Markets Are Different Here

No, we’re not talking about Soriana’s, this is the real Mexican market scene. In the real Mexico.

Mexican markets have a culture of their own, and I wish every foreigner who steps foot in this country could experience one. Some markets are organized in sections, and walking through the meat, fish and poultry isles might not be the most pleasant experience on your olfactory nerves, but that unpleasantry is balanced by the fruit, vegetable and flower sections.

Traditional markets in towns on the mainland offer a completely different experience than the supermarkets found in modern Los Cabos. These markets are large, they are covered, but otherwise are an open collection of square booth spaces individually rented. The floor is paved, but that’s about the only concession to the last four or five centuries. Each booth sells different merchandise, from shoe polish to baskets, to rugs, but always food as well. One thing every market has in common is the food section: they all have an amazing food selection, where all classes of people share a tradition of eating, some on the same stool for many years. Yes, in addition to groceries, there are always square stands that are lined on all sides with simple stools where you can sit and eat prepared foods as you take in the sights and smells and activity of the market. And there are sights, smells and activity like you can only imagine. Stuff hanging from racks in mid air, not always something you want to see. Or smell. Usually there is no refrigeration, and no screen doors. 

I was born in Queretaro, and there’s a gordita place that should be considered a national treasure. “El Güero” (blonde man) started with a tiny spot making gorditas with his wife. Nowadays, he has about five spots in the market and sells probably thousands of dollars a day. I have been lucky enough to live in four different states in Mexico and I can say without a doubt that the markets are my favorite place in each and every one of my “homes”.

For me, Mexican market culture consists of getting to the market as early as possible, getting all my items off my list -by the way, I rather buy my meat from those markets rather than supermarkets, it’s so much better- and having breakfast or lunch at one of the food joints. Most markets have everything in them, and I really do mean everything: makeup, herbs, clothes, cooking utensils, toys… just like markets were thousands of years ago. I think the only difference is that back then, we didn’t see pirated DVDs and mix CDs.

The main plaza, or market, which is almost the same as the downtown plazas we have today, was traced to the time of the Aztecs. There were also many specialty markets, like the salt market in Atenantitlan, dog market (for human consumption) in Acolman and a slave market in Azcapotlazco. These places are now Mexico City or in its surroundings. This might be why today in big Mexican cities items are sold by the neighborhood: All the linens are in one neighborhood, furniture in another neighborhood, printing shops are found in their own barrio, and so on.

The importance of religion in markets goes as far back as prehispanic times, too. The original altars were to thank the gods for the different crops sold at market. This too, has a great relationship with the present day market, as important days like Guadalupe Day on December 12th, the market is filled with special food, and even some people give gifts of their products to those who pray at the market altar.

The 16th century saw little changes in the markets, merchants still came and went with their specialties across Aztec territory, regional products were traded, and some Spanish products were added to the mix of merchandise, especially manufactured goods. Cacao, (from which chocolate is derived), was still used as currency, and metal money started to be produced as well. Cacao kept its value up until the beginning of the next century.

In 1580, the government started to control commerce, especially grains. The church started gaining importance as food producers, which gave Spaniards a lot of power for the following couple of centuries. This, however did not eliminate the industriousness of indigenous merchants who kept hawking their various products.

At the end of the 1800s big markets split into smaller, more local markets, and politics were not in a good place either. The time is referred to as porfiriato - when Porfirio Diaz was a dictator- commerce evolved into many little corner stores, causing the huge markets to dwindle even more.  This period led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and a crisis was hitting the country: there was an abrupt decrease in crop production, as nearly all the farmers were off fighting. This also affected commerce, as communications and the flow of products was disrupted.

In the 1950s, old wooden market structures were torn down and replaced by modern buildings, a precursor to our Sorianas, and there was even refrigeration, a huge step for markets.

The closest you can come to experiencing a traditional Mexican market is in San Jose, between the fourlane and downtown. You need to really look for it, as it appears from the outside to be smaller than it is. It’s between the street with all the inverted speed bumps, and the next street north. There are doors on each street.

The brand new Chedraui, (pronounced ched wowie), at the traffic circle in San Jose gives a nod to the old traditional market, with its food booths and stools arrayed around the food stand. It’s all modern, bright, air conditioned, and sweet smelling, but does have the traditional booths selling prepared foods, just like in the good old days. It’s all sanitized now, but sit there, squint, hold your nose and you can pretend yourself to a traditional market on mainland Mexico without air conditioning or refrigeration, or screen doors.