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Where’d they go?

12 October 2007

This photo, from this morning’s Jornada, shows something I’ve never seen before … the Centro Historico without ambulantes.  Where’d they go?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the ambulantes.  On the one hand, there is something charming (or convenient) about being able to buy anything from pirate CDs to oranges to key rings to watches to …  well you get the idea … without having to really go shopping.  And, the mere presense (or, maybe “overwhelming presence”) of these informal sales booths belied the notion that Mexicans have no entrepreneural bent.

It was a fascinating spectacle.  On-and-off toleration meant on-and-off raids.  I was amazed one day, during a raid (announced, by friendly citizens by whistling in the streets — meaning, “cheeze it, the cops” to see an entire sunglass “store” (or, rather, elaborate display stand, with mirrors to check out the purchases) disappear into a suitcase, and the entire sales staff nonchalantly saunter off towards the Metro.  Being a gringo (and, as someone once wrote “an anarchist… out of the mainstream”) spent some quality time (and a few pesos) having coffee with a very nice young Tzotzl lady whose collection of plastic junk and baseball caps) was under my feet at the McDonald’s she’d just run in.  The coppers gave me the look of death, but not a damn thing they could do about it.

I once entertained both the ambulante and myself (and I suspect quite a few passers by) when I bought a pirate CD of “Los Rolling Stones” and the guy offered to test it out on his portable CD player (run off a diablito — a quite illegal, but quite open, tap into the local power pole).  It was Sunday morning, and Mass at the Cathedral was just letting out. The Cardinal was standing in the doorway.   What a great time to blast out Sympathy for the Devil!

But being slightly anti-social was only one of the delights of the most bizarre bazaar in Mexico.  The ten-peso watch I bought four years ago was still keeping (almost perfect) time until just a few weeks ago, so there were some genuine bargains on the streets.

But, it was overwhelming, and I can understand the argument made by “regularly housed” merchants that the guys on the streets were muscling in on their territory.  Mexico City shopping has always followed the peculiar  idea that merchants selling the same products should be in the same location.  Sort of a city-wide Walmart.  Funerals on calle Miguel Schultz, Wedding Dresses on calle Cuba, cameras and copiers on Tacuba, shoes on Puente d’Alvarado, and so on.  If you lived there, it sort of made sense.

But, with shoes not just “off the rack” but off the sidewalk as well, where do you think people would shop?  When the new computer markets opened on Eje Central and calle Uruguay, it was only a matter of months (maybe weeks) before pirate (or, at least deep — dubious  –discount) software stalls sprawled across the sidewalks… followed by guys selling CDs, watches (my friend and neighbor Carlos, after being robbed following a day selling tacos al canasta, took up a job selling cheap watches on Eje Central — he sold me a fine, cheap plastic watch), batteries, porn and … well, almost anything kinda sorta related to the computer industry.

Tepito and Laguinallas, on the edge of the Centro Historico, have — for centuries — been the place to buy stuff — everything that doesn’t fit into a neat category (or does, but can’t be found anywhere else.  A friend once say used coffins for sale in Tepito), or does, but somehow you always bought in connection with something unrelated.  Cheap underware, disposable razors and a two-burner parrile (table-top cooking range) were one Saturday’s purchase.

It’s only natural that the street action spilled over into the Centro.  And, with a whole neighborhood already devoted to “stuff”, it was a bit of overkill.  And, the ambulantes seemed to breed like rabbits.  It was impossible to get down some of the main streets around the Zocalo without a megademonstration at your back.  If even then (the truly brilliant entreprenuers mounted bicycles and sold to the demonstrators).

The ambulantes have been a “problem”  — and, during the Lopez Obrador administration — a political liability.  One PAN Jefe de Delegacion, attempted to clear them out, outfitting his local police in the latest riot gear, sending them in — to get the shit kicked out of them by mostly little old ladies.  But, then PANistas tend to only favor “official” (i.e. “controlled”) capitalism and deserve to get their butts kicked.  The PRD administration, attempting the remove the ambulantes (its not a good idea to get into confrontations with likely voters) has taken a typically Mexican approach.  Buy them out.

The preliminary results, according to Jornada, are good (my translation):

México, DF. For the first time in more than ten years, the streets around the perimeter of the Capital’s Historic Center are free of fixed and semi-portable vendors’ kiosks, as well as the blankets, carts, tarps and other appertances of the thousands of ambulantes who previously filled the area.

This morning, the SSPDF (Mexico City Police Department) installed barricades around the Historical Zone, while at least 1200 officers and three Citizen Protection Units mounted patrols.

Primero Noticias, a morning television news program, broadcase images of Avenues Izazaga, Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, República de Perú, Apartado, Leona Vicario, Guatemala, Anillo de Circunvalación, Corregidora, Correo Mayor and República de Uruguay, which remained – among other streets – vendor free, traffic limited to vehicles and with pedestrians walking on the sidewalks for the first time in many years.

One Colonia Centro resident was heard to compare the view looking down from Eje Central Lázaro Cardenáa to early Sunday mornings. The northern limit of the Historical Center, the only lights to be seen were the revolving turret lights on dozens of Capital police units as officers guarded against the return of the more than fifteen thousand vendors removed from the street, according to a Notimex cable.

In several places, such as La Plaza del Estudiante, where ambulantes were relocated under a district program, dozens of vendors were guarding their “new space” against invaders.

The Mexican news agency also reported that tons of trash were left being in streets including Mixcalco, Del Carmen, Venezuela and Correo Mayor by departing informal merchants.

In a morning press conference, Secretary of Governance, José Angel Avila Pérez, announced that agreements between the Federal District and 66 organizations covered 98 percent of the ambulantes who had been operating within the zone, and who have been relocated to 20 thousand square meters in 36 different buildings.

Avila Pérez added that as of Friday, the different organizations will take posession of these remodeled facilities, as notaries attest that the streets have been cleared. According to a notice in Formato 21, vendors who attempt to work in the streets of the zone, or on the peremiter will be taken to court.

He added that the relocation program for informal vendors was a “irrevokable decision” taken by the District government, and their would “not tolerate, nor permit, distractions that interfered with use of the public space.”

Agreements to provide water and other services to the new facilities occupied by the informal merchants was only reached last month, and the Secretary admitted that services had yet to be installed in three building, adding that work would be finished by this weekend. Most rehabilitation on the new facilites was done by the ambulantes themselves.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. mariachi mama permalink
    13 October 2007 9:02 pm

    Wow, what a photo.

    I am of the opinion that this is a good thing. If Mexico is going to provide jobs and health care and all that good stuff, the black economy has to go. We need to collect more taxes, for sure form the rich, but everybody else needs to kick in so we can educate our kids instead of sending them to el otro lado.

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