Rachel Laudan

What’s happening to Mexico’s traditional markets?

 Mexico City’s neighborhood markets, the rowdy, smelly vibrant landmarks of concrete and corrugated tin that sell everything from cactus salads to pinatas, are struggling as more Mexicans migrate to the relatively more orderly, cleaner, air-conditioned and foreign-owned supermarkets.

Once a staple of this megacity’s daily life, the markets sold 80 percent of the city’s groceries in the 1950s and ’60s compared to 30 percent now, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. A 2002 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico estimated that sales had declined nearly 60 percent over a decade. Nearly 10 years later, university professor Gerardo Torres Salcido says sales have surely dropped even further.

This is the report of Manuel Valdes in the San Francisco Chronicle (and also the Examiner).

Mercado Hidalgo, Guanajuato

Yes, in many ways this is sad.  Mexican markets are wonderful places, full of life and color.  And the covered markets have often been the source of great civic pride and investment.  This superb market in Guanajuato was built to celebrate a hundred years of Mexican independence.  Built by the French Brunel engineering company, it’s a wonderful two story cast iron and glass structure.

Entrance to Mercado Hidalgo, Guanajuato

The one in Coyoacán, Mexico City, was built by the Spanish-Mexican archict, Félix Candela in the 1950s, one of his continuing series of experiments in the use of hyperboic parabaloids.

The great epoch of covered markets was from the 1880s to the 1930s, a response to the massive growth of cities around the world.  Mexican markets are just part of a world wide movement. I’ve been to markets with similar layouts and often built by the same firms in Melbourne, Barcelona, London, Belo Horizonte.  They were an attempt to introduce order and sanitation to the chaotic provisioning of these cities.  At the time of their building they were models of cleanliness and order.

Sad to say that is often not the case in Mexico any more.  The lovely Mercado Hidalgo is a fire hazard with wiring to make your hair stand on end (perhaps too literally), inadequate plumbing, and in need of a very, very thorough clean. Mechants and the city have been fighting over this for years, the merchants fearful that they will lose business if the market closes for several months for renovation.  Meanwhile they are losing business anyway.

I think there is bound to be a shakeup with some of these markets going out of  business.  It’s just too convenient to do a one-stop shop at Comercial Mexicana or Walmart.  Those are to contemporary retailing what the covered markets were to retailing a hundred years ago.

I also think there is a niche for the better of these markets. Just think of the success of the markets in Barcelona or the upgrading of the markets in London, huge draws for tourists and locals.

To compete the Mexican markets must continue to offer a better, wider, fresher selection of meats, fruits, vegetables, beans, and traditional specialities such as tortillas, chicharron, mole pastes and candied fruits, their strong points.  They must continue to offer quick meals far superior to those in the supermarkets. They must try to provide parking and taxi ranks.  They must upgrade to contemporary sanitation levels (or at least get back to the sanitation levels of earlier periods). They must continue to offer the fun of the unexpected discovery and the personal encounters.  And the city fathers, stretched thin, must be persuaded that they are part of the golden goose of tourism.

It seems time for a wake-up call.  What is needed is a re-think, a concerted effort to concentrate on their strengths so that they remain real draws for customers.



Oh, and by the way, in case anyone is confused, these are NOT farmers’ markets in the American sense.  Farmers do not bring their own fresh produce to the market. Most comes from the big wholesale markets.  If independent vendors sell outside, they are still rarely the producers, but usually poor people hired by producers.

Wikipedia has an excellent piece on Mexican markets.  This link also has  lots about Mexican markets.


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10 thoughts on “What’s happening to Mexico’s traditional markets?

  1. Adam Balic

    Also lot of traditional markets disappeared in the late 19th century/early 20th, to be replaced with markets like this, or by smaller, decentralised individual shops.

    Edinburgh is a good example of this, the Old Town had many markets located in different locations, by the begining 19th century, they were organised on interconnected terraces, the Green market, Poultry/ Veal market, Meat market (with seperate area for offal) and finally the fish market on the lowest level. In many citys, these types of stalled markets were replaced with the type of market that you show here, but not in Edinburgh.

    It would be a shame to loose the market, the lovely thing about them is that they are big enough to be useful to the locals (rich and poor), and also able to cater to tourists, which can be a real money earner. But this all requires organisation, effort and money. What could also happen is that it closes and you get a combination of supermarkets and eventually “Farmer’s Markets”.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Are the interconnected terraces linked to the organization of vendors by streets that was so common? And yes, markets don’t just happen. They need someone or some group that is actively working on them.

  2. Carolyn

    I wanted to find out more about your last paragraph about the mercados here in Mexico. I am currently studying abroad in Puebla Mexico and I’m an environmentalist so I wanted to know what exactly you meant by the fact that most of the food in mercados is from whole sale markets? So it’s the exact same food you’d find in a supermarket? I want to believe that the food in mercados is much more fresh than that in the supermarket, but is that true? What would be the best way to help these poor farmers? Also the closest market to me is in San Pedro Cholula Puebla. Thanks!

  3. Rochelle Cashdan

    Fun to come across this, Rachel, and also your article comparing US & Mexican supermarkets. Now for one on the place the abarrotes still play in Mexico?
    In 2013 Mega offers good small whole wheat and dark rye baguettes& I also like their crunchy michis.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Rochelle. But I’m going to pass on abarrotes and tienditas. Except to say that they stock little of the local or home made that many might expect. And they are full of very high-priced cans and jars. Open all the time though:

      1. Rochelle Cashdan

        And a walk-to source of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m not talking about chains like Oxxx and Exxxx which are contributing to the wave of overweight people in Mexico. We’ll see if the tax on snack food and refrescos goes through. Last time the corporations canned it.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Yes, indeed. We were never close enough to such a store to walk to it. We were close to lots of tiendas of the traditional type but they did not carry fruits and veg. Eggs often but not fruits and veg.

          1. Rochelle Cashdan

            I have to admit that several Oxxxxs here now carry Celestial Seasons herb teabags for making a big cuppa at a price lower than the standard price of 15 pesos for say, a cup of manzanilla. So much for stereotypes.

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