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Give me some space!

12 October 2006

Mexico City has more than 25,000 streets and 2,150 colonias. Anyone who has driven in the city knows what a jungle it is. You share the streets with thousands of green VW taxis, belching buses, delivery trucks, pedi-cabs, hawkers, numerous pedestrians as well as hundreds of thousands of cars. Parking in the commercial districts is a nightmare.

The following is a story from El Universal (May 29, 2006) which describes the turmoil and stress you’ll find on any given day in the downtown areas of Mexico’s greatest city. The story focuses on some of the city’s most colorful hard working people…. the franeleros. They’re really the ones who ultimately “hold the power” midst all the chaos.

It is 10:30 a.m. Grimy green Volkswagen taxis grind forward, arms punching from drivers´ windows to wave away pedestrians

It is 10:30 a.m. Grimy green Volkswagen taxis grind forward,
arms punching from drivers´ windows to wave away pedestrians.
Horns screech. Somebody screams, “Muévete!” – Move it!

A man jumps frantically out of an ancient, exhausted Toyota and tries to edge it to the side of the road. Behind him, handcarts piled high with stringy green onions seem to lurch and stop on
their own, levitating amid the chaos, the drenched men who push them hidden by mountains of produce.


Nothing moves.

At the edge of El Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City´s sensory feast of a downtown market, the
tangle is getting ridiculously tangly. But somehow, above it all, two magic words ring out: “Viene, viene!”

The meaning, in Spanish, falls somewhere between “Come on!” and “He´s coming!” But everyone in this spectacular morass knows what it means: A parking spot has opened.

Juventino Villegas Alvarez, 65, his jacket slung cavalierly over his shoulder, blows his whistle and shouts again, raspy and loud: “Viene, viene!”

Somehow, impossibly, order is restored. Villegas sternly halts one of the edgy taxis with his outstretched arm, pulls away an old crate and waves a brown sedan into a parking space. The
driver steps out, greeted by Villegas´ outstretched palm, and dutifully hands over 10 pesos, roughly about US$1.

Villegas is a “viene, viene” man, one of thousands in Mexico City. It is nearly impossible to park on public streets here without sliding a few pesos to one of his brethren or their counterparts, the “hombres del trapo rojo” – red rag men, so named because they draw parkers by waving a red rag.INFORMAL ECONOMY
Their work is not officially sanctioned. No government entity grants them domain over their
street corners. But they are universally accepted. Some get by on their charm, their rapid-fire shtick. But there also is a sinister undercurrent to their street-level economy: People who don´t pay often return to find their windshield smashed.

Villegas runs his stretch of asphalt – 100 feet of prime parking space across from a guy who sells scorching guajillo chilies by the kilo – with restless, mesmerizing efficiency. At 10:45, a lumbering delivery truck tries to sneak in without his permission. Villegas is apoplectic. “Para!” he blares. Stop!

His cheeks puff out, expelling a series of gusts through his whistle. A woman standing nearby covers her ears. For a split second, all is still. Vendors turn to Villegas. The truck driver pounds his brakes.

Eyes ablaze, Villegas points to his left. There, wedged next to a pole, is a baby stroller. Two tiny brown eyes are all that is visible amid the mass of blankets. “Somebody get that baby out of here,” Villegas yowls. “We´re going to have a tragedy.”

No one, including the truck driver, hesitates to follow his instructions. This is Villegas´ realm, and while he is not menacing, he is clearly in charge. He has worked this chunk of Mexico City for 15 years. When he leaves in the afternoon, a nephew of his takes over.

Villegas´ voice catches as he looks around his little empire, waxing about the generations he´s
rolled into parking spaces – fathers growing old and giving way to sons. “Everything that begins in life has to end,” he says, his eyes becoming red. “I´ll be here as long as God´s willing.”

A shrill horn shakes him out of his reflection. Villegas looks up and beams. Juan Zamora, a squat taxi driver, idles a few steps away. Zamora is an old pal, a customer from way back. He gets
special treatment.

Zamora tosses Villegas his keys. He´s not just handing over a car, he´s handing over his livelihood. “Eh, I just trust the guy,” Zamora says before dipping out of the sun and into the cool, dark market. Villegas double-parks Zamora´s green taxi. But within minutes someone wants
to get out from behind it. Villegas jumps into the taxi´s driver seat and turns the ignition. A weak, rattling sound stirs in the engine. He tries again. And again. Nothing.

Rubén Domínguez García appears. Domínguez works the streets by the market, too, carrying a bag of tools that he uses to hammer out dents on the spot. He is a busy man in this zone of constant fender benders. Two other guys run up. They lean into Zamora´s car, shoving it out of the way, giving it just enough momentum to coax the engine to life.EARNINGS
Villegas glows. He has 130 tax-free pesos in his pocket, more than twice the minimum daily wage of 48 pesos. It is only 11:30, but his day is almost done. He claps Domínguez on the shoulder and the two break out in song. They croon “Marta,” a melodramatic bolero, gloriously off-key. But their celebration is interrupted by a tooting horn. A man in a fat truck wants a place to park.

One Comment leave one →
  1. ping permalink
    29 December 2014 4:19 am

    how do the franeleros divide their stretches of asphalt anyway? like, is there someone incharge to tell them who’s designated where and for how long?

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