Over-tourism and gentrification are putting one of the city’s most prized culinary and cultural traditions at risk
by Madeleine Wattenbarger
It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday night at Mercado Tacubaya Becerra, a market in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City, and under the flickering lights, Daniel Amezcua is still manning his produce stand. The market usually closes at six. By now, most of the market’s stands are shuttered. Some vendors are mopping the aisles by their shops. Tonight, though, about one in every three stands remains open, the vendors hoping to take advantage of a new initiative by the city’s Ministry of Economic Development: The last Friday of the month is noche de mercados, or market night. A handful of the city’s 319 public markets stay open later than usual, some featuring live music or cultural events, with the aim of drawing customers back to their local markets, which have seen a dramatic drop in sales over the past few decades.
The initiative is one of several ongoing projects by SEDECO to reinvigorate the markets. Amezcua estimates that it’s been about 10 years since business started to slow. He attributes the decline to the popularity of supermarkets and shopping malls, which stay open late and accept electronic payment, including credit and debit cards and employer-issued food vouchers. When he heard about the noche de mercados initiative, he thought it sounded promising. A few children play in the aisles, and someone plays salsa music over a speaker, but with four hours left to go before closing, the market feels deserted.
Across from Amezcua’s stand, José María Teresa Martínez sits behind shelves fragrant with dozens of varieties of dried chiles and tubs of mole. She has run her dry-goods stand for only about a decade, and she, too, has seen a steady decline in clientele. She can barely make ends meet to keep the stand open, she says, much less to support herself and her children. Martinez sees a spike in business around September’s Mexican Independence Day and the December holidays, but after that, she says, “there’s nothing.”
Recent years haven’t been easy for Mexico City’s public markets. After NAFTA ushered in an era of Walmart and cheap U.S.-imported processed food throughout the ’90s, public market sales declined more than 60 percent. Many markets haven’t seen renovations since they first opened more than 60 years ago. As Amezcua points out, it shows in the sagging ceilings, faded paint, and occasional scurrying creature. The boom in supermarkets, including Walmart and the Walmart-owned Superama, Bodega Aurrerá, and Sam’s Club chains, has also eaten into the niche previously occupied by public markets. In early 2011, then-mayor Marcelo Ebrard — now the country’s foreign minister — introduced a regulation to prohibit convenience stores and supermarkets opening close to public markets, but Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down the regulation two years later.
In the meantime, tourism and gentrification have altered the face of Mexico City. Rents have spiked, particularly in areas populated by Airbnbs, and poorer residents have been displaced to the periphery. Some of the city’s public markets have benefited from those processes, but usually by attracting a clientele of more global travelers, rather than local families.
“The supply system of Mexico City is the largest and most complex of the whole planet,” says Gabriel Leyva Martinez, the director for supply, commerce, and distribution at Mexico City’s SEDECO. “It has to guarantee fresh food for 12 million, up to 20 million people.” To that end, the city has 330 supermarkets, 329 public markets, and 1,460 mobile open-air markets, or tianguis. Public markets are fixed structures, open every day; some tianguis set up shop daily, but most pop up in their respective neighborhoods once a week. That doesn’t include smaller points of sale, like convenience stores — the ubiquitous Oxxo and 7-11 chains; tienditas, or corner stores, which also stock a small selection of produce; and specialty shops like butchers, tortilla shops, and produce stores.
I’ve lived in the same neighborhood in Mexico City for nearly two years, and one of my favorite things about my area is my local public market. It’s a block and a half from my house; the vendors at my favorite produce stand always slip me a mango or a few oranges with the rest of my purchase, and the man who sells me milk and cheese always notices when I’ve been out of town. Nearly every colonia in the city has its own market like this, and they’ve historically been neighborhood touchstones.
Neighborhood markets generally take up about a square block, and they house stands selling produce, meat, dairy products, and dry goods, in addition to juice, tacos, quesadillas, and other prepared foods. Some also include stands that sell clothing, furniture, or hardware, or mini-Internet cafes, or barbers or tailors. Some of those 329 public markets specialize in a certain kind of product: Mercado Jamaica is famed for its flowers and plants. Mercado San Juan, in the city’s historic center, is known for its range of rare products, like European cheeses, hard-to-find local produce, and regional delicacies such as armadillo and crocodile meat. Mercado Sonora is notorious for selling live exotic animals, as well as items used for magic and religious ceremonies.
The markets have long been an important part of the city’s cultural and social fabric as much as its commercial life, if not more. In 2016, former Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera officially declared the city’s markets to be a piece of cultural heritage protected by the state. A city document lists the aspects of public markets that constitute cultural heritage: the social capital built through relationships between vendors and customers; forms of “urban popular expression,” including proverbs and slang; the preservation of culinary practices; and the selling of goods that are symbolic parts of Mexican identity.
Most of today’s public markets date to the mid-20th century when then-Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu oversaw their construction. At that time, Mexico City was experiencing an increase in migration from rural parts of the country. Many arrived to live in informal settlements at the city’s peripheries. Meanwhile, the post-revolutionary Mexican state was in the midst of a cultural project to redefine what it meant to be Mexican, predicated on the idea of “mestizaje,” or mixture — the notion that Mexicans are a fusion of European and indigenous heritage. State-sponsored cultural works from that era, like Diego Rivera’s murals, propagated that idea by referencing workers, peasants, and indigenous people as the protagonists of the new Mexico. As migrants came into Mexico City, the city became a site for assimilation into a post-indigenous, “mestizo” Mexican identity. The markets functioned to formalize commerce in informally settled communities.
In 2016, Mancera echoed those revolution-era ideas when he signed the document declaring that “public markets are part of our Mexicanness, and in their space, our original cultures and mestizaje have been preserved.” The irony, of course, is that many of those cultures haven’t been preserved — or their culture has been preserved at the expense of the people themselves. Mexican society has continued to be characterized by the vast inequality between a European-descendant elite and an indigenous underclass, and “mestizaje” has often involved the appropriation and erasure of indigenous identities. The investment in public markets coincides with a crackdown on informal commerce in Mexico City, including indigenous vendors, who may lack access to the means to open up a market stall. More than 70 percent of indigenous people in Mexico now live in poverty. Many of the food traditions repopularized by Mexico City’s chefs, in the name of reclaiming their cultural heritage, are inaccessible to the very communities that originated them.
Still, the public market has inarguably become a Mexico City institution and an important cultural touchstone. Their merchandise changes with the seasons to adapt to the holidays: around Independence Day, they sell Mexican-themed decorations and ingredients for pozole; for Day of the Dead, marigolds and objects to decorate ofrendas; for the winter holidays, piñatas and fruits traditionally used in the hot fruit ponche drink.
Then, of course, there’s the idea that shopping at the market, compared to shopping at Walmart, is shopping local. Gabriel Leyva Martinez, from the Ministry of Economic Development, appeals to that ethos when he lauds the market system. “The money you spend at the market stays in the local economic circuit,” he says. “If you buy carrots or onions from the supermarket, that money will go to an international chain, maybe a few pesos will stay in the community. If you buy them from the market, it goes back to the lady who is selling them to you.”
But that local economic circuit has changed dramatically in the last few years, with the advent of a new wave of tourists drawn especially by Mexico City’s burgeoning food scene. In 2016, the New York Timesnamed Mexico City the year’s No. 1 travel destination, proclaiming that “there is no more exciting place to eat.” The next year, Eater put out its own extensive guide to the city’s food scene. Some markets have benefited from the city’s newfound status as an international culinary hotspot. Mercado Michoacan sits at the intersection of several major streets in Condesa, the trendy neighborhood where there is now one Airbnb for every 10 homes. On a Tuesday afternoon, the market is buzzing with activity. One side has been converted into a Café Toscano, a bistro chain with a half-dozen destinations across the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. Outside, people sip cappuccinos, smoke, and chat. Aside from the cafe, the rest of the stands are standard market fare. The street rings with sounds of meat mallets from the butcher. At one end of the low-slung building, people perch on red stools along a counter and eat tortas. (They still go for about 45 pesos, less a third of what the neighborhood’s hip restaurants charge for a lunch entree.)
At the other end of the market, Apolinar Molina Bolivares arranges mangos and peaches at his produce stand. Molina Bolivares has sold fruit and vegetables in Mercado Michoacan since 1962. He’s 73 years old, and his son works alongside him now, but he still makes the two-hour trek from his home every day. When I ask what Condesa was like when he started working there, he pulls a book out from underneath his cash box. He shows me a photo of the market, its Art Deco curves pristine white over the empty street, flanked by none of the many bars and restaurants that now surround it. “There were different kinds of people then,” he says. “People bought more. There weren’t any supermarkets.” Now, he sees more foreigners and tourists at the market, but he says the change has been good for business overall.
In 2016, with the New York Times’s spotlight on Mexico City, Ignacio Lanzagorta, an urban anthropologist who also gives guided tours of neighborhoods in Mexico City, started noticing a new kind of tourist. They generally came from New York City, usually just for the weekend, and they’re itinerary consisted entirely of eating. Lanzagarota points to Anthony Bourdain as one of the originators of this type of tourism, motivated by the idea that culture is most “authentically” experienced through its gastronomy, and out of that gastronomy, the most “authentic” experience is to be found in the most working-class iterations. Airbnb has also been a key factor in promoting this phenomenon. “You have these slogans, like ‘live like a local,’ ‘don’t be a tourist,’” Lanzagarota says. “So if the best way to be a tourist is to disguise yourself as a local, what do locals do? They go to the market.”
Ironically, though, increasingly, they don’t. The tourist who stays in an Airbnb and shops at the market in Condesa consumes a version of commodified authenticity that most locals can’t afford. A tourist from New York may pay for a night of Airbnb what an average chilango pays for a month of rent. The economic realities that make it difficult for many chilangos to shop at the public market — their long working hours, for instance, or their need to pay with food vouchers instead of cash, or increasing economic precarity — are a result of the same factors that drive traffic to markets well-positioned to benefit from tourism.
According to Mariana Gomez Rubio, the operations manager of the Mexico City-based Club Tengo Hambre, tourists often visit Mercado San Juan to try a dressed-down version of what they’ve eaten at trendsetting restaurants like Pujol or Quintonil: corn fungus, seasonal fruits, varieties of mole. “People want to know where the food comes from,” she says. Their tours in Mexico City include a circuit of the Historic Center, which makes a stop in the Mercado San Juan. She also started to notice demand for tours of public markets about three years ago. Now, Club Tengo Hambre leads a tour of Mercado San Juan every day, escorting up to 80 people a week.
Gomez Rubio notes that many of the foods now lauded as cornerstones of Mexican cuisine — grasshoppers and ant larva, for instance — were once stigmatized for their provenance in indigenous cooking. She sees the market tours as an opportunity to remind tourists of the foods’ cultural context: Many vendors sell food directly from their villages, and meeting them offers tourists a more direct connection with the food’s origins. Still, the irony persists in those foods’ inaccessibility to many of their originators: The food of the mythologized farmer is reclaimed by an urban, largely white, cosmopolitan consumer class, calling it their cultural heritage.
What would it take for public markets to be truly accessible to residents of Mexico City? Promoting their cultural value, unfortunately, is not enough. Markets’ declining viability goes hand in hand with Mexicans’ economic precarity: Since the early ’90s, salaries in Mexico have remained relatively stagnant compared to the U.S. and Canada. Those stagnant wages, just like the struggle of the public markets or Airbnb’s effect on the city’s housing market, are evidence of the deep inequity of the global economy. The inequity that characterizes the city’s public market system — some flourishing with an influx of monied foreign clients, others withering under the increased economic pressures that average chilangos face — reflects the inequity of the city at large.
On the micro-level, the SEDECO’s current strategy to revitalize the markets includes integrating them with a digital payment system, in addition to allowing them to stay open as late as 10 p.m. At Mercado Tacubaya, Daniel Amezcua says he hopes to see more customers visit the market as noche de mercados becomes a monthly event. He wants to accept digital payments, but he’d need the commission taken by the payment providers to be reduced. Though his prices are cheaper than the supermarket, he reasons, a lot of people pay with food vouchers. Markets can’t accept them, so customers end up paying more elsewhere. His family has other sources of income, which is why his stand has remained open while many others have closed. Regardless, Amezcua says, he’s hopeful about the future of the market. “We can survive,” he says. “We just need to have the chance.”
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