequence of this government intervention was a ‘disintegration’ of the residential community in Tepito as well, where not only people were not able to walk on the streets, play or organize a festival, but prices in local shops increased and locals had to do their shopping outside the neighborhood. The city government also failed to address the underlying issue of the market which was the illegal black-market activities that encouraged the sales of drugs and guns in the neighborhood, which only led to the increasing violence in Tepito. This result of this was also that up to 8600 residents moved out from 1950 to 1990.
The existing activity of street vending in Mexico City is both a large source of income for many residents who do not possess the skill sets to find jobs in the city, and also a source of tension between the vendors and its other competitors, and between the unions representing the street vendors and political parties and the government. There remains a difficulty in finding a resolution in attempting to remove or alleviate the drawbacks of street vending, whilst also maintaining and designing spaces that can both be controlled by the government, and also coalesce with the activity of street vending so that vendors do not suffer from a loss of sales once they relocate. While the issue of street vending may continue to persist in the city, perhaps the underlying issue that has hindered the success of the governments’ efforts is in the understanding of the cultural, social and economic processes that drive the forces of these informal market stalls, as opposed to coercing street vendors into relocating their businesses into locations they do not want to do operate in. Understanding the operation of these street vending activities extend beyond simply viewing them in a physical and spatial aspect, and require a more intricate study into why they appropriate certain locations in the city, and the relationships between the street vendors, residents and products that they sell at each location.
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