Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico

Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico

by Sandra C. Mendiola Garcia
Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico

Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico

by Sandra C. Mendiola Garcia


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No visitor to Mexico can fail to recognize the omnipresence of street vendors, selling products ranging from fruits and vegetables to prepared food and clothes. The vendors compose a large part of the informal economy, which altogether represents at least 30 percent of Mexico’s economically active population. Neither taxed nor monitored by the government, the informal sector is the fastest growing economic sector in the world.   

In Street Democracy Sandra C. Mendiola García explores the political lives and economic significance of this otherwise overlooked population, focusing on the radical street vendors during the 1970s and 1980s in Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-largest city. She shows how the Popular Union of Street Vendors challenged the ruling party’s ability to control unions and local authorities’ power to regulate the use of public space. Since vendors could not strike or stop production like workers in the formal economy, they devised innovative and alternative strategies to protect their right to make a living in public spaces. By examining the political activism and historical relationship of street vendors to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mendiola García offers insights into grassroots organizing, the Mexican Dirty War, and the politics of urban renewal, issues that remain at the core of street vendors’ experience even today. 


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496200013
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Series: The Mexican Experience
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 294
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sandra C. Mendiola García is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas.

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Street Democracy

Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico

By Sandra C. Mendiola García


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-0001-3


Prelude to Independent Organizing

In the mid-1940s María Teyssier, an upper-class widow in Puebla, bitterly complained that merchandise from street vendors was dirtying the walls of her downtown residence. According to two letters she wrote to city authorities, the fruit peels that vendors discarded and their children's defecation on the sidewalk were preventing her from opening the windows of her home. She could not stand the stench. Teyssier was not the only one to complain. Speaking on behalf of a larger collective, Ernesto Espinosa Yglesias, a member of a wealthy family, wrote a long letter to municipal officials stating that the boys selling candy in front of two of his family's movie theaters were unbearable and that they used "indecent vocabulary." The patrons of the movie theaters should not have to endure such improper behavior. Vendors, he continued, also obstructed the free movement of pedestrians on the sidewalk who could be hit by cars when they walked on the street to avoid them. He demanded the relocation of these sellers to the other side of the street.

These letters reflect elite definitions of the proper use of urban space in Puebla: streets and sidewalks had to be literally and symbolically clean, devoid of impurities and poor people. Like elites elsewhere in Mexico, Teyssier and Espinosa Yglesias emphasized the class and cultural differences that separated them from Puebla's urban poor who, in their view, caused so many problems. The cultural and social antipathy of the elite was only one of the many challenges vendors experienced when they sold in public spaces. As I explore in this chapter, vendors had to pay multiple fees to sell in public spaces, bribe market officials, and deal with beatings from police.

Facing the possibility that local authorities would side with the elites and remove them from the street, vendors remained active. Throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century they wrote letters and petitions to the city government, sought the protection of the Federal Supreme Court through amparos (legal instruments similar to writs of habeas corpus), and joined PRI-affiliated unions. These mechanisms, however, met serious limitations by the early 1970s, when local authorities, convinced that vendors had to leave the streets, tried to remove them through violent means. After discussing Puebla's politics during the avilacamachista years (c. 1937–73), I explore the major challenges vendors faced at that time. This is followed by an analysis of vendors' strategies for remaining in public spaces and a discussion of municipal authorities' responses to vendors' individual and collective actions. The chapter ends with an exploration of street vendors' frustrations with official unions affiliated with the ruling party.

Twentieth-Century Poblano Politics and Elites

By the mid-1940s, when Teyssier and Espinosa Yglesias wrote their letters of complaint, the city of Puebla was already dominated politically and economically by the avilacamachista cacicazgo. This conservative, authoritarian political machinery was created by Maximino Ávila Camacho (hereafter Maximino), governor from 1937 to 1941 and the brother of President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–46). The cacicazgo, which outlived Maximino and his governorship and included six governors, union leaders, and all sorts of state officials, was characterized by a very close relationship between wealthy Poblanos and the state. Following the most violent phase of the Mexican Revolution, Puebla experienced much political instability; in the 1920s, for instance, the state had approximately fourteen governors. In that context the city's capitalists welcomed the arrival of the venal, anticommunist, bullfight aficionado, and pro-business Maximino, who promised political and economic stability. Indeed he was able to cement a relatively harmonious relationship among politicians, industrialists, and the local hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He was also able to tame organized labor and control the state university.

During the years of the avilacamachista cacicazgo those who became political leaders rotated positions and were drawn from a small group of businessmen, relatives, and friends of the Ávila Camacho family. The elites were actually interconnected politically, economically, and socially. For instance, the avilacamachista governor Gonzalo Bautista Castillo (1941–45) married the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur, Rómulo O'Farrill, who was in turn married to one of Maximino's daughters, Hilda Ávila Richardi. The wedding ceremony of Hilda and Rómulo was presided over by Puebla's archbishop Pedro Vera y Zuria. Decades later, in the early 1970s, Gonzalo Bautista O'Farrill, the son of Gonzalo Bautista Castillo, became Puebla's mayor and the last of the avilacamachista governors. Marriages were not the only way to forge good relationships; some sought the governor's compadrazgo (fictive kinship or godparenthood). For example, Maximino became the godfather to the son of the industrialist Elías David Hanan. According to one of Puebla's chroniclers, the most prominent Lebanese, French, and Mexican industrialists attended the baptism.

Textile industry owners of Spanish and Lebanese descent composed Puebla's elite, a closed social and economic group with direct participation in Puebla's political life. Their wealth certainly preceded Maximino's tenure. At the beginning of the twentieth century some of these industrialists expanded their fortune by investing in banks, haciendas, and several commercial activities. Their economic importance continued throughout the twentieth century, thanks to local state support and a series of intragroup alliances and marriages. For Poblanos of Spanish and Lebanese descent, as well as for a minority of individuals of French origin, maintaining their ethnic identity was crucial. They tended to marry within the same elite families — including Mexican families — or to look for spouses in their family's country of origin. In later decades Spanish and Lebanese families began to intermarry, protecting their whiteness or their Lebanese identity, which became synonymous with their wealth. Unsurprisingly vendors in the city's public spaces ruffled the feathers of some of these people — especially those who still lived or had their business downtown.

In addition to consolidating an alliance between state and capital, the avilacamachistas were able to control Puebla's state university. Generations of students sympathized with popular plights, and the political elite sought to discipline and to neutralize them, as they did to organized labor. Thanks to regulations that Maximino imposed on the institution, Puebla's governors had a great deal of power over important university decisions, including the ability to designate its presidents (rectores). Maximino and the governors who succeeded him were famous for electing close friends and military men to administrative posts. In the early 1950s, for instance, at least nine military officers occupied administrative positions in an effort to militarize and control the student population.

Until the early 1970s men associated with the avilacamachista cacicazgo dominated the university administration. Indeed men who sought a political post at the local or state level often became university president first, and politicians often held administrative jobs or professorships. The importance of the state university had to do with the fact that, until 1969, it was the only university in town that both elite and nonelite students attended. The other two major institutions, the Universidad de las Américas and the Universidad Popular Autónoma de Puebla, opened their private doors to upper-class students in 1970 and 1973, respectively. As the most important institution of higher education, the state university was a space where "what was said and done shaped public opinion." For this reason groups other than the political elite — such as the Catholic Church and progressive and right-wing organizations — sought to maintain a presence there.

During the avilacamachista years the Catholic Church and right-wing organizations became active in internal university matters. Archbishop Octaviano Márquez y Toriz, a fervent anticommunist, as well as the Frente Universitario Anti-comunista (Anticommunist University Front) and the Movimiento Universitario de Renovadora Orientación (University Movement of Renovating Orientation) fought hard — sometimes with violent means — to defend the conservative teachings of the Church. This included crushing communists and perceived communists, defending conservative sexual behavior, and combating what they perceived as pornography within and outside the university. These groups could carry out their activities at the university because of their close connections to the avilacamachista administration.

The power of the avilacamachista cacicazgo and its conservative Catholic allies faced several challenges from progressive students and some faculty. In the early 1960s progressive and left-wing groups sought to reform and radically transform the university: getting rid of conservative, outdated rules and curricula and combating the right-wing forces that dominated the university. Committed to social justice, the proponents of university reform wanted to open spaces for traditionally marginalized students from urban and rural areas. Reform was a long process that was challenged by conservative students and administrators. The university became a violent battleground where the avilacamachista politicians fought their last battles to avoid losing control over the state and the university.

Downtown Streets

While elites sought to maintain political and economic power, street vendors were trying to make a living in downtown public spaces. The city center's streets and sidewalks were the busiest commercial spaces. From the city's founding in the sixteenth century to the mid-1980s, Puebla's downtown housed most of the economic, educational, religious, and bureaucratic activity. According to a tourist guide published in 1968, municipal markets, department stores, specialty shops, restaurants, coffee shops, the post and telegraph offices, banks, bus stations, the state university, libraries, museums, cinemas, theaters, churches, tenements, and municipal and state government offices were all located in the heart of the city. Some of these institutions were housed in the architecturally attractive colonial and nineteenth-century buildings that made Puebla's historic center famous.

All sorts of people carried out diverse activities in the city center: students attended classes at the state university's downtown campus; politicians held meetings at the municipal palace and the congress; groups of peasants from rural areas carried out political demonstrations on the main avenues; and people traveling by bus from the smallest towns in the countryside and from the country's capital arrived at one of several bus stations. Religious Poblanos attended mass in the many churches downtown, and tourists visited Puebla's cathedral. Housewives and maids bought their household's daily consumption items at one of several municipal enclosed markets. And all of these people most likely bought something, even if just a snack, from street vendors.

Whenever possible peddlers preferred to sell in the city's main square, the zócalo, which is surrounded by the cathedral, see to the oldest Catholic diocese in Mexico, and — on the opposite side — by the Municipal Palace, seat of the city government. Aside from the square's commercial desirability, vendors had a historical reason to prefer the site, as people had sold here for centuries. Sixteenth-century inhabitants called the zócalo el Tiánguis, from the Nahuatl word tianquiztli, which means "market" or "place of commerce," and itself derives from the verb tiamiqui, meaning "to trade" or "to sell." In the colonial period vendors sold fruit, bread, clothes, and poultry on a daily basis; on Thursdays and Saturdays vendors from nearby towns were allowed to sell all sorts of merchandise.

Another favorite space for vendors was at the three portales, the set of colonnaded arches surrounding the zócalo, characteristic of Mexican towns. These portales were built in the sixteenth century allegedly to accommodate vendors and protect them from the elements. In the modern period the portales were named after the leaders of the independence wars: Hidalgo, Morelos, and Iturbide. Vendors either hawked their products there or set up outside the entrance of established shops. In the late seventeenth century, for instance, in what is now portal Morelos, vendors sold flowers, and the area became known as the portal de las Flores. Despite the existence of the Parián market, vendors continued to sell used clothes and fabrics in the portal Hidalgo. Municipal correspondence in the early twentieth century reveals that many vendors sold prepared food, forcing established owners of bakeries, restaurants, and torterías (sandwich shops) to share the portales with street vendors who had semi-fixed and mobile stalls under the arches and right outside their stores.

Most vendors, however, sought to secure space outside the municipal markets, such as the one east of the zócalo, in El Alto, and on the west side in the Nicolás Bravo market. The majority of street vendors tried to find space outside the largest and most popular market of the city, La Victoria. Although it was mainly a food market, its marketers also offered ropes and hats, ceramics, notions, shoes, clothes, toys, flowers, live animals, and other merchandise. Street vendors tried to take advantage of the hundreds of pedestrians in the area.

Street Vendors' Main Challenges

Vendors faced all sorts of problems trying to sell in public spaces. Like Teyssier and Espinosa Yglesias, many people fought for what they considered the fair and appropriate use of streets and sidewalks. To some Poblanos vendors represented economic competition; to the wealthy, vendors offended their supposedly refined cultural sensibilities and taste. Historically there was tension between the upper classes and the working poor in Puebla and elsewhere in Mexico. Both groups had a different vision of what public spaces should look like and how people should use them. For instance, Porfirian and postrevolutionary elites in Mexico City wanted to ban street vendors, whom they associated with lack of hygiene, stench, and unsafe handling of food. Privileged Poblanos wanted their streets to be orderly, clean, and accessible to and enjoyable for only a few. For the working class and the poor, the same spaces represented the only locations where they and their family members could make a living. Therefore one of the major challenges vendors confronted was the cultural antipathy and complaints from downtown neighbors and established business owners, usually members of the middle and upper classes who perceived themselves superior to the urban poor in every sense. Established business owners had more capital than itinerant vendors did, and they used it to furnish their shops and maintain their reputation. Street vendors represented an economic challenge, not because they were their direct competitors but because they were an eyesore.

From the correspondence members of the upper class sent to municipal authorities it is clear that they disdained the presence of vendors, along with their products and their clientele. They usually found vendors' practices offensive and even repulsive. In 1919 food vendors annoyed the French owner of La Princesa bakery, located under the portal Hidalgo. The baker stated that the enchiladas, beans, mole, and tacos that vendors sold right outside the bakery's entrance were "filthy merchandise" for which "Puebla's correct and educated classes" that shopped in his store felt "repulsion." In his view the vendors were "a danger for his refined female customers' dresses because vendors could dirty them with their foods" as the women entered his shop. Street vendors' children were an additional nuisance; the little ones "pitiably begged for money" from his wealthy customers. Clearly the vendors in front of his shop damaged its prestige and the aesthetics of one of the city's best sites. The baker was not exaggerating. At the beginning of the twentieth century wealthy women, usually the wives of textile owners, showed off their best clothes when they ventured from their downtown residence to the street, perhaps on their way to some of the French-style department stores, such as Al Puerto de Veracruz, Las Fábricas de Francia, and La Ciudad de México. And when they went to church they covered their head with a Spanish mantilla.

Similarly, in 1921 the heirs of Angel Díaz Rubín, a wealthy Spanish textile factory owner, wrote to the municipality, pointing out that vendors dirtied the streets surrounding the portales. Feeling entitled to speak on behalf of Puebla, these elites said "the city" hated the enchiladas vendors sold and the tables they set up for their clientele; the heirs wanted the police to remove all the vendors.30Although it is hard to believe that all Poblanos despised enchilada vendors, these men felt repulsed by the look and smell of working-class food. As a business owner once put it, street vendors were the "gente del pueblo," that is, low-class, ordinary people, uneducated and lacking in good manners.31 As I will show, this perception continued throughout much of the century, and in the mid- 1980s the vendors were relocated to the outskirts of the city, where they would become practically invisible.


Excerpted from Street Democracy by Sandra C. Mendiola García. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Abbreviations,
1. Prelude to Independent Organizing,
2. Vendors and Students in the 1970s,
3. Staging Democracy at Home and Abroad,
4. The Dirty War on Street Vendors,
5. From La Victoria to Walmart,
6. The Struggle Continues,

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