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DUTY- FREE, México City´s Free Trade Agreement

by Raúl Tortolero Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006 at 2:53 AM

Hey man, enough with articles that criticize street vendors. We´re all in it together. What´s the big deal? Don´t have any money? Go out and sell something. Don´t have a steady job? What do you want it for? It´s a drag dealing with the boss, bad pay, and lousy hours. On the street, you are the king or improvisation.

If someone asks you, “What’s up?” The typical answer is an old Mexican saying: “Here I am, pretending to be working, since they pretend to be paying me.” Exactly. If the bosses pay such lousy salaries, the chilango (one who lives in Mexico City) answers with wit – as a cover for his low social status – that he won’t make too much effort. But this mentality of a chilango, that selfish, infantile monster who doesn’t consider anyone his brother – except when he’s hit by a bus and sees the light with the help of the Red Cross, to which he hasn’t contributed a penny – it’s not really a rebellious act against his bosses, but more like a humble contribution to an act of collective suicide. The chilango –like many in the lower classes throughout the country— answers like that and thus creates a distance between himself and the people he considers to be exploiting him. And one day, tired of his work, he ventures into the informal market. Tries his luck.


Since, according to federal government data, between 60% and 70% of Mexico’s economy is either informal or illegal, it’s logical that there’s an endless variety of street trade: food, like quesadillas, tacos of all kinds, fried tidbits, sopes, Jello, candies and more; there are clothes, American clearance merchandise, brand name and mock brand name tennis shoes, contraband Chinese products, software, alcohol, electronics, shoelaces, books, magazines, table settings, toys, music, cigarettes, notebooks, adhesive tapes, porn, condoms, and practically anything your heart desires. Honestly, I can’t think of anything you can’t get on the street: you can buy weapons in Tepito or Iztapalapa, drugs on any corner; false documents in Santo Domingo, stolen medicine – sometimes expired – in some flea markets, crafts and antiques in La Lagunilla and the Zona Rosa; you can get ordinary pets or exotic ones by contacting vendors in middle class bazaars; prostitutes can be found anywhere –now in the massage parlors– and everything else. All this can happen in Mexico because informal commerce is not regulated at all. According to the National Chamber of Commerce and the Mexico City Services and Tourism Department, “the granting of permits takes place only during specific periods and in certain areas of the city”. And there are quite a few street vendors. According to Federal District Government data, based on a socio-economic study by the sociologist Abel Pérez Ruiz, there are 98,379 informal vendors in Mexico City (data from 1997). This number contrasts with the unofficial statistics from 1993: 149,981 informal vendors, says Pérez Ruiz. Sure, the quality of many of the products is lousy, and the purchase of some of them could mean years in prison. However, in the end, the relationship between crime and informal commerce is not so strange. Many of the products mentioned above are stolen, and people know it. The Mexican Association of Insurance Institutions (AMIS) states that in recent years, merchandise theft from cargo trucks for its resale in the street has risen, and losses amount to 997 million pesos (about 95 million dollars). On the other hand, there are thousands of families who live off their street stands in the city. So this putting up and taking down of a business seems to be a metaphor for the chilango personality, if not the Mexican personality: it’s mostly not about establishing something, building something for posterity, it’s about “getting by”, staying alive until tomorrow, and after that we’ll see how we manage. Ah, but what a way to grip improvisation: during this past Christmas season, 900 police were sent to Eje 1 Norte alone, in the city center, in order to clear the avenue, which was completely blocked by street vendors. Informal commerce is one of the simplest responses to the huge and growing unemployment throughout the country. It might be easier, on second thought, to finally grant permits in order to work legally, pay rent, electricity and taxes. Because in the street you need to hook up to the light poles using a peeled off cable, which is dangerous. You need to bring a gas tank and connect it. You need to bring water to wash the dishes. You need to carry all the posts for your stand. You need to pack and unpack everything each day. You need to drive a van. You need to put up a plastic roof to protect the customers from the burning sun or the bothersome rain. But if we are tired of this business, or it didn’t work out, we just leave it and that’s that, no problem. Or maybe it’s precisely the other way around: since it was so difficult to get permits in order to work legally, people started to go out and peddle on the streets. And now that informal sales are going to be so easy thanks to new regulations implemented by President Vicente Fox, everything might get better. Fox announced that starting January 1, 2006, a program to “legalize merchants who work in the informal economy” will be launched. That’s about 200,000 families all over the country during the first stage, and eventually millions of people. It would be a simple procedure: street vendors would pay a single fee that would cover their tax obligations and give them health insurance. In return they would be obliged: “to locate their business in authorized sites within their district and not sell contraband or pirate products”. Those who don’t meet these two conditions will be excluded from the program. That means there will be countless excluded vendors, since according to government figures, Mexico is in third place globally, after China and Russia, in the illegal market. Conclusion: Fox might not be fixing much.


Informality has been unstoppable in this country. Improvisation is beating serious plans and established businesses. According to a study by the National Chamber of Commerce and Tourism in Mexico City (CANACO), more than 2,000 commercial establishments closed down during 2005. This brought about millions of pesos in losses and 8,000 lost jobs in Mexico City alone, where the largest number of street vendors are concentrated in the districts of Cuauhtémoc, Gustavo A. Madero, Álvaro Obregón and Iztapalapa. The chilango holds a Ph.D. in improvisation, but this is a response to his lack of confidence in the government, his rejection of any authority or institution, his inability to plan his life, his lack of endurance, his laziness, his lack of self-esteem, his lack of education, and his deep-rooted atavism that points out a well-known route: doing things “in a hurry”. Concerning the lack of education associated with street vendors, we might be surprised: Abel Pérez’s study states that among the 200 people interviewed, 2.5% were illiterate; 53% had a low educational level, which means between primary and junior high school; and 41.5% had a high educational level, between high school and college. “This last percentage was interesting to me”, he says, “since these were people who have the opportunity of entering the labor market, but considered this activity more rewarding”. The researcher noted the reasons why people move into the informal market: “44% had a previous steady job before the informal one, while the other 56% entered directly without previous working experience. Furthermore, the study reveals that 25.5% got into the informal market because they didn’t have a job; 40% did it because of the low salaries in the formal market; 5% because they were fired from their previous job; and the remaining 29% did it for other reasons, such as continuing a family tradition, paying for their studies, or just for the pleasure of being a vendor”. The chilango vendor is very creative in improvising, since he cannot accomplish large-scale projects. That explains why someone with a Ph.D. in sciences –as an example of someone with an established life — can easily be cheated by a plumber, electrician, carpenter, bricklayer, or locksmith, who is hired as an “expert” in his trade. There aren’t really two separate worlds, a constitutional, legal culture, and an illegal, irregular subculture. There is only one giant informal subculture, and a ghost of a legal system. This is expressed in many ways: “Sir, the fine will be more expensive if you pay at the tax office… ” The guy who watches your car in the street is cheaper than valet parking. The street car-washer is cheaper than a car wash service. The mechanic who arrives daily with his tools is cheaper than an established garage. However, this nation of guises and appearances expresses its informal subculture in other forms as well: getting a job in the government in order to traffic in it, get more out of it than just a salary; study not in order to learn, but to get a scholarship and go abroad; wear a suit not because you like it, but in order not to look like a delinquent and be able to act like one. (Look, son, if you don’t have a job right now, work as a car-watchman and you can sell cocaine. Or work as a waiter and steal the bottles, or maybe in the judicial police and have the crooks you catch work for you…) And we all, voluntarily or not, are part of this. A recent survey for a TV channel by the Mitofsky consulting firm showed that in the past three months, 69% of residents of the capital have bought something in the informal market. “They mostly buy food, clothes, movies, and CDs in that order,” says the study. It also shows that people do it because of the low cost, and in spite of the poor quality.


The best tacos I’ve had in this city do not come from a restaurant. They’re sold by a lady from the trunk of her old car, from which she also takes out three oily stools, two soft drink boxes, a bucket of crushed ice and her portable coal stove where she heats her homemade stews: crispy pork rind in red chili sauce, minced meat, tinga chicken. Taking into account her educational level, she couldn’t make that money by working in any other job just a few hours in the morning. And the government’s insistence in formalizing the informal market is absurd for her: “Look who’s asking us to be formal. Those who never do what they promised in their election campaigns, don’t stop crime, nor clean up the garbage, nor solve unemployment, nor bring water to the outlying neighborhoods”. In conclusion, there is no reason to follow the advice of the government. A government that hasn’t fulfilled its obligations to its voters doesn’t have the moral stature to ask for anything. Few people believe in the government, no matter what political party they belong to. And so this lady sells her greasy but scrumptious tacos in front of a “discount” drugstore, where the employee on his shift probably suffers watching the lady make some cash, while he needs to wait until payday for his lousy salary. This may be the reason that he, a guardian of public health, devours in three bites the lady’s street delicacies. And with his meager salary, he contributes to the permanence of informal trade, because he craves these tidbits and doesn’t always bring food from home. I could have breakfast at home, but not always, so I eat tacos instead. I’ve seen fat policemen eat there, too, so it doesn’t seem that authority figures can stop these tacos from getting into their fans’ stomachs. The taco lady is backed up by a broad culture of informal trade in the country, but not only informal trade, informal everything: in Mexico, public education is informal, famous for its suspended classes, lack of teachers, disputes, strikes. Also, a meeting hour is informal. No one arrives on time anywhere. It’s informal to say you are doing something. It’s just a saying, so words have lost their meaning. It’s informal to make plans to go on a diet for New Year’s, or to make any kind of plan. Pay day is informal: Come back tomorrow. Come back later. What the president says is informal; he won’t do it. “We’ll grow 7% a year”. Yeah, sure. “We won’t steal”. Yeah. In short, it’s an informal life. This is not a life of planning projects and carrying them out. Straight lines don’t exist in this country fond of curves, where beating around the bush and distracting attention is the norm. That means a straight line is not necessarily the shortest distance between two points. The shortest way might be to give a bribe so they let you put up your own taco stand or any other stand. So informal trade is an essential part of the city and the country. It’s a social response to the rot, or at best the inefficiency, of institutions, and a false door out of poverty and underdevelopment.


I buy pirate music and movies on the street. I know that by doing so, I am simultaneously contributing to the ruin of record companies, movie producers and legal shops, and to the survival of poor families of ambulatory vendors, but also to helping their corrupt leaders. However, good and bad chilangos are practical: pirate CDs and movies cost 15 pesos or less, while the originals cost 200 pesos. That is a considerable difference in price. Established companies are clearly robbing us. Salaries are very low. So many of us go for what is at hand. And although the best tacos are usually the street ones, and the pirate CDs and movies don’t look or sound so bad, sometimes this informality can be lethal. Pirate taxis can end in an express kidnapping or a conventional mugging, violent or not. There are pirate taxis without license plates, identification, permits – nothing. Clearly, informal trade has a lot to do with corruption, because in order to operate on the street you need to pay bribes. Taxis need to pay off the municipal district office or the Transport and Highway Administration. But the concept of “corruption” is really just a convenient term used by corrupt authorities. To be corrupt in Mexico means to join in a game; one needs to know how to play in order not to get hurt. Street vendors I talked to, swear that their business has its benefits: no need to deal with all those messy papers and permits, no need to pay rent or electricity (according to legislative data, more that one billion pesos are lost annually due to electricity theft), or water, social security, or taxes. You don’t have a boss, you are a micro-company manager, give vacations and take them whenever you want, close and open at whatever hours you please. Expressions of an infantile will, of social disintegration, crushing the idea of social and national unity. And the disadvantages: Local authorities, inspectors or policemen who pester you if you don’t pay, annoyances and complaints from neighbors and established merchants. You must pay fees to the mafia and are forced to participate in their meetings and political demonstrations. There’s no place to defecate or urinate, no sanitary conditions, you’re out in the smog, traffic and noise all day long. You’ve got no union or attorney to protect you if something happens. The police may confiscate your merchandise in an operation or mafia leaders or other vendors may beat you up and shove you off…


According to a great deal of evidence, there are only two explanations for the wild expansion of informal trade in Mexico: unemployment and lack of money. But beyond the obvious is the hidden reasoning of the street vendors. The question might be: who owns this country? “It’s not ours”, it belongs to politicians who milk the budget that is supposed to cover us with its blessings. It belongs to the multinational companies who use our cheap labor, but leave without even saying thank you, once another country offers cheaper labor. It belongs to the rich Mexicans, the oligarchies, precisely those who possess an overwhelming quantity of material goods, compared to those who don’t have enough, after so many years of work. In other words, the distribution of wealth remains in the hands of a few. Despite all this, it would seem that street vendors all agree: With all these obvious injustices, there’s no time to get involved in social battles, because it’s better to have some beers at night in a diner with a jukebox than contrive a plan to help ourselves and help others — who, by the way, won’t say thank you, either. There’s no time or energy for a revolution, because in order to make one, you need to pay for it all, and so it’s better to buy some sausage and chipotle-flavored Fritos, because I’m hungry. All this business of informal commerce has a very distinct psychological undertone: the fear of obligations or failure. So it’s better to live without risk. I finish selling my tacos, put everything in the van and that’s it. No obligations. Nothing lost, nothing gained. And if I feel like it tomorrow, I’ll take everything out again, and if I have a hangover, I won’t go. I don’t have anybody to boss me around or yell at me. I’m free. The only thing is that in order to grow, you need to formalize the business. You can’t put 40 tables on the street for your clients, so it’s better not to grow, better stay like this. Always from hand to mouth. (trad. I.L.) (Mexico City Monthly-Febrero 2006 Issue 2)

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