Metropolis. by Fritz Lang
Sometimes big cities don’t seem so big. You get to know your neighborhood, you have your routine, the same streets, the same sites, maybe hints of a larger system but overall you’re only getting a slice of it. For some residents of Mexico City, especially those that isolate themselves to the enclaves of Polanco or Condesa, the immensity of urban infrastructure may be like the machine of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, out of sight and out of mind. For others, like some of the vendors in the mercados, who commute by public transit up to 2 hours each way into the city’s centers, it probably feels as big as it is – an intense, thriving, gargantuan network of everything, and everything busting-at-the-seams. It might take half a day just to get anywhere outside your neighborhood, unless you try to walk, in which case you will wear out your shoes before you arrive. No wonder every dense urban neighborhood has a mercado! In a city with this much traffic, it would take longer to find a parking spot at the grocery store than walk to the market anyway.
Diagram of Mercado Distribution (only in the Central Districts) and street system, relative to the Central de Abastos. All graphics and images by the author unless otherwise noted.
The network of mercados in Mexico City operates as true public infrastructure (perhaps even more so than water). It was financed entirely by the federal and municipal governments, both in its initial construction and continued (although limited) maintenance. Unlike European market structures, which tend to date from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, markets in Mexico remained outdoors much later, until a government initiative financed the construction of nearly all the city’s 318 mercados, between 1957 and 1970. According to UNAM Professor and author, Janet Long-Solis, the proliferation of street vending in Mexico also expanded in the 1950s, which “coincided with a period of mass migration from rural to urban Mexico, due to the economic crisis that shook the Mexican economy during this period.” (1) What a concept! Rather than give stimulus money to banks, the government invested in a flexible, physical, not to mention, social infrastructure, that is now the backbone of the city’s food distribution system, and employs hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise strain the already limited social services.
Inside Mercado Jamaica
I had lunch in Mexico City with food writer and culinary guide, Lesley Téllez, who described the mercado construction campaign as an “economic catalyst”, designed as much to generate jobs, as to consolidate and organize informal vendors. Of course not everyone got a spot, (and who knows how they chose, but surely some bribing and nepotism was involved) hence the massive dispersion of street vendors that continue to operate in the capital city. While the government still massively subsidizes the mercados, most of the structures are in serious need of a paint job. There doesn’t seem to be any money even for that at the moment, but government subsidies do allow the indoor vendors to continue vending without paying a single peso for rent or utilities, as long as the space that they operate stays in the family.
This network of market halls is of course only one component of a shifting food system, which within the last decade has become more open to corporate superstores and modern grocers. Despite reports of declining sales at the mercados, they remain significant (and essential) pieces of a distribution mechanism for the middle to lower class, who couldn't afford to shop at the supermarkets even if they wanted to. Food distribution in Mexico City is dependent on this public infrastructure, which mediates the flow of food from Central de Abastos, the world's largest wholesale market, to restaurants, street vendors, street markets (tianguis), and people buying for themselves.
Diagram of Food Flows, the price of oranges, and operating hours of distribution models in Mexico City.
In the 2-1/2 weeks I was there, I didn't meet anyone in Mexico City who shopped exclusively at the supermarket, but then again, I wasn't exactly rubbing elbows with the social elite. Nicholas Gilman, food writer and chef with whom I met separately, agreed with Tellez, who suggested that upper classes tend to not shop at the mercados because they don’t want to mix with the lower classes. Gilman thinks "it’s a 3rd world country phenomenon, where people who come from upper classes tend to reject the traditional culture, unlike for example, in France, where everybody’s always gone to regular markets, although there are also supermarkets."
I don't want to belabor the whole mercado vs. supermarket issue like it's a Rocky vs. Drago showdown, especially since it already came up in the Oaxaca interview, but it's interesting to note the basic strengths and weaknesses of each model from the Mexican perspective. Unlike most developed countries, "local" fruits and vegetables tend to be cheaper and of much better quality in the market than the supermarket. Many people are also attached to the nostalgic "tradition" of the markets, even if the "tradition" is only 60 years old, the informal economy and social exchange of buying and selling food is part of the cultural heritage way before Spanish became part of it. The main strikes against the markets (depending on who you ask): they have inconvenient hours, there's no parking, you might get mugged, they're cacophonous, odorous, and unsanitary. But so is Mexico City, in general...and what's not to love about that?
Unlike in Oaxaca, people in Mexico City were always willing to pose for a picture, even in the trash, at Mercado Jamaica.
Artist and blogger, Jim Johnson, described the supermarkets as being "much more expensive here, besides the fact that it tends to be very low quality, it’s all wrapped in plastic, and you’re not even always sure what it is, much less where it’s coming from. But I think for Mexicans supermarkets are a relatively new thing. To be able to shop at a supermarket means that you’ve risen up (in terms of social class). Mexicans just love the novelty of the supermarket, and all the other American chain stores. When an International House of Pancakes opened here last year, people had to make reservations!" If you're really into it, you can also valet park your car at Starbuck's.
Mexico City is a city of neighborhoods (known as Colonias), and each market reflects and amplifies its local context. There is nothing remotely generic, expected, or for that matter, sterile, about them. According to Gilman, "The Medellin market is known for being somewhat upscale. There are also a bunch of stands that sell South American and Caribbean products, because there is that demographic living in the neighborhood. So there’s that interesting element that you won’t find so much anywhere else in the city." Coyoacan has fancy cheese vendors, San Juan has always been the "gourmet" Spanish market, Sonora is the "witchcraft market", (where I was also told would be the best place to buy an Indian headdress), Martinez de la Torre is "working class", Merced is the former wholesale market, and so big it has a subway station inside it!
Inside Mercado Merced, before exiting the subway turnstiles...
Pedestrian side street at Mercado Jamaica
The Mercado Jamaica is Mexico City’s wholesale flower market, but “doubles” as the neighborhood meat and produce market. I went there in search of a quick lunch, and produce to make guacamole later that day. After a seriously delicious quesadilla stuffed with cheese and squash blossoms (flor de calabaza), for a single US dollar, I went in search of a vendor with the vegetables that I would need. The first person I met was a woman, probably about my age (ok, just barely 30), named Theresa, bagging tomatoes with a broad smile on her face and a baby wrapped in a shawl strapped to her front. She thought it was so hilarious that I only wanted to buy six tomatoes; she almost just gave them to me. But she also had onions, limes and Serrano peppers (also in ridiculously small quantities compared to Mexican family standards), but enough to run up a little bill (all in all, about $2). Her stall has been a family business since the market opened in 1957 as part of a government infrastructure program to generate jobs for lower economic classes. Her grandmother was there from the beginning, and she is the third generation to work in the same location. When I asked about rent, she seemed confused, shook her head and said she pays no money to be there. Once you’re in you’re in, and it’s likely the only way of life you’ll ever know, but in this context a privilege.
Theresa's veggies, next to the double-height La Chapparita, where I had a damn good lunch for $1.
I bought some green tomatoes from an old man who also had tables full of many different peppers. I only needed a single habanero, which he tossed in the bag with a wink and no extra charge, and when I asked who had the best avocados, he gave his recommendation without hesitation. The woman I was directed to had three massive stacks of different varieties, but she knew exactly what I needed when I told her I was making guacamole. As she selected the perfectly ripe ones of the bunch, we chatted about her position in the Mercado. She works 7 days a week, and has been a vendor her entire life, since she was a child (which from her age must have been about the opening of the market). She leaves her house at 5:30 am to personally go to the Central de Abastos to buy the produce for the day, and is all ready for the Jamaica Market opening at 8 am. She works until the market closes at 7pm each night, and according to her, enjoys every minute of it.
Mercado Jamaica, interior street
Bananas and pinatas at the Mercado Jamaica
Proud of the meat, at Mercado Merced.
The Mexican mercados can be somewhat disorienting to visitors, and when you spend an hour walking around to find the best deal on everything you need, it might seem like a lot of effort compared to shopping at the supermarket. Of course it is also an entirely unique experience, and so you’ll see a few tourists wandering around here and there, poking things, making faces and taking photos, but not spending any money. If you live in Mexico City, you might spend a little extra time talking to your favorite vendors, but you would spend much less time wandering around in awe, unless it was your first trip to Central de Abastos...which is big enough for its own post, coming soon. Stay tuned.
(1) Janet Long-Solís, "A Survey of Street Foods in Mexico City", Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment. 15:3-4, p. 217
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...