Image: Moran
Marco Ugarte  /  AP
Estela Moran has seen customers and vendors drop off at the El Torito market in Mexico City. "I'll be here selling until I get sick or I can't do it anymore. We don't earn much, but it's a living. I have customers that depend on me," she says.
updated 9/5/2011 12:43:03 PM ET 2011-09-05T16:43:03

For 30 years, Estela Moran has sold almost every edible part of a cow at her meat stand in a neighborhood market. The sale of tripe, feet, tongue and prime beef has put three of her sons through college.

But all is not well at El Torito, the small market in a lower-class Mexico City neighborhood where Moran works. Several stands are vacant. Others are used just for storage. Moran's sales, she said, have gradually declined as U.S.-style supermarkets have flourished.

Across from her post, other meat sellers haven't been at the market in days.

"I don't know where they are," the 60-year-old Moran said as she packed leftover meat in plastic bags. "I'll be here selling until I get sick or I can't do it anymore. We don't earn much, but it's a living. I have customers that depend on me."

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.

Shoppers say supermarkets have easier access, have a wider variety of items, and are safer.

"I know that by coming here we're making a foreign company richer, and the market vendors poorer," said 57-year-old Maria Teresa Hernandez as she left her local Wal-Mart with bags full of chocolate, juices and underwear. "But they have everything here."

Others, however, say the abundant offering of fresh fruits and produce at low prices is what keeps them going back to the local markets.

Most of the markets, like El Torito, were built 50 years ago and have not aged gracefully. A city government survey showed recently that 200 of the 318 markets need urgent repairs to their plumbing and electrical wiring.

More troubling for the more than 70,000 vendors is a steady decline in sales.

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.

"There are markets that are basically dead," said Guadalupe Loaeza, a columnist for the daily Reforma newspaper and an author who has chronicled Mexican life. "Many are in bad conditions. There are rats and leaks. I remember many years ago no one went to the supermarkets. Now everyone goes to them."

The debate over the future of the markets was reignited in April when Mexico City's mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, successfully pushed an ordinance banning the construction of supermarkets and convenience stores in the middle of neighborhoods, where the markets are located. The ordinance, though, has a three-year life span and will have to be re-approved. Other government officials have proposed ideas such as installing debit card machines in the cash-only markets.

Still, some of the old-style markets thrive.

Even at an off-peak hour, La Merced market in the city's historic center was bursting with activity on a recent afternoon. The city's biggest retail market is a seemingly endless maze of stands. It anchors a commercial area that spills onto the street, where shoppers can find everything from pirated porn to Mexican flags made in China and grilled corn on the cob.

Next to a post of spices, belts are sold. Next to the chili-based mole sauces, children's toys hang. Next to plastic dinosaurs, a taco stand fries up tripe.

The pathways between the stands resemble this city's horrible car traffic, except the human jams here are caused by the carts carrying produce or mobile vendors hawking soda.

Cumbia, salsa and '80s American music booms from stereos some vendors keep. TV shows and movies thunder at high volume. Wires covered in dust are suspended above the stands. Flies hover near the produce.

"We come to markets because it's part of our tradition," said Pedro Ismael Marquez Hernandez, 37, as he shopped with his wife, mother and young daughter. "It would be sad if we lose that. It's part of our heritage."

Marquez Hernandez said he finds prices at the market more affordable, but admitted that he still prefers to buy some products, such as bathroom items, at the supermarket. Though they are more expensive there, they are a better quality, he said. He also said that sometimes sales at the local grocery stores are too good to pass up.

In this city of nearly 9 million, there are 7-Elevens or the like seemingly every other block. Walmart de Mexico has become the biggest private employer in the country, providing jobs to about 176,000 people, according to the discount giant's website.

Walmart began expanding its presence here in 1991, opening a Sam's Club. It now has 1,880 locations in Mexico, which includes its flagship stores, the Mexican chains it bought and 364 restaurants.

In 2010, it recorded $26 billion ($334.5 billion pesos) in sales from Mexico and its Central American branches.

Edgar Alvarez, director of the association of public markets, blames the markets' decline partly on the government, which he says caters to international companies while discriminating against markets.

When foreign companies open a supermarket, "they fix up sidewalks," he said. "They should do for us what they do for the multinationals."

At the same time, the government doesn't allow the street markets to accept food stamps, which translates into millions of pesos in lost income, Alvarez said.

He said banning construction of supermarkets and convenience stores is a move that is too little, too late.

At Moran's market one recent afternoon, a mutt of a dog ate scraps of chicken. Children ran around aimlessly. Vendors peeled onions. The stands were closing. It was quiet.

In a corner, the market has a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The aroma of mangos and prickly pear fills the air.

Angelina Espejel, who has run a dry cleaning stand at El Torito for eight years, thinks markets will survive whatever is thrown at them. They still serve too many people from the working class, she said.

"Can you imagine the unemployment if the markets disappeared?" Espejel asked.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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