Friday, August 9, 2013

Guadalajara vs. los ambulantes: a familiar story

Itinerant vendors not welcome at Guadalajara's city hall

An indigenous family, with nothing left to sell after city inspectors seized their inventory

Guadalajara -
Vendedores ambulantes are itinerant merchants found in every major Mexican metropolis, and plenty of smaller communities, too. Offering clothing, jewelry, food, unique indigenous products, music and video CDs and countless other items, the ambulantes, or "wanderers," establish points of sale in high traffic areas, where they'll have the greatest contact with the buying public. Although they often sell to tourists from abroad, their products are popular with locals as well. The downside is that they present competition to traditional businesses which conduct operations in storefronts. Fixed site proprietors, who must pay rent, utilities, insurance, wages and myriad other costs associated with conventional retailing, resent the ambulantes, who often compete on the sidewalk right in front of such businesses.

From time to time city hall makes a big show of going after the traveling vendors, evicting them from selected areas. Guadalajara's municipal palace, which is part of the the city's zócalo, or main public plaza, has long been a key sales point for the ambulantes. The itinerants have no licenses to sell on city property, but that doesn't deter them from setting up shop. The constant ingress and egress of persons who have business with the city provides a steady client stream, and dependable revenues.

On Tuesday Guadalajara authorities tried to expel the vendors in the most effective way possible - by seizing their merchandise. Police also arrested a handful of the more outspoken ambulantes, which was accompanied by a bit of pushing and shoving on both sides. The city downplayed the incident, while the vendors, many of whom hail from security challenged and economically depressed states such as Guerrero, Michoacán and Oaxaca, overplayed it. Today they're still camped out on municipal property, minus only their inventories. They're demanding the return of their wares and the release of fellow vendors. In the meantime, the itinerants are asking for contributions from the citizenry, so they can feed their families. More than a few stopped to drop a coin into the many waiting cups and jars.

City hall, it seems, has converted self-sustaining independent retailers, unlicensed though they may be, into public beggars. In a nation where 45% live in poverty, and a state (Jalisco) were 61% don't earn enough to purchase basic foodstuffs and household necessities, Guadalajara's focus on evicting the ambulantes from afar is a curious policy decision. As one man told MGR, "the state has neither employment nor public aid to offer the poor, so it prefers to just get them out of sight."

Aug. 18 - Tensions continued over the weekend as itinerant vendors tried to set up shop again near city hall, and police inspectors tried to stop them. Some of the sidewalk merchants claim inspectors can be readily bought off with cash bribes. Se enfrentan a gritos ambulantes y policías.

A note on press freedom in this country: Article 7 of Mexico's constitution provides, "Es inviolable la libertad de escribir y publicar escritos sobre cualquiera materia - The freedom to write and to publish about any matter shall not be abridged." But that doesn't stop local authorities from trying their luck at intimidation from time to time. While these images were being snapped at noon in Guadalajara's main plaza - the most public of places, and one filled with hundreds of people at any hour of the day or night - a uniformed police commander suddenly approached and in severe Spanish demanded to know, "Who are you, and for what purpose are you taking these pictures?" Pointing to the press ID dangling around my neck, he nodded and said, "Yes, but I would like you to not take these pictures." Retrieving a U.S. passport and sticking it up good and close to his face, I told him, "But I am going to take these pictures, and as many as I want, and I am going to stay here as long as I want, and you are not going to follow me around or bother me again, because I have every right to be here." To which the commander replied, "Yes, of course, I only wanted to verify your identity." Some in city hall must be a bit sheepish about the eviction of the ambulantes, and the seizure of their means of livelihood.

Aug. 13 - People of color and indigenous groups often the target of discrimination in Mexico
July 29 - 53.3 million - that's how many Mexicans live in poverty
July 14 - Over 60% of Jaliscans earn less than subsistence income
May 31, 2012 - A "free press" in Mexico - but who's really paying the tab?
Nov. 30, 2011 - "Battle of the merchants" in Mérida likely to intensify with holiday season at hand
Nov. 19, 2011 - Young Mexican women suffer from lack of opportunities, entrenched prejudices

"They treated me like a criminal, they hit me . . . Please help me feed my kids"

"If in my own country I am an 'illegal' indigenous, then let a person of honor apply the law against me"

Exhausted, these merchants wait for the return of their merchandise - something not likely to happen

The portico of Guadalajara's city hall, normally packed with vendors, was deserted today

City police inspectors muster before being sent on their rounds to prevent new vendor installations

The itinerants, many far from home, have been left dependent upon the charity of strangers

"Free our companion," read one sidewalk sign. One vendor remains in jail tonight.

"Please help me get back my merchandise which the city seized"

© MGRR 2013. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

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