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The Slow Death of Mexico City’s Public Markets

“There was a time of the truly poor, the poor, the so-so poor, and the doing ok, but now there are just the poor.” – Luz*

The poet and writer Pablo Neruda once wrote, “I traveled around Mexico for entire years from market to market. Because, Mexico is in the markets”. The markets Pablo Neruda refers to continue to be a feature of daily life for los chilangos, children of El Monstruo, defeños after John Ross’s heart. The public markets, as Neruda describes them, are places where people congregate to buy their staples; where people construct community as vendors and customers meet; where my mother-in-law’s neighbors are seen and stopped for a chat; a place to hear the butcher’s call, “¡Güero! ¡Güero! ¿Qué te vendo?” [White boy! White boy! What do I sell you?] These markets are deeply-rooted in the culture of Mexico; life is played out daily in those cavernous, deteriorating buildings with chipped paint and poor lighting. Marketplaces as public spaces for commerce have been in existence for over a century, and the street markets derive their name ‘tianguis’ from the nahuatl language, demonstrating pre-colonial roots. Mexico, where markets were markets, before capitalism was even a word.

With the rise of industrial agriculture and the grand distribution system based around large transnational entities, the system has begun to oligopolize under Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Comercial Mexicana and Soriana. Vendors see it encroaching, with one vendor telling me they have to organize to stop it. The problem is, as related to me by Marcio, a somber, but gracious butcher, there are internal political conflicts which cut-off avenues for organizing. The situation is ultimately beneficial to the transnational supermarkets. His thought was that the committee linked to a political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), was attempting to destroy the market for monetary gain. He explained that the two separate committees at his market were made up of people from the market that had created a rift reducing solidarity and producing “desunion” (disunion) through these political executive committees.

What this has entailed is the slow death of a community-based Mexican institution. It appears capitalism endeavors to engorge itself by eliminating the public markets, and therefore eliminating the social cohesion they built into the local economy. Though not done through pillaging directly, transnationals have been able to bribe, break laws and generally do as they please for their profits. Just take note of Wal-Mart’s 24 million dollar bribing scandal to understand the villainous tricks used to leach off the people and destroy their society. But remember, before the transnationals came, the 20th century was owned by the public markets, a people’s place.

Patrice Olsen places the beginning of public markets in post-revolution Mexico, when they began to be recognized as an “essential public service” to deal with congestion of public spaces, and recognition “that new subdivisions had to have the essential urban services of water, sewers, paving, and markets”. During this time the country was in the middle of a rural to urban population shift. This lead to the chaotic sprouting of squatter settlements in Mexico City, as massive industrialization led to jobs and jobs brought people to the city. These squatter settlements would in time become permanent colonias and barrios that were in need of the essential public service.

It wasn’t until the 1950s when government policy was finally directed toward the development and regulation of the public markets. The majority of the public markets were constructed as part of a policy that was initiated on both the federal and local levels starting in 1951 under the “Normative Declarations” of the Government’s Plan executed by President Miguel Aléman. Diego López Rosado has pointed out that the wider government plan was meant to combat poverty and increase the capacity to consume by decreasing prices, while also increasing production of “corn, wheat, beans, sugar, etcetera, in quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the country’s necessity”. It was also Ernesto Uruchurtu’s, the Jefe de D.F., way of getting the street vendors off the street and building regulated, controlled concentrations of vendors consolidating corporatist political networks.

Some people still working in the markets have memories of when they were constructed. One such person, Santiago, is a friendly and boisterous type who has a long memory of the market, because his mother, there since the market’s inauguration, passed the stall on to him. So, he told me that if you count his childhood he has been in the market since 1962 helping his mother, his life is a life based in the market, a second generation market vendor. Adolfo López Mateos, president at the time, attended its inauguration according to Santiago’s memory. Public market inaugurations then were seen as important public events for functionaries, and they were community epicenters.

In “Los mercados públicos de la ciudad de México características, problemas y ¿soluciones?”, the pragmatically radical researcher Héctor Castillo Berthier demonstrates throughout the 1950s and 1960s the public markets were providing upwards of 90% of Mexico City’s food supply, making them the primary, if not the only, food distribution source. It is also during this time period when the Mexican population becomes a majority urban population and the metropolitan area of Mexico City grew to approximately 9.2 million by the 1970 census. During this period Mexico was in its “golden” years of growth, when, according to Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros, “from 1956 to 1970,” Mexico’s, “real GDP growth accelerated to a rate of 6.7% per year, with an inflation rate of 3% per year and a fixed exchange rate against the dollar that lasted for 22 years”.

The economy during this period included government intervention and land redistribution, up to the purchasing of controlling stock in foreign industries making the government the lead economic actor in the Mexican economy. As pointed out by Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, even with such policies, signs of the government’s reversal of its economic position, as well as the changing trajectory of the economy in terms of growth and crisis, could be seen at the beginning of the 60s; a 6% decrease in salaries from 1940 to 1960, an increasing trade deficit, and the inability to create a strong domestic market necessary for an import-substitution economy. The low salaries of the majority of the population are correlated to the poor distribution of the gains of economic growth, and the political battles over how to modernize Mexico and Mexico City based on differing class interests.

These were the “golden years”, under the “perfect dictatorship”, which allowed the corporatist structure of paternalistic partisan politics to solidify and pushed forward the formalization of the public market system. Beyond the public markets, the economy as a whole was formalizing. This was part of the state-led development policies and the larger modernization project in Mexico. The modernization project was built on the idea of building a domestic economy for consumption. In order to sell this idea politicians had to put forward values of economic nationalism. Therefore, these values led to a strong connection between politics and economics, and a strong state dominated institutional political economy in which to embed the market. This would not last, as anything hierarchical eventually devours itself to enrich the few.

The economic trend begins to reverse towards the end of the 60s as Mexico begins to see the linings of minor crises after massive spending with the pro-growth policies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz leading to an inflationary spiral. The government policy trajectory changes drastically as Gustavo Díaz Ordaz concentrated government policy on increasing foreign investment, preparing Mexico City for the Olympics with projects such as the Metro (rail system), and cutting government spending on social programs. Economic problems persisted even with a marginal return to government intervention during Echeverría’s sexenio (six-year presidential term of office), because without a change to the tax structure producing revenue for the government, a policy blocked by private interests, the country was accumulating debt, producing an increase in the fiscal deficit. These are some of the macroeconomic factors before the 80s with its oil bubble and burst, the peso devaluations, and the neoliberal era with its lack of policy relating to the public markets.

By the dawn of the 1980s there was a historical discontinuity in Mexican political economy. The era of government intervention in the economy on a large scale aiding the lower classes drew to a close with a systemic crash after the oil bubble burst. The neoliberal policy regime adopted by the Mexican government represented a future far removed from the principles of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The overbearing and debt ridden government adopted the neoliberal development critique in the 1980s, a reaction against any state involvement and a push for the de-politicization of the economy. Of course, there is no such thing as a de-politicized economy. So, de-politicization translated into further erosion of democratic control over economic organizations, because it was a false de-politicization. It was in reality, a re-regulation of the state making its functions solely beneficial to transnational capital.

This led to a switch from nation-state led development to market-oriented development, where global, private corporations began to be considered the proper and only way for a country to develop leading to changes in the economic, political, and cultural structures. It meant a return to export-oriented development policies, focused on goods production for the global market and a freer flow of capital permitting larger foreign investments. It meant privatization of nationalized industries, a reduction of government intervention in the economy, and a reduction in social programs that support community oriented development and the public markets. That reduction, following research by Héctor Castillo Berthier, is linked to the present situation of the public markets only attending to approximately 22% of the food supply in Mexico City.

As the vendor Emiliano would sarcastically demonstrate to me by pulling out his pockets, “they are empty.” That was his response to my statement that the economy had grown. Because it grows only for some and this is the lie hidden in the semantics of economic growth logic. For instance, Salinas did reduce inflation, but at the expense of selling off telephones, banks and then in the subsequent administration, the trains as well. Telephones are now basically a monopoly, almost no vendors have bank accounts and the trains disappeared. Therefore, what was sacrificed were any links the economy was going to have to the general society. No longer would ethical questions be posed about the economy. And thus, all community resources, like the public markets, were sentenced to disappear as well.

The neoliberal model, as a package of public policies implemented by conniving politicians, has produced the most detrimental effect on public markets, by permitting the entrance of large scale foreign supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour that transfer wealth out of the country and reduce the client base for public markets. Gerardo Torres Salcido and Marcel Morales Ibarra both have noted that NAFTA plays a considerable role in permitting this explosion of supermarkets, with from 1993 to 1998 a 172.6% increase in supermarkets in Mexico, and the reduction in popular means of economic activity and distribution of food. This form of minimal government intervention for aiding popular forms of economic activity, active government support of transnational corporations, and a lack of a policy to reinvigorate the public markets continues to the present, therefore impacting economic development and the informal economy (i.e. expansion of the informal economy). It increases the informal economy by ending, over time, prior subsidies to the public distribution systems it had constructed in order to provide citizens with necessary products. After the 1951 regulations of the public markets the government had not updated regulations or altered them, leaving the public markets in a state of stagnation, a position they continue in till the present in the new development policy climate.

Vendors like Luz stated repeatedly “the politicians want to close the public market so they can put a supermarket,” because “they do not listen to 30 or 40 little voices, but they will listen to a delegate or a senator in congress, we need their support.” Instead, there is a level of political theatre and the sentiment expressed by Luz that “it’s one thing to say something; it is an entirely different thing to do it.” Even policies beneficial to the working poor harm the public markets, as Francisco explains they can’t accept the food stamp cards without the card terminal. That becomes an indirect subsidy strictly going to supermarkets. Compound those issues with the general challenges the public markets confront, which are multitudinous. Gerardo Torres Salcido and Mario del Roble Pensado Leglise write that there is a “ lack of institutional support with the consequence of a deteriorating infrastructure, lack of public recognition about the cultural and architectural worth of the public markets, lack of security, change in the goods and services provided, competition from street vendors, and the ageing of clientele.”

It is the public markets’ slow death that I pondered one day walking back from one. I have to call my father-in-law who had returned to his house to pick me up, but I tell him no worries, I will walk. I amble through a tianguis, smelling, hearing, and seeing market action in a different light. I imagine this is what the stock market feels like, with yelling and trading going on. The mountains of Mexico City rise in the distance, a barrier locking us in. As Carlos Fuentes wrote;

“city of resigned market plazas, city of anxious failures, city tempested by domes, (missing a complicated, yet important metaphorical image of the poor drawn to Mexico City), city woven by amnesias, bitch city, hungry city, sumptuous villa, leper city. Incandescent prickly pear. Eagle without wings. Here we bide our time. And what are we going to do about it? Where the air is clear.” [emphasis in original]

Here I walk and feel the street market, here where the air is dirty from the pollution of industrialization, waiting for a gust of wind to make the air clear once more. Here, in a street market whose history is longer than the stain of the supermarkets on the bosom of El Monstruo, longer than the history of capitalism itself. A street market moving in and out of the shadow of the state, a market of the informal proletarians, and the struggle to succeed when the deck is stacked institutionally.

* all vendor names are pseudonyms

Andrew Smolski is a writer based in Texas. 

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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