A recent article in a local Oaxacan news blog described an effort by the municipal government to invest in the infrastructure of its public market system. According to the article (and thanks to my friend Pedro Mora Jr. for the brief translation):
The government will spend 100 million pesos (roughly 7.6 million dollars) to “modernize” six of the biggest public markets in the state of Oaxaca. After remodeling is complete, they plan to implement a program of periodic maintenance. The government has asked to create a panel of representatives from every market to have planning meetings and ease the decision process.
I had an opportunity to interview the most vocal proponent of the modernization effort, the Oaxaca city Director of Tourism and Economic Development, José Manuel Núñez Banuet.
Nunez Banuet addressing vendors at Mercado Benito Juarez.
StC: Public markets are no longer an active part of everyday life in most American cities, and have been replaced almost entirely by grocery stores for retail food distribution. Public markets are experiencing a popular rebirth in some places, although they tend to be promoted as traditional, almost like living museums (and only a small percentage of the population can afford to shop there). The markets here [in Oaxaca] continue to thrive, and be a real part of the everyday culture and life of the city. What can you tell us about the reasons for the success of public markets in Oaxaca, and what are some of the challenges they face?
Inside the Etla central mercado. The abundance of daylight in this market eliminates the need for substantial electric lighting, which is one of the most expensive operating costs. Most of the market structures that I have observed take advantage of interesting daylighting strategies that I will investigate more thoroughly in later posts. Many of these structures are in serious disrepair, however, and may require significant alterations.
JMNB: I lived in Monterrey, in the north of Mexico, for 14 years. The culture there is that most people go to the supermarket. Young people don’t go to the markets. Old people maybe still go to the markets. I really believe that the best offer is in the market. The best fruits and vegetables are in the markets, not in the supermarkets. Here in Oaxaca, I like to go to the markets, but I also go to the supermarket because it offers some advantages. There is easier parking, they accept credit cards, and the environment is more comfortable, maybe, than the markets. In the supermarket I can find many different things that we use in our homes. But on the other side, I really believe that the things that are part of our gastronomy are in the markets, not in the supermarkets, because the supermarkets have products that you can find in any city. The supermarket corporations buy [and sell] the same thing for all the stores [not specifically for each region]. The markets play a very important role in our traditions, in our gastronomy. You know that our gastronomy in Oaxaca is very rich, we have a lot of local traditions, and I believe that to defend our markets is to defend our gastronomy, our culture and our traditions. If we let the markets die, which is a tendency all over the world, not only in Mexico, gastronomy will fade. I think that to work with the markets is also to work with the economy of our city. The supermarkets send their profits out of town. It’s the same that happens with Oxxo, for example [a national convenience store chain]. They are killing the small businesses in Oaxaca. They provoke more damage than benefits to the economy. That is the reason why we want to work with the markets. It’s not easy. The markets have been neglected for many years. They have a lot of problems, for example, they don’t have good water systems, the bathrooms are in bad condition, and the electrical infrastructure is horrible and dangerous. They need to be modernized. We [the state] need to work with them to modernize. I’m sure if we improve the infrastructure, security and parking capacity of the markets, we can revive the markets. If we don’t make any changes, the market system will go down. I’m sure of that, because supermarkets are arriving to Oaxaca. In the last year, 3 or 4 supermarkets arrived to Oaxaca. Last year Oxxo arrived in Oaxaca, and they plan to open about 30 stores in our city.
Oaxaca City's one supermarket, Soriana, is more like a Wal-Mart than a typical American grocery store. Then again, as of 2010, Wal-Mart is the largest U.S. food retailer...
Oaxaca City's central public mercado, Benito Juarez, operates from 7am-9pm (long hours for a market), but street vending continues along the edge of the market well into the night...
StC: Are there any legal or government policies in place to support the markets?
JMNB: We need to explore that part. Today we don’t have any legal aspects to prevent or rejects supermarkets, but I think that could be a strategy. But for now it’s more important to work with the markets to make the people want to go there. People need to have both options.
StC: Do you think that markets could be part of the future of urban culture and food distribution, and not just a symbol of something that once was?
JMNB: I think markets can be a real option of food distribution. When I say that young people don’t go the markets, they go to supermarkets, maybe it’s because in the past supermarkets haven’t existed here. They are a novelty. And for some people now it may be more convenient to go to the supermarket. This may be because the opening hours of the markets are not sufficient for people’s needs. I think we need to work in many ways with the market, not only infrastructure. We need to learn what Wal-Mart is doing, because there is anarchy in how food is distributed in the markets. For example, different foods are spread out all over the place. We need to analyze the layout of the markets, and find some experts to help us to say what the best way the vendors should be organized. What are the best ways for them to buy, sell, promote, market themselves….
StC: Have you studied market systems in other parts of the world?
JMNB: No, but we are working with Conarca, which is the organization of all the public markets in the country. [I have since been unable to find this organization. Any suggestions would be sincerely appreciated!] Last year they sent us people who are experts in markets. But it’s not easy to work with the vendors. The vendors are often accustomed to getting the things that they have by putting pressure on the government. They protest. They block the streets. And the government, to maintain them, concedes.
StC: What are the vendors demanding? What do they want from the government?
JMNB: Originally, the government paid entirely for the infrastructure of the markets. After that, the vendors don’t want to pay anything. Nothing. The municipality owns the markets in Oaxaca, but the municipality can only charge the vendors 2 pesos per day for rent in the market, which is nothing, but they won’t pay more. And for 2 pesos they want access to water, electricity, and garbage. For example, we want to remodel the markets, but they won’t pay anything for the remodeling. They even ask us to pay them for the time they don’t have access to the market while it is being remodeled. Not only to pay for the remodeling, but also to pay for the time that they don’t have access to the market. It’s a difficult culture. I think we will manage to remodel a few markets, but some markets it will not be possible, because of that kind of mentality. The municipality is making a big effort to remodel, but the vendors are not cooperating.
StC: How is the market renovation project being managed and financed?
JMNB: There are three levels of government involved. The municipality initiated the project, and will manage the project. 50% of the funding will be from the federal government, 25% from Oaxaca state, and 25% from the municipality. But for the municipality, it’s too much money. The president of Mexico is even making a big effort to complete the project, but the markets don’t have a proper organizational structure in order to cooperate.
StC: What is the hierarchy of organization in the markets, both for the government administration and internal organization? Is there a government employee in charge of the whole system, and someone responsible for each individual market?
JMNB: For the government there is a Market Director who manages the whole system, and there is a lower level administrator responsible for each individual market. On the other side, from the vendors, they don’t have an organization. They have leaders, but the leaders have a negative reputation in the markets, because the other vendors don’t trust them. So they don’t have an organization to work better, to think or to improve the situation. For example, I am personally trying to work with the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. There are three organizations in the market. I asked the leaders from each of the three organizations to come to my office. Two of them are very close, and the other is, well, not so much … And when I called to ask them to come for a meeting they said, “If he goes, we won’t be there”.
Mercado Benito Juarez is way more than food. And it's big
I am a graduate M.Arch/MLA student at UC Berkeley, and grateful recipient of the 2011-2012 John K. Branner Fellowship, an annual traveling fellowship awarded by the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture. I will spend the 2012 calendar year visiting public food markets in major cities on 5 continents to research the relationship between markets and the infrastructure of food systems, focusing on the cultural and urban design implications of local economies. This blog will follow my journey...