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When the Alternative is to Keep Things as They Are: The Market Traders’ Political-Legal Battles in Mexico City

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

Henri Lefebvre (1978, 1991) argued that in order to contest the capitalist production of space it would be necessary to understand people’s everyday life comprehensively, as it is a precondition to develop an agenda to fight for the Right to the City. Decades later, David Harvey (2008, p. 23) wrote that “[t]he right to the city is […] a right to change ourselves by changing the city,” which suggests that the construction of grassroots alternatives involves the complex task of confronting the social relations and structures we help to reproduce every day.

In the face of specific urban struggles, these radical calls to contestation and change are often challenged by grassroots organisations that advocate for the continuity of certain economic, social, political, and legal configurations. Counterintuitively, what these grassroots alternatives demand is to keep (some) things as they are, which, under a critical eye, invokes a sort of defence of the status quo. My approach is that this apparently contradictory construction of alternatives in contemporary cities needs to be understood as the defence of a moral economy (Sayer, 2000, 2015; Scott, 1976; Thompson, 1971), which guarantees the minimal means for subsistence for low-income residents, despite their disadvantages vis-à-vis the ruling class and the state. What I explore in this brief contribution is the tension between the defence of a moral economy and the construction of alternatives in the political-legal battles of market traders in Mexico City.

In June 1951, the Mexican government published the Markets Bylaw for the Federal District, which provided the legal foundations for the construction and management of Mexico City’s 329 public markets. As a legal instrument, this Bylaw has set an ideal socio-spatial order in and outside the markets and, more importantly, it has helped to build a socio-political bond between trader communities and the state. This arrangement, marked by the social and progressive ideals of the post-revolutionary Mexican welfare state (Cross, 1998; Giglia, 2018), imposed on the state the financial responsibility of maintaining the markets and supporting the traders.

Today, these markets shelter around 70,000 traders, who gain their source of income in these places, while subsidies alleviate the costs involved in running their small-scale businesses. Thus, the responsibilities enshrined in the Bylaw speak of a moral economy that determines the traders’ expectations with regard to the state’s participation in the markets’ reproduction.

For more than 30 years the Bylaw remained uncontested, but in the 1980s the authorities began to call for reform in order to “modernise” the public markets and redistribute the financial burden. The traders invariably rejected this. In 1986, they mobilised and successfully blocked one of the first initiatives, which aimed at introducing new management schemes and suggested the markets’ privatisation as a solution (Calvo, 1995). In 1998, in the midst of a political reform and democratic transition (Fernández et al., 2001), a new initiative triggered one of the most violent moments in the traders-state relationship. Since then, representatives of different parties have called for reform almost every legislative term in the past 20 years, failing every time they have tried to change what they see as an “obsolete” Bylaw (PRD, 1998 and 2010; PVEM, 2005; PAN, 2010; PRI, 1998, 2002, and 2017). In this way, mobilisation has kept the Bylaw unchanged for almost 70 years.

Traders have made clear why continuity is the alternative. In their view, the reform proposals only strip traders of their rights, particularly of their right to stay in the markets and the possibility to continue their businesses as family traditions. They argue that the authorities seek to open the way for corporate retail, real estate, and financial capital to take over the traders’ licences, stalls, and markets using the rhetoric of modernisation and competitiveness. Moreover, traders think that reducing the government’s responsibility towards low-income traders and residents ultimately put the markets’ public nature at risk.

In this context, the main concern is that any reform threatens the foundations of the socio-political arrangement that sustains the traders’ source of subsistence. For that reason, they have not only advocated for the preservation of the 1951 Bylaw, but for its re-enactment as a law through a political process that guarantees that none of its content will be changed. In this sense, these political-legal battles condense a struggle to protect the principles of a moral economy on which the subsistence of a large low-income trader community has depended for several decades.

Today, the traders’ alternative is one of preserving the remnants of a mid-twentieth century socio-political bond, which, notwithstanding its shortcomings, has protected and dignified the working conditions of poor urban traders in Mexico City. Such alternatives undoubtedly challenges the radical calls to urban change by bringing the limits and potential of actually existing grassroots organisations to the fore.


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