Many Types of Tacos, Many Types of Informalities

Hayden - Mexico - TacosOne of the challenges of conducting ethnographic fieldwork with street food vendors in Mexico City is that they are, necessarily, a dispersed and mobile population.  In the center of Mexico City alone, it is estimated that there are over ten thousand vendedores ambulantes[1], and there are many tens of thousands more strewn throughout the sprawling landscape of the metropolis.  Some of these vendors reside in the city, while others commute for hours from surrounding towns and villages everyday to come and ply their wares.  Some belong to street vendor unions, with their own organizational structure, leadership, and rules, while others are autonomous free agents, negotiating their own way through the necessary formal and informal channels in order to make a living.  In some districts of the city, local government is explicitly hostile to ambulantaje and determined to “clear the streets” of them, while in other areas they are tolerated and accommodated by various levels of local officials.  On some streets vendors keep their products on large sheets on the sidewalk so that when police officers come walking by, they can grab everything and throw it into the trunk of a nearby car to avoid confiscation or fines, yet in most parts of the city it is common to see uniformed officials eating tacos and chatting with workers.  I have met vendors who have spent over half a century working from the same street corner, and others who daily engage in cat-and-mouse games with local police or lideres as they attempt to stake a claim to a few square feet on the side of the road.  Certain stands are famous and earn large sums of money for their owners, while in others families work seven days a week for fourteen hours a day and still barely eke out enough to live off of.   

Los tacos chupacabras are an example of a famous stand.  A small, unassuming white metal stall crammed onto a narrow sidewalk next to the shopping center of the well-to-do Coyoacan neighborhood, it looks like any one of the thousands of similar taco stands that dot Mexico City’s landscape.  Yet nearly everyone I talked to knew of los chupacabras, had a story, harrowing or delicious, about eating there.  They have been on television and radio many times, and even have their own website.  A steady stream of people arrives there twenty-four hours a day to eat the filling and cheap tacos that feature three kinds of meat and a “secret recipe of spices.”  This stand is hardly a small, struggling, family-run business that exists in the shadows of the Mexican economy.  It is an institution, thriving, established, employing many people and feeding many more, but also, it is also part of the informal sector.  On the other side of the spectrum of informality is Camila, a young mother of three from a village near Mexico City who sells quesadillas on a street corner alone seven days a week, barely making enough to live and still in the process of finding a street corner where she won’t be ejected by irritated neighbors or police.  These stalls, in different parts of the city, represent a small portion of the diversity that characterizes el ambulantaje in food vending in Mexico City. 

The point is that the informal economy is not a homogeneous entity or a phenomenon that can easily be defined according to set characteristics.  Such neatly defined informality is something that exists at the level of political rhetoric and popular discourses around urban decay and problems, but less clearly at the level of the street itself.  This is not to say that informality has no material reality, but rather that ambulantaje is also a linguistic construction whose symbolic force resides in the ways that it is talked about.  It is important, then, to look at what is said about street foods and vendors and about the city and use of public spaces and about risks, dangers and pleasures associated with comida callejera.  Such attention to language makes the bewildering task of doing ethnographic work with highly differentiated and dispersed populations more feasible methodologically, because regardless of the diversity that exists on the ground among vendors and customers, los ambulantes occupy a shared space in popular and political discourses, with implications in terms of policies and behaviors which, in the end, affect nearly all street vendors.  This has led me to look at informality both in terms of how it is defined by politicians, economists, and popularly, especially among elites in Mexico City, as well as what types of boundaries and distinctions are used by those who labor as vendedores ambulantes.  To a large degree this simply affirms the anthropological aphorism that “it’s all fieldwork,” as discussions over coffee, in crowded pesero vans, and with elderly neighbors all yield data.  But ultimately, I also would like to be able to interview politicians, union leaders, and others involved explicitly in working on the “problem” of ambulantaje.  That, however, is a task for a later trip.  For now, more eating and talking about eating and then eating again.  Things could be worse.

Posted by Tiana Bakić Hayden – PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

[1] Caroline Stamm.  2007.  “La democratización de la gestión de las plazas del comercio popular en el centro de la Ciudad de México.”  Trace.  51: 83-93.

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