One 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, 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. Continue reading
Author Archives: tianabh
The last several weeks have been politically important and tumultuous here in Mexico. The presidential elections, held last Sunday, July 1st, were marred by allegations of fraud, corruption, and vote-buying by Enrique Peña Nieto, the alleged victor and candidate of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the political party that governed Mexico for seventy years, until 2000 in what writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called la dictadura perfecta. A student-led movement known as #yosoy132 has been working since before the elections to raise awareness of anti-democratic behavior on the part of the PRI, and to challenge limited and biased media coverage on the part of the country’s largest media outlets (Televisa and TV Azteca), which they say have clearly favored Peña Nieta and demonized the leftist candidate, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for years. Billing itself as a pro-democratic rather than party-affiliated movement, #yosoy132 organized multiple large-scale protests prior to the elections, as well as a televised debate between the presidential candidates (Peña Nieto declined to participate). In the days since the elections were held and Peña Nieto was declared the winner by the IFE (Federal Electoral Institute), there have been numerous marches held by various pro-democracy and anti-PRI/anti-Peña Nieto activists to protest fraud and corruption during the elections.
The question of food has been particularly important in the last week since the general elections were held, as Mexico’s largest grocery store chain, Soriana, has become a key symbol of electoral fraud. Multiple reports have surfaced of citizens being given 500-peso Soriana “gift cards” that were paid for out of PRI party accounts. When rumors began to circulate that the cards would not be honored, there was such a rush on certain Soriana branches that they were forced to close down temporarily to restore order. While the PRI and Peña Nieto’s campaign vociferously deny the allegations of vote-buying, there is a great deal of material and testimonial evidence to suggest that the practice was widespread. The fact that people were apparently selling their votes for grocery money, moreover, has not been lost on many Mexicans with whom I have spoken, who have expressed concern over the ability of peoples living in poverty to participate fully in the democratic process and not succumb to corruption. Continue reading
One of the first impressions that I had of Mexico City upon coming here for the first time, seven years ago was that the metropolis was saturated with food. In addition to grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes of all types, the streets themselves teem with places to eat. White metal stands line the sidewalks near major and minor thoroughfares, selling sandwiches, fresh fruits and juices, tacos, and antojitos (corn-based snacks such as quesadillas and tostadas). Other vendors come early in the morning and set up tarps, coal-fired griddles, and a few plastic stools on street corners in residential and commercial areas, where they sell tacos, antojitos, and tamales. Still other vendors are fully mobile, pushing carts, riding bicycles, or carrying baskets to ply their wares, often yelling out the types of products they have on offer (churros, roasted sweet potatoes, sandwiches, tamales, corn on the cob, sweet breads, tacos de canasta) as they weave their way through the city. Street food, or comida callejera, certainly exists in other countries, but in Mexico it is particularly vibrant, omnipresent, and embraced as a part of the national identity. People from most walks of life frequent street food stands, at least periodically, and many people depend on their products for affordable, nutritious daily meals. Yet the majority of street food vendors, despite their iconic status and importance in the urban food landscape, exist precariously in the informal sector, where they are regularly declared to be problems by politicians and city residents alike. Vendedores ambulantes (or mobile vendors) are commonly criticized in terms of public health, waste disposal, tax evasion, corruption, use of public space, or quality of life. As an anthropologist, I am interested in the implications of these contradictory rhetorics and practices around street food for Mexicans, as consumers, vendors, and political actors. Continue reading