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Public Markets as Contested Territories: Urban Infrastructure and Social Reproduction in Mexico City

León Felipe Téllez Contreras [ ]
PhD Candidate
School of Geography, University of Leeds

Infrastructure, territory, and social life
This blog builds on the idea that urban infrastructures “territorialise social life” (Fredericks, 2014, p. 32), that is that these material forms condense complex relationships between state, capital, and people. While infrastructures convey state power and capital reproduction through modernisation and ordering processes of the built environment (Harvey, 2012; Smith, 2010), they also become contested territories whose production, maintenance, and transformation are subject to constant political struggles led by communities and popular organisations. Contestation around urban and social infrastructures—such as water, energy, transport, food supply, waste disposal, health, and communication systems—is a direct effect of their central role in social reproduction and, particularly, of their increasing function as enablers of social life at all scales (Berlant, 2016; Amin, 2014; Star, 1999). Thus, infrastructures are not only top-down modes of governing people, practices, and imaginaries; they have become key components in people’s subsistence strategies, grassroots political organisation, and resistance and rebellion practices (McFarlane and Silver, 2017). More specifically, infrastructures become material mediators in power relations, playing an important part in both domination and emancipation projects.
In this vein, infrastructures can be seen from a territorial perspective as the material expression of state’s and capital’s territorialisation processes, as explained by Haesbaert (2011), but they can also be seen as the built (sometimes hidden) environment that inspires socio-territorial organisation and mobilisation (Mançano Fernandes, 2005). In Latin American urban contexts, this dual territorial condition of infrastructure has been mainly determined by state-led urbanisation and people’s struggles to obtain and access public goods and services. These forces have produced an incomplete, precarious, and constantly failing urban infrastructural landscape, in which people’s labour and organisation keeps playing an essential role in making neighbourhoods and cities liveable and meaningful territories. From this perspective, infrastructures are essential components of people’s urban territories, and they themselves become territories, to the extent that they underlay people’s subsistence and political practices.

Public Markets in Mexico City
With this in mind, my research examines how trader organisations organise politically in and around Mexico City’s public markets, thus transforming them into contested territories that impact urban politics. Purposefully, my work highlights how trader organisations and public markets become political tools and nodes whose history reveals existing conflicts around low-income people’s social reproduction and infrastructure provision. This specifically involves struggles around conflicting practices and representations in which what is at stake is the subsistence of small-scale retailers and the city dwellers that rely on public markets to access food and other basic staples.
The importance of these struggles from a territorial and infrastructural perspective lies on the political origin and development of the markets network as a large-scale state project that has provided the city with 329 publicly owned commercial facilities and around 70,000 market traders. Implemented by federal and local authorities since the 1950s, this infrastructural policy built and refurbished around 200 marketplaces in only 20 years, thus creating a modern, hygienic, and organised distribution and consumption system for a city that was rapidly expanding. Although this tendency slackened in the following decades and traders expressed some opposition to relocation, the construction of public markets has remained an important strategy to discipline (economically and politically) the growing population of street vendors that has occupied the public space for decades (Meneses, 2011).

Thus, in September 2019, the city government announced the recognition and incorporation of 30 more marketplaces into the public system—with which the network will comprise 359 commercial spaces (Sarabia, 2019).
As a state project, public markets have territorialised the political elite’s urban imaginaries. The new commercial facilities and their concomitant discourses have conveyed notions of order, planning, cleanliness, and discipline, as well as latent fears and preconceptions about the poor and their subsistence practices. Against this background, trader organisations have become the means to infuse new commercial and political subjectivities among former street vendors. Following Davis (1998, 1994) and Cross (1998, 1996), this transition involved for several decades the incorporation of trader organisations into the corporatist structures of the ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, in its Spanish acronym). Most notably, the creation of trader organisations and their affiliation to this party became a government’s condition for traders to access public markets and other entitlements. As part of the state’s territorialisation process, low-income traders became politically disciplined through the markets, remarkably as supporters in political rallies and as vote banks.
While public markets are simultaneously an infrastructural and a political project, they also are, given their subsidised character, the territorialisation at an urban scale of a state project that has aimed at providing city residents with good-quality and low-priced food and other basic staples. Stated in the markets’ foundational regulation (Gobierno de la República, 1951) and other recent policy documents, public markets were conceived as public goods to provide a public service, particularly for the low classes. Markets remain owned and managed by local authorities, but decades of political neglect, the roll-back of the state, and the expansion of urban neoliberalism, have led towards material deterioration and forms of economic and social decline. In addition, their public function has been undermined by the expansion of supermarket and convenience stores corporations, against which markets compete economically and symbolically. However, and contradictory, public markets are infrastructural and political projects that have embodied a moral economy on which the social reproduction of low-income people has depended for decades. In this sense, public markets provide working spaces for small-scale city traders and, although imperfectly, they still guarantee access to food and basic staples, mainly, at a local scale. In general, given their public nature, these markets play a vital role by offering certain levels of protection for those relying on subsistence practices.

Marketplaces as Contested Territories
As state-owned infrastructures for supply and consumption, public markets set the material conditions for grassroots forms of territorialisation, as traders have appropriated the markets in material and symbolic terms through multiple practices and organisations. Although seen by the state as means to control and capitalise politically, extensive market networks, associations, federations, and confederations also became traders’ political tools to negotiate spatial and commercial practices vis-à-vis authorities and politicians. Organised at different scales, traders have contested the original territorialisation process to make it overlap with their own interests, needs and sentiments. From small adaptations in individual stalls to self-government structures to manage the market, traders have developed multiple socio-territorial orders. Such orders have not been independent from state agents’ interventions and the elite’s vision of the city but have been constantly built in relation to them. By exploiting the interstices of this complex relationship, trader organisation and communities have been able to transform the markets into meaningful territories and political nodes from which to advance their own economic and social agenda. Primarily, the traders’ territorialisation process highlights the markets’ social function: as a shelter that dignifies their work by giving them a minimum of infrastructural conditions to perform their commercial activities, and as a source of income and marginal profit that guarantees their subsistence. In recent years, facing the dismantlement of public services and the privatisation of public goods, traders’ focus on the social function of public markets has played a key role in the defence of this social infrastructure’s ideological foundations, which directly involve looking after the poor and low-income residents of Mexico City. Although not free from contradictions, traders’ struggles for the preservation of the public market networks capture their commitment to secure for future generations the infrastructure and legal protection obtained from the state decades ago.

“Market traders protesting against the construction of supermarkets.” The banners read: “Long live the popular markets” and “No to Chedraui [supermarket] because it affects the economy of market 405.” Mexico City, September 2018. Author: León Felipe Téllez Contreras

This means that traders have mobilised to fight against the widespread material deterioration, economic decline, and political neglect of markets, but also to contest the mushrooming of privately owned supermarkets, which in 2013 were 332 (Giglia, 2018, p. 38) and five years later, in 2018, 462 (Seale & Associates, 2018). In this sense, public markets in Mexico City are contested territories because traders have confronted the state’s territorialisation process, and also because they have resisted the territorialisation process of corporative supply systems, which aim at capturing poor people’s spaces of consumption and social reproduction through supermarkets and convenience stores. As contested territories, public markets have become strongholds from where traders subvert state control and challenge the existing neoliberal tendencies in urban food and basic staples supply. In so doing, traders foreground the public nature of traditional markets and their social functions in Mexico City.


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