Out with the old, in with the Walmart

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Horse-drawn cart in Anáhuac, Veracruz, May 2008

In some ways, the idea of the traditional door-to-door salesman still lives on, in many parts of Mexico.   There is a wide variety of products available from people who make their living selling on the street.

At first it seemed weird to me, to hear the spiel from the loudspeaker and then step out the door of our house to buy a kilo of tortillas from a guy in an old, unmarked, beat-up Tsuru.  But it is the thing to do.  This way, you are almost always assured to be buying piping hot tortillas rather than whatever is left, cold and crusty, in the insulated bins at the corner store.  And the price per kilo is bound to be lower from these cars sent out directly from the tortillería than from anywhere else.  The tortilla vendors are probably the most common type of salesperson; tortilla cars from various tortillerías may pass by the same street multiple times a day as a convenience for the residents, who tend to eat tortillas with every meal.

So when you hear the loudspeaker, tinkling bell, or shouting for a certain product, you stop what you’re doing, go outside, and flag down the vehicle/person.

There are bakery vehicles that pass through select neighborhoods about once a day.  These will usually be marked vans or marked trucks with toppers to put the trays of buns, donuts, and rolls in the bed.  In more rural locations — like in the Veracruz town where my husband grew up — men, women, or children still walk the streets with huge baskets (sometimes atop their heads) full of these same treats.  Some of our cousins used to earn extra change for the family by selling baked goods, before they were even teens.  **See also: El Panadero classic clip (in recent years, it has become popular for this same song to blast on the loudspeakers of travelling bakery trucks): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkaI6MlKVGE 

Some merchants drive around selling fruit — from observation, maybe once a week through any given neighborhood.  There may be one single type of fruit, or a variety of fruit.  The most common is probably the orange, though there is a wide range of other types like papaya, mango, watermelon, canteloupe, avocado, and banana.  The fruit vendors typically drive an old pickup truck, with a shade tarp over the bed to protect the fruit and any person sitting in the bed of the truck with the scale.  While tortilla guys usually only have one person in the vehicle, fruit trucks more often have multiple people to assist in selling the product.

Sometimes pickups come through with brooms, mops, trash cans, and all sorts of cleaning supplies.  This is perhaps even less common than the fruit truck.  The nice thing about the cleaning-products truck is that you can usually find a decent broom or mop made with a wood handle rather than plastic like you find more and more in the stores these days; in fact, the quality product from the pickup might even be made from a local company.

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Aron and his elote, Monterrey, February 2008

There are trucks and horse-drawn wagons that sell soil and small plants.  For urban areas like where we were living, there is hardly a darn grassy spot to plant a tree.  Instead, the majority of residents have 3- to 5-gallon buckets that they use as containers for growing plants.   So the guy who comes along yelling about “tierrrrrrrr-rrrra!” is very handy because you can buy a small amount of soil or even some more plants from him without having to make a half-hour trip to Home Depot or an even longer trip to a regular, local greenhouse.

There are folks in vehicles selling cups of ice cream or paletas, candy and edible seeds, and occasionally, some selling hot tamales by
the dozen.  Young men go door-to-door with buckets and sponges, offering carwashes to residents with autos.  Trucks pass through multiple times a day delivering replacement jugs of filtered water.  There are bike-pedal or motorized carts used for selling treats like elotes enteros y en vaso — corn on the cob or off the cob, in a small cup — generally served with mayonnaise and spicy chili sauce slathered on top. — and when Aron translates this post, his mouth will be watering because (non-sweet!) elotes are what he misses perhaps the most about Mexico!

This part of the culture is so intriguing.  However, with the increasing popularity and availability (invasion?) of family vehicles and big box stores — from Mexican-born Soriana, to Walmart and its various sub-companies — I get the feeling that the street salesperson will soon become obsolete.  I have already seen a shift in types of services readily available on the street and in large stores, even within the past three or four years.  This is also in part because of territorial wars (bad guys, extortion, etc. — to keep it simple) that deter honest people from continuing business in many areas.  It is sad to see, because where there once were hardworking people without education still striving to excel at running their own businesses — however large or small — there are now people without education, struggling to find regular work in factories or department stores that demand a certain level of experience, knowledge, and reading/writing ability of their employees.  And so the societal struggle continues.

How will the coming years pan out for the merchants of Mexico?  What does the commercial shift mean for human interaction and economic success, both for our southern neighbor and for us?

7 thoughts on “Out with the old, in with the Walmart

  1. Your post is proof that technology isn’t always a good thing. I think with the decline of the street vendors, a good part of feeling part of a community will be lost as well.

    • You’re definitely right about the community feeling — it is nice to see/experience the interaction among vendors and clients. Each vendor builds up a rapport and it becomes something more personal than just selecting something from a shelf and paying for it in the check-out lane. I know progress leads to such changes, but Mexico has such a strong history in this type of business — person-to-person — that it is tough to imagine a Mexico without it!

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