Mexico City

Improvising Survival

The clash between the new global gentrifiers and Mexico City’s informal economies.

by David Lida

From downtown, it takes about an hour by metro to get to the Wednesday flea market in Acatitla, on the east side of Mexico City. If you’re a patient shopper, you’ll probably think it’s worth the effort. Through a rabbit warren of city streets, clothes are piled on makeshift tables made of metal baskets with wooden planks on top. Pink plastic tarpaulins shield customers from the blazing sun as they pick through the merchandise. I’m five foot nine, and some of the piles are as high as my chest.

This is the end of a long road for these garments, some of which have labels from Perry Ellis Portfolio, DKNY, Banana Republic and Calvin Klein, and price tags from Macy’s, Marshalls, Penneys and T.J. Maxx. It’s the detritus that didn’t sell last year. Or the year before. In Acatitla, shirts, trousers, sweaters, party brassieres, gimme caps and toddlers’ onesies go for between 10 pesos (about 50 cents US at the current exchange rate) and 500 pesos (about $25) for brand-new sneakers with Adidas or Nike logos on the side. (Either they’re knockoffs or they “fell off a truck” in the neighborhood.) A friend once found a Yohji Yamamoto t-shirt for five pesos (not at Acatitla, but at another flea market in the city).

I ask a group of three middle-aged vendors how things work around here, and they explain a system similar to the way most things happen in Mexico City. Each man earns 250 pesos a day to watch over a single stand in the market. The reasons there are so many of them taking care of relatively few customers are (1) because labor is so cheap in Mexico, and (2) to provide muscle in case anyone tries to rob them of cash or merchandise. Acatitla is located in Iztapalapa, the most populous, poorest and crime-prone of Mexico City’s 16 delegations. The market is about a mile and a half from the Santa Martha penitentiary. On the other days of the week, the guys move elsewhere in the city to sell the clothing.

“We don’t own any of this,” says one of the men, who told me his name, but requested I don’t mention it because of the possible consequences if it appears in print. “It’s a Mafia here. You pay the Mafia so they let you set up a stand and work. The owners of all this are home in bed sleeping or counting their money.”

I say something about so many clothes and so few customers. “It’s the end of the quincena,” the vendor says, shrugging his shoulders. Mexicans are paid twice a month, and at the end of each fifteen-day period they tend to be notably cash-strapped. “People have other priorities. They have to pay rent. They might have five or six kids in school, and they have to pay for supplies and uniforms.” Most people who live in Iztapalapa have a long way to get to work, and pay for round-trip tickets both on the metro and a minibus to get there. To people from London or New York, a five-peso ride on the Mexico City metro seems incredibly cheap. Yet according to a study from the OECD a few years ago, if you measure by the percentage of the minimum wage that it encompasses, Mexico City’s subway is the most expensive in the world. (The minimum salary here is little more than four dollars a day.)

Just as harried shoppers at Neiman Marcus’s flagship in downtown Dallas can have a cocktail or a snack at the Zodiac restaurant there, in the Acatitla market, customers can find nourishment at any number of stalls that offer pancita (tripe soup), tacos de carnitas (tacos stuffed with pork entrails, braised and fried) or migas, a garlic and pork-bone soup thickened with day-old bread. They tend to wash it down with cold soda, fruit-flavored water, or beer doctored with lemon, salt and chile.

At a table where items are being sold for a single peso—about five cents US—I ask a grey-haired woman how long she has been shopping at the Acatitla market. “About thirty years,” she says. Adela López, in her early sixties, has three children and seven grandchildren. She is a nurse in a private clinic, and earns 200 pesos a day for a shift that lasts from seven in the morning until seven in the evening. Even on such a modest salary she can buy her family nice things at Acatitla. “If it weren’t for this market, I couldn’t afford clothes,” she says.

Similar strategies to survive on next to nothing are the reality for roughly half the population of greater Mexico City—the eleven million or so who live at or below the poverty level. The percentage of the impoverished is a statistic that has remained more or less unchanged since I arrived in 1990. I’m always impressed and sometimes astonished by the ingenuity and resourcefulness with which people get by.

More than half of the working population in Mexico City subsists from the informal economy.

More than half of the working population in Mexico City subsists from the informal economy. Most of them are improvising their survival on a daily basis, selling things on the streets, either at markets, on the metro, or to drivers at traffic intersections, where they peddle newspapers, chewing gum, earbuds, pirated DVDS, grammar textbooks and windshield wipers. When it rains—as it does reliably every day, for an hour or two, for almost half the year—their incomes decrease considerably. In addition to street vendors, those who work in the informal economy include cleaning women, messengers, valet parking attendants, maintenance people in offices, buskers, shoeshine men and a host of others. They cannot rely on any organization, let alone the state, for their survival. They have no benefits. If they get sick, or worse, disabled, it’s up to their already tapped-out families to take care of them.

• • •

One percent of Mexico controls forty-three per cent of its wealth. But if you’ve visited Mexico City in the past two or three years, you might not even have noticed there are any poor people. Perhaps you got the idea to come from the New York Times travel section, which in January of 2016 chose Mexico City as Number One of its 52 places to visit that year. To paraphrase Madame Pompadour, après the Times, le déluge. Early this year, the Huffington Post published a story called “Eleven Reasons Why You Should Visit Mexico City Immediately,” which wasn’t long after Vogue.com called the Colonia Roma, a central neighborhood, “the Williamsburg of Mexico City.” Before that, Vice published an article entitled “Why Everyone is Moving to Mexico City,” in which they called it “the new Berlin.” Editors removed the story from their website after a Mexican journalist named Tamara Velázquez excoriated and shamed them for that assessment. As Velázquez pointed out, it may be “Berlin” for the well-to-do and a small set of hipster expats—somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population, which has plenty of discretionary income. But it isn’t anything of the kind for most residents of the city, who, if they don’t struggle to get by on a daily basis,  like Adela López, are chronically in crisis at the end of each month when the bills are due.

Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, published a sterling guide to Mexico City, if you’re looking for the most expensive restaurants, boutiques, hotels, bars and bakeries. There was hardly anything on Goop’s hot list that hadn’t opened in the last decade, or that would take a tourist near a neighborhood where anyone with serious economic challenges lives. In the eating section of the Goop guide, there are no taco stands, market stalls, cantinas or hole-in-the-wall torta shops, which continue to purvey some of the city’s best food. Perhaps this is because, if you have dollars or euros to spend, the fancy restaurants cost less than half of what they cost at home and are thus “cheap” to the readers.

The journalistic assessment of these travel articles is not all smoke and mirrors. Nearly all of the city’s central neighborhoods—or colonias, as they’re called here—are undergoing a swift process of gentrification. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of speculation about which neighborhood would become the “next Condesa,” referring to an area that had just undergone a transformation from sleepy and middle-class to happening and trendy. Today, there are over a dozen next Condesas, among them the Roma, Juárez, Escandón, Narvarte, San Miguel Chapultepec, San Rafael, Santa María la Ribera, and Tabacalera neighborhoods, as well as the swath of the historic center between the Zócalo and Bellas Artes. In addition, there are areas that are traditional bastions for the wealthy, such as Polanco and Las Lomas. If roughly twenty percent of twenty-two million people have considerable extra money, that’s almost 4.5 million citizens—greater than the population of most cities in the world.

The manifestations of gentrification are typical. These days, walking around Condesa and Roma, you are just as likely to overhear people speaking English as Spanish. There are many people in Mexico City who have rented three or four apartments, decorated them and are subletting them nightly on Airbnb. This, of course, depletes the housing stock in those neighborhoods and rentals of available apartments rise precipitously. In some of the neighborhoods listed above, rents of $1,000 US or higher—sometimes two or three times higher—are not uncommon. That’s pretty swollen for a city with a four-dollar minimum wage.

These days, walking around Condesa and Roma, you are just as likely to overhear people speaking English as Spanish.

There are more high-end restaurants than ever, many of them excellent. In 2008, when my book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century was published, I didn’t make too much of the expensive restaurants here. I would change that chapter today. Not only are there new Oaxacan, Yucatecan and Baja fish restaurants, but there is Szechuan food available, and Korean barbecue and Japanese omakase, French bistros, oyster bars and handmade pasta in a trattoria supervised by a chef from Ferrara. When I got to Mexico in 1990, “pizza” was indigestible, made with chewy dough, ketchup and an amphibological white cheese. Now there are more good pizzerias than I can count, including one run by a real Neapolitan. Of course, most Mexicans cannot afford to enjoy these places. In a few of the restaurants written up in Goop, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single Mexican inside, excluding the waiters and kitchen staff.

In 1990, you couldn’t find a decent espresso, except at a couple of crumbling cafés in the Centro Histórico. At many restaurants, if you ordered coffee, you’d be given a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafé to load it yourself. This was considered “sophisticated.” In the morning, passing by cafeterias, I used to see more people accompanying their breakfasts with Coca-Cola than coffee.

In 2002, Starbucks showed up. It became fruitful and multiplied. In the greater Mexico City area, there are close to 300 outlets today. When the few existing cafés saw how much Starbucks was charging, they all raised their prices. Local entrepreneurs like Cielito Querido Café and Café Punto del Cielo got in the act to give Starbucks a run for its money. Now, on many corners in those gentrifying neighborhoods, there are fussy little places where customers have to scratch their heads and figure out if they want their java aero-pressed, vacuum-potted, Chemexed, cold-brewed or French-pressed.

Riding taxis has always been an idiosyncratic endeavor here. As writer Juan Villoro pointed out, this is the only city in the world where drivers customarily ask the passenger how to get where she’s going. If you couldn’t give the drivers specific instructions, they would arrive somewhere near a destination, roll down their windows and shout at passersby, “Hey, where’s Calle Arenal?” Frequently, they would pretend their meters didn’t work, and try to negotiate an inflated fare with the passenger. Or else they would get an artisan to “fix” the meter so it would advance at the speed of light. In the worst instances, riders were robbed and raped in taxis.

In 2013, Uber arrived and has since become ubiquitous. I have heard (but have been unable to verify) that there are more Uber cabs here than in any other city in the world. When you consider that there are more than 20 million people in Mexico City, perhaps that’s not as surprising as it initially sounds. As all rides are documented, Ubers are much safer than street taxis, and every driver has an app that assures you’ll get where you’re going.

Of course I’m glad they’re safer. But I miss the the taxi driver who felt comfortable enough with me to light up a crack pipe one night while hurtling down Avenida Cuauhtémoc, and the one who told me he’d been driving for 49 hours straight, using nothing stronger than onions as a stimulant to stay awake. Once, a street cab driver told me a passenger had asked him to drive north to Sinaloa—an 11-hour ride—and, upon arrival, in addition to the agreed-upon fare, gave him $500 and a handgun as a tip. I doubt that passenger is taking Uber. For those of us who do use it, that sort of character has disappeared from the taxi experience.

• • •

When I set out to write First Stop in the New World, Mexico City had been home for about fifteen years. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but the book I wanted to write was the one I wish had existed before I came to live here—a book written from a street-level perspective that would put into context the people and things I saw on the sidewalks every day.

To try to define a city with more than 20 million residents, 5,000 neighborhoods and 85,000 streets is the most impractical task I’ve ever taken on. I knew enough about Mexico City to at least grasp what I didn’t know, and where I’d have to go to find out. Looking for inspiration, I read several books about cities that ultimately served as negative templates. They were good but they weren’t the kind of book I wanted to write. Some were too literary, others too historical, and some focused too exhaustively on three or four aspects of a place, without ever giving the reader the panoramic sweep I wanted to achieve.

The book that was my greatest influence was Up in the Old Hotel, the collection of chronicles that Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. In 2015, long after I published my book, in preparation for a talk about Mitchell that I gave at at the Palacio de Bellas Artes here, I reread Up in the Old Hotel. It was only then that I realized that the New York he was writing about in those days—a New York populated by a sideshow bearded lady, a homeless alcoholic who claimed to be writing an oral history of our time, men who trawled for mollusks and crustaceans in the city’s harbors, and others who served them at restaurants with names like Sloppy Louie’s—was already disappearing while he was recording it. It occurred to me that all of us who write about cities, consciously or not, are playing against time, frantically trying to document something before it vanishes.

In the past ten years, I am astonished at how much of Mexico City has already evaporated. Here’s a partial list.

Margarito, a dwarf who used to sing in cantinas in the quavering voice of a Munchkin—when he wasn’t appearing on TV or in the movies—died in 2016. I haven’t seen Carlitos Andrade in at least a dozen years. He also entertained in cantinas, playing a guitar that was held together with masking tape. In his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, he was in a trio called Los Soberanos, which entertained in the best nightclubs in Mexico City as well as Las Vegas lounges (although he told me the big money was for playing at private parties). Last time I saw him, he was 79 years old, so I’m guessing he’s gone. Also disappeared are the band with the zither that entertained in a cantina called La U de G, and a clown who used to stop in cantinas with a dummy (although he moved his lips when he talked in its voice). These entertainers used to be an integral part of the cantina experience, but today you hardly ever see them.

The man in the silly toupee who sold Cornish pasties from a hole-in-the-wall in the Colonia Roma. The taco stands on Calle Chilpancingo around the corner from the metro station. (They were removed by the mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, as part of a crackdown on street vendors, so certain areas of Mexico City will have the appearance of a place with a developed economy. To where do those who govern us believe that the people who work in the informal economy will disappear?) A Catalán restaurant called El Racó. Gili Pollos, a roast chicken stand in the centro. El Portal, a cantina that served the best steak tartare I’ve ever eaten. The Mennonites in straw hats and overalls who, at traffic intersections, used to peddle cheese they made in their home state of Chihuahua.

Anabel Ochoa, a psychologist who gave explicit sex advice on the radio, has since died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The occasional burlesque show at the Hotel Virreyes. The Club Savoy, where strippers, singers and a live band entertained. (The first time I walked through the Savoy’s doors, I could have sworn I’d taken a time tunnel back to 1959.) The Sex Capital—a downtown complex of sex shops, with a museum, a table-dance bar and a food court in the middle of which there were live shows every afternoon. Nearly all the table-dance bars have been shut down, ostensibly to stop “trafficking,” but effectively disempowering many women from feeding their children and, in some cases, their extended families. Indeed, most public manifestations of sexuality have been closed, by the most conservative (albeit nominally leftist) government under which I’ve ever lived.

The Circo Hermanos Atayde, which had a tiger that could more or less moonwalk to the strains of “Billie Jean.” In 2015, the Mexican government banned animals from circuses, which resulted in a steep audience decline and the closing of many of them. I understand the impulse to protect animals from cruelty, but in this case it was pure hypocrisy. There are many more sadists who mistreat their dogs in Mexico—probably millions of them—than there ever were victimizers in circuses.

Los Hermanos Petride, the cigar store on Calle Uruguay in the centro. Don Hilario, who rented bicycles next to the Parque México. The Hotel Bamer, overlooking the Alameda Central, which was the plushest place to stay when it opened its doors in 1953. By the time I spent a night there in the early 2000s, when I pulled a string to open the curtains, the entire drapery, rod and all, fell to the floor. (After renovations, the Bamer became a luxury condominium.) The homeless street children in the Parque Pushkin, pushed away by the police department. Phil Kelly, the painter who provided the framework of the “Making a Scene” chapter, dead in 2010 of liver failure.

You could argue against the significance of any one of these people, places or things. But collectively they made up my construction of Mexico City.

• • •

In the wealthier neighborhoods, another way the city is changing is in the proliferation of chains and franchises. The largest private employer in the country is Walmart de México, and Walmarts—along with Sam’s Clubs and Bodegas Aurrerá, a lower-priced spinoff—are becoming ubiquitous. So are shopping malls, which all have the same stores—Zara, C&A, Bershka, Massimo Dutti and Pull & Bear. More recently, Old Navy and H&M have come to town. Instead of launching an idiosyncratic taco joint, Mexico City entrepreneurs are choosing to go with one of a succession in the Taquearte empire. Corner drug stores are disappearing while the huge pharmacy chains are becoming omnipresent. Many of the tiendas de abarrotes—corner grocery stores—have been replaced by chain convenience stores, which sell infinite sizes and shapes of soda pop and potato chips, but absolutely nothing of any nutritional value.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, I have met more foreigners in Mexico City than I had in the previous eighteen years. With European economies stagnating, and a host of Americans left behind despite a supposed boom in the US—not to mention various fiscal flame-outs in South America—more and more outsiders have come here to try their luck. I don’t have numbers to back up this claim, and don’t even believe it’s possible to calculate how many foreigners are living here. (Many of them have no official status, and leave the country for a day or two every six months so they can renew their tourist visas.) But among the expats I’ve met in recent years are furniture designers, content providers, web designers, pattern makers, novelists, teachers, DJs, restauranteurs and importers of wine and cheese. They give the gentrified areas a more cosmopolitan feel.

Still, no matter what the politicians or glossy travel magazines would have you believe, Mexico City is not Europe or the United States. A wealthy global class will never fully dominate the city. There is too much poverty for the city to become entirely gentrified in the European or American style. For this reason, Mexico City remains an emphatically Mexican city. And in the neighborhoods where people live and work, far less has changed in the last 30 years.

In the rough-hewn Colonia Obrera, there’s a nightclub called Barba Azul that’s been around for over sixty years. In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a live orchestra on each of its three levels. Today, all the action is on the ground floor. A bar de ficheras, it’s a place where customers pay women to dance and drink with them. You’re only buying their company—Barba Azul’s management won’t let the women leave with customers during a shift (although some of them will see clients outside on their own time).

In the old days, a few adventurous souls came to Barba Azul to dance with their husbands and boyfriends. Today, at least on a Saturday night, hipster heterosexual couples and gays make up a large swath of the clientele. Miranda, who has worked in bars like this for the last decade—after her husband, a not-so-civil engineer, left her for his secretary—says that sometimes a woman will invite her to sit and drink with her and her husband.

“So long as they’re willing to tip me 100 pesos per drink, or a thousand pesos if we’re going to drink a whole bottle, I’ll do it,” she says. Miranda, a platinum blonde well into her forties, fetching in the tight dresses and spike heels she wears while working, combines peach and gold hues on eyelids and lips. She also sports enormous false talons, painted bright blue. “I’ll always talk up the woman,” she goes on. “I don’t care if the man looks like Brad Pitt, I’ll talk up La Jolie. I don’t want her to get jealous. Sometimes she’ll say to me, ‘I want you to kiss my husband.’ I’ll give him a little peck, but not a real kiss. I’m not into trios. For me to walk into one of those …” She shakes her head. “I would feel too vulnerable, as if they were both waiting to attack me.”

During the week, the clientele is mostly male, and among Miranda’s pretenders are lawyers and judges who come to Barba Azul after a shift at the nearby Federal Courthouse. Some of them have brought her jewelry and enormous bouquets of flowers on her birthday, while others have hired mariachi bands to serenade her. “I’ve fallen in love with some of them. Obviously, it’s not like falling in love when you’re fifteen years old. What I can’t believe is that some of them have fallen in love with me, too.” Miranda—whose name I’ve changed, at her request—says that some of her colleagues have found their Prince Charmings among the bar’s habitués, but none of her romances have reached that level. As she gets older, the late nights and continuous drinking are catching up with her. She recalls a recent evening where she shared three entire bottles of alcohol with various customers. She has no memory of how she got home. Still, she likes her job. “There’s a lot of money in the city, and some of it washes up at Barba Azul.”

Mexico City has a rich libertine history, and an attendant tolerance for homosexuality, at least in certain circles. However, when I got here in 1990, most gays were in the closet and lesbians glided well under the radar. Homosexuals were frequently shaken down by police after leaving gay bars, and were often victims of violence. Those kind of tactics became less common in the subsequent decades, and in 2009, Marcelo Ebrard, who was mayor at the time, legalized same-sex marriage—the first Latin American city to do so.

In the succeeding decade Mexico City has become an increasingly gay-friendly metropolis. On the streets of many neighborhoods, in the parks and on the metro, it’s routine to see same-sex couples walking hand in hand or kissing. A few doors down from Barba Azul is a club called El Kashbah, where on Friday nights at 2:00 a.m. and Saturdays at 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., there are floor shows in which extravagantly-costumed cross-dressers lip-synch to Jenni Rivera, Dulce La Cantante and Lady Gaga. Inside El Kashbah, it doesn’t feel like 1959 any longer. But there are multiple mirror balls, a smoke machine in the DJ booth, and rainbow colored spotlights. It certainly feels like 1989.

• • •

Not long ago, I ordered an espresso in a café across the street from my apartment. Just as the waiter brought it to me, a middle-aged man carrying a shine box on a strap over his shoulder glanced at my shoes and raised his eyebrows. He was painfully skinny, with a wrinkled face, thinning black hair and a sparse beard. It was a hot day, and his shirt sleeves were rolled up, revealing a dense network of protruding veins. When he spoke, it was impossible not to notice that several crucial teeth were missing. He sat on a tiny stool that was part of his kit, and as he worked, started a monologue that would last throughout the shoeshine.

He told me his name was Marco Antonio Martínez Pacheco, and before becoming an itinerant shoeshine man, he’d spent 27 years living on the street, more or less in an alcoholic stupor. In all those years of abusing himself, he wasn’t very conscientious of others either, and one day, he stole some items from a torta stand on the street. After he attempted to sell what he’d taken, he was arrested by the police, tried and sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. He was 40 years old, and although his initial reaction was despair, very quickly Marco Antonio felt something like elation. He realized he was sowing what he had reaped, and that previously he had not taken any responsibility for his life. He trembled. He had never before believed in spiritual awakening, but then and there, he found himself.

To say that Mexico City is the only place I know where one can get divine advice along with a shoeshine will only go so far to explain what I love about this place. It is never far from my consciousness how lucky I have been and how many privileges I’ve enjoyed here. Without actually possessing a great deal, I feel as if I am surrounded by abundance. I feel it every Tuesday at the tianguis—the market on wheels—which sets shop once a week outside my door, looking over the piled heaps of mangoes, watermelons and bananas; tomatoes, onions and jalapeño peppers. I feel it in the spring when the jacarandas bloom and, as their petals fall, leave a lavender carpet on the sidewalk. I feel it nearly every day with the sun on my face; it’s a great advantage to live in a temperate climate.

But I feel it most of all in the stories people like Marco Antonio have told me, stories about improvising their survival day after day. I’ve never tired of hearing those stories, and in 25 years, largely due to them, I have never been bored in Mexico City. I love this place because I love its citizens.

CONTRIBUTOR

David Lida

David Lida is an author whose books include First Stop in the New World, Las llaves de la ciudad and One Life. He lives in Mexico City.

See more Features from around the world

RELATED CONTENT

DID YOU KNOW?

North America

Navigating Racism

During the Jim Crow era, African American travelers often relied on the Green Book to avoid encountering violence or harassment on the road. Victor H. Green, a postal carrier who lived in Harlem, introduced the guide in 1936 which listed establishments that welcomed non-white travelers. While the book initially only focused on the New York Metropolitan area, over time it grew to include the whole country.

SUBSCRIBE »