by Andrew Konove, author of Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City
In 2016, Mexico’s Distrito Federal—the DF, as any visitor to Mexico City quickly learned to call it—ceased to exist. A dependency of the federal government since the creation of the Mexican republic in 1824, the capital city is now an autonomous political entity (almost, but not quite, a state). This new status gave Mexico City residents the right to draft their own constitution, and individuals and interest groups from across the city weighed in with proposals. Among those who offered language for the new charter were a group of street vendors in Tepito—Mexico City’s notorious barrio bravo, its fiercest neighborhood. The area is famous for rearing some of Mexico’s most accomplished boxers, for its vibrant oppositional culture, and for hosting a sprawling black-market bazaar. Vendors in Tepito are better known in Mexico for peddling pirated electronics and knock-off clothing than they are for shaping public policy. Yet the vendors’ proposal—to submit their informal businesses to government regulation in exchange for the right to sell their goods in public spaces—made it into the final version of Mexico City’s constitution the following year.
As I show in my new book, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City, vendors who make their living selling informal and illicit merchandise have been influential players in Mexico City politics for hundreds of years. Before Tepito earned its fame as the hub of the capital’s black market, a marketplace called the Baratillo played that role. The Baratillo began in the city’s Plaza Mayor (today’s Zócalo) in the colonial period and moved to different locations across the city before settling in Tepito at the beginning of the twentieth century. Throughout the market’s history, vendors in the Baratillo argued—through petitions to government officials, court cases, and the press—that their trade was as vital to urban society as any other. Their political maneuvering, combined with the broad appeal of their merchandise, helped ensure that the Baratillo and the larger shadow economy in Mexico City never went out of business.
Yet the language Mexico City’s 2017 constitution included about street vending leaves much room for interpretation, and vendors’ groups worry about how, and whether, the government will implement the “Special Zones for Commerce and Popular Culture” that the charter promises. At least one organization is now pushing to write protections for street vendors into Mexico’s national constitution. Those efforts underscore that although vendors, including those who trade in illicit goods, have long been effective negotiators, their rights have always been contingent and ultimately insecure. It remains to be seen whether Mexico City’s new constitution will alter that dynamic, but at the very least, it suggests a path toward recognizing and legitimizing street vendors’ businesses and the labor that powers them.