Big & small
These are some of the phrases that I would hear thrown towards me while walking the streets of Mexico. They wouldn’t be phrases of disdain or prejudice. Rather, these were street vendors selling their wares from fresh fruit to tacos to esquites (corn) to trinkets. (“Dos por uno!” would also be a common phrase.)
One of the defining aspects of Mexico City is the multitude of street vendors that cover the city. They are crowded, sweaty, and immersed in a variety smells (both good and bad). The young and old, the poor and rich mingle while buying groceries or grabbing a bite to eat on the way home. These vendors and markets are not the most pleasant of locales, but - as many who have visited such packed markets in East Asia can attest - they have a certain charm to them.
And there are a ton of them everywhere. In fact, I was surprised to learn that around 40% of the workers in Mexico City held such jobs as local vendors. “Grosera” I heard one person comment about such markets - expressing her disapproval of a workforce that avoids paying taxes and largely provides products of variable quality and cleanliness. Nevertheless, it is clear that these people are a vibrant and crucial part of the Mexican economy.
With this in mind, it was fascinating to read an Associated Press article on “Mexico City’s once crazy, crowded markets languish.” The article essentially details a neighborhood market system that is suffering as transnational and American corporations such as Walmart and other grocery chains grow in influence and popularity among the Mexican population.
The success of Walmart was blatantly obvious to me everyday when my commute from work took me past a Walmart before I reached the Villa de Cortes subway station. Especially during rush hour, the Walmart would be teeming with people, and, upon one visit, the dozen checkout lines extended far into the aisles.
Of course, this transition is not unique to Mexico. The theme of the big company taking out mom & pop shops is a global trend (and Walmart is usually leading the charge), and, realistically speaking, is inevitable. On a recent visit to South Korea, I noticed a similar disappearance of street vendors in various modernizing neighborhoods that had provided much character to the area. National corporations and mega-supermarkets are in.
It is this tension that I experienced - how does the government preserve the livelihoods of poor Mexicans who run these street markets, which also provide a strong dose of heritage and culture, in the midst of the economic growth that comes from these transnational corporations (for example, Walmart is one of the largest employers in the country)? Banning large supermarkets is certainly not the answer. Removing choice is always a detrimental decision in the long run.
However, it is the responsibility of the government to support a long-term transition for these street markets. Not to a road of disappearance, swallowed up by the growing beasts of MEGA, Walmart, and Costco. But to a fate of local markets that are regulated and legitimate (no longer a “grosera” to the Mexicans) while learning lessons from the successes of local businesses in America. What are these lessons? In my opinion, local businesses can take advantage of two things: the nimbleness of the Internet and social media, and the appeal of personalized (i.e. local) goods. Social media has a leveling effect in allowing local businesses to have the ability to reach a wide audience quickly and cheaply. By shepherding the vendors towards adaptation to the 21st century market with fair regulation instead of extinction, the government can promote a transformed local business structure that competes with (or sidesteps) the heavyweight companies. Letting the vendors get pushed into oblivion does a disservice to everyone.
- junehokim posted this