Three small mounds of fruit are on display at 90-year-old Maria Juárez’s stand in one of Mexico City’s many itinerant street markets. Her stall consists of wooden planks set on a metal frame, topped by a plastic tarp in a city government-approved shade of pink.
“When I arrived here from Veracruz at the age of 14, I sold the same products,” says the white-haired fruit seller while picking up crates directing her great-grandchild. Juárez is one of the founders of the Mercado Sobre Ruedas’ (“Market on Wheels”) Ruta 6 market, which opened in 1969.
The mounds of fruit from the mountains of Veracruz are a reminder that Mexico City has been a center of regional commerce since Pre-Hispanic times, parlaying the logistical advantages of the Aztec island cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco into great markets in the lake.
Today’s largest street markets are in Tepito, La Lagunilla, and La Merced in the city center, as well as El Salado in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and San Felipe in the Gustavo A. Madero district. They have an almost mythical status, covering vast swathes of greater Mexico City under colored tarp. Aside from these giants, more than 2,000 smaller street markets called tianguis follow routes through the city, stopping each day in a different neighborhood. According to the most recent government statistics, 2,339 were active in the Mexico City metropolitan area as of 2013.
These smaller, roving street markets—such as Ruta 6—have usually been set up under different permitting regimes and agreements with various local and state governments over the years. “In the last ten years it has become increasingly difficult to open new tianguis because neighborhood complaints are taken more seriously by the government now,” says Manuel Gutierrez, 48, representative of Ruta 6. “This is why most street markets are quite old.”
Rutas 1 through 10 were born out of a city government program in 1969. Ruta 6 consists of 172 stands with six different staging points throughout the city and is closed on Wednesdays. The stands are given by concession to an owner and this concession can only be transferred, never sold. The stalls tend to stay in the same families or be kept among friends. According to Gutierrez about 50 percent of the stands at Ruta 6 are still in the hands of the original founding families. “Many people hope that their children will become professionals,” says Gutierrez. “But some choose to keep working in the market. It is quite a comfortable existence. You can make a living and though the hours are long they seem to go by very quickly.”
Raymundo Jimenez, 61, has spent 35 years working as a butcher in the market. “Before this I was a laborer and I much prefer this. You are outside, you have contact with the people, there is a lot of kidding around,” says Jimenez. He adds that the stall used to sell much more—now half a beef carcass a day instead of the one-and-half sold ten years ago. People used to buy for the whole week but now only buy for a few days. He currently makes between 200 to 300 pesos a day.
All the stallholders agree that the key to a successful market is customer service and good atmosphere. Gutierrez takes WhatsApp messages so that he can advise his clients which fruit is best and package it for them. One of Gutierrez’s main functions is a representative for the market who makes sure the streets are left behind clean so that neighbors don’t get upset. “Walmart has a complaints department, so do we,” he says, smiling. The costs of cleaning and other services tend to amount to between 100 and 200 pesos per stall.
Adelina Carrera, 27, learned to make green tortillas with nopal by hand in a farm outside of Huatla in the state of Oaxaca as a girl. She came to the city four years ago with three friends, all of whom work in the street markets making tortillas by hand. “Many people from my village work in tianguis,” said Carrera. “I like this work making tortillas and expect to continue here while I can.”
Ruta 6 has two communal events each year, a pilgrimage to the shrine of the virgin of Guadalupe and a yearly fiesta in the market itself—though the latter has been gradually toned down in deference to the neighbors. These events demonstrate the market’s resemblance to a traveling circus with its long relationships and family ties more than a typical modern supermarket. Some decisions are taken communally like the choice to have all the tarps in Government Pink.
Juan Vargas, 21, is the owner of a quesadilla stand. He says one stand can typically make a daily 1,500 to 2,000 peso profit. Stands cannot be sold but according to him, the informal value of one, is between 100,000 and 200,000 pesos. Usually the stalls are supplied from Mexico City’s Central de Abastos wholesale market, often claimed to be the largest in the world. “We are in direct competition in quality and price with the supermarkets,” says Vargas, adding that the competitive advantages of the street market are freshness of product and friendliness.
Street market clients have varying opinions on the prices. Some say they have seen cheaper prices in shops, but Joannelly Martínez, 32, and her boyfriend Hector Flores, 38, claim that they save about 20 to 30 percent compared to supermarkets. They live in in the gentrifying Doctores neighborhood where the market closes on Sundays, and say it’s not the prices that keep the couple—who spend between 200 and 300 pesos an outing—coming back to the market. “We prefer street markets because of the atmosphere and the kind of people. It feels more alive.”