Discover more from The Construction of Meaning
Both Sides of Now
Mexico in Two Acts
Aztec-pattern beaded skulls, neon-bright light-up bracelets, pokemon pushka plush toys, and straw thatch sun-shade sombreros - along with much, much more - can be found at street markets in the centres of nearly every Mexican city, big or small. The midday sun shines down on items are orderly aligned atop Bolero blankets strewn back-to-back and block-to-block for what seems like as far as the eye can see. And what a sight it is. Rows and rows and rows of hundreds of items arranged by size, colour, and usage create a pleasing visual syntax, allowing the gaze to flow from one item to the next, across blankets and eventually blocks, or up until something salient is fixated on. It generally doesn't take long. Between the verifiably vintage and quintessential kitsch, it's impossible not to fall in love with at least one thing at a Mexican market. More often than not, you can leave with it for less than $100 pesos (about $7.41 CAD). The vendors are eager to do business with passersbys, who must number in the thousands on busy days. Prospective clients will poke and prod, hem and haw as they pick up and inspect any and every of the hundreds of items strewn out before them, all while the owners flash cordial smiles. Altogether, Mexican markets achieve a remarkable degree of externality, especially in comparison to Canadian and American retail businesses, where one finds all items stocked on shelves, behind glass containers, and almost always within the entire of a brick-and-mortar store. At Mexican street markets, entire inventories are displayed en masse at all times to the public at large.
(1) Mexican street market. Taken by the author.
The radical externality observed in Mexican street markets begs the question: how do vendors protect their inventories from petty theft within the chaotic context of high-density centre-city streets? In a country where per capita income is $10,046 USD per year, Mexican street markets present a smorgasbord of theft opportunities. Yet, equilibrium is maintained, which is evidenced by the fact that these markets recur at all times all throughout the country, as they have for centuries.
As an initial observation, it's clear that the structures that sustain proper business practices in Mexican markets are not architectural. There are very few -- if any -- physical barriers separating the public from the vendors and their products. A simple blanket or table is all that delineates the boundary between public and private, which is a threshold that can be easily physically breached. Therefore, the structures that sustain proper business practices must be psychological. Despite their physical inconspicuity, those same blankets and tables must be conceptually explosive, acting as metaphorical fortresses that protect the vendors' inventories from would-be thieves. The conceptual effect of the soft borders of the blankets and tables is exponentiated by Mexico's working-class mythologies. The ancient Totonac city of Teotihuacan found its foothold in a swampy and fertile basin that provided an agricultural boon for locals, who traded their goods in open-air markets with neighbouring Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mayan peoples. Today, nearly 80% of Mexico's population considers themselves working class, and it is not uncommon to see abuelos (grandfathers) and abuelas (grandmothers) along with young chicos and chicas selling whatever they can when they can. In other words, there is a respect for work in Mexican culture. And it's this respect that helps sustain proper business practices in Mexican markets by distinguishing privately-owned inventories as part of something sacred. It is a remarkable feat of cultural ingenuity, and not one observed in Canada or America.
Conferring sanctity on simple market spaces that could otherwise be interpreted as mundane may seem like a stretch, but this designation reveals itself with striking clarity during mealtime. In the mornings, women hawk hot tamales out of giant steaming vats, handing them out to locals like a lifeline. In the afternoons, crowds congeal around makeshift taco stands, taking turns doling the various moles as they take turns doling personal stories of everyday heroics. By evening time, roasted corn, a favourite treat, is prepared over smouldering embers and served with a thick slap of queso along with a de la Rosa Marzipan and coconut water to wash it all down. Nearly everything can be eaten with hands alone, and it's almost always done so in the company of others. If not with friends, then within the atmosphere of the kindness and cordiality of the abuelas who served you. As was the case with Mexican street markets, there is a remarkable externality to Mexican street food vendors. Essentially everything except for items requiring a flame is accessible to the public. It's unlike anything I have seen in Canadian or American food vending contexts, where inventories, as well as the modes of production, are guarded in interior spaces, away from the public as if as a matter of principle.
(2) Endless food vendors. Taken by the author.
In his 1927 book Being and Time, German philosopher Martin Heidegger stated that it was impossible to dissociate the human being from the surrounding world in the manner suggested by Cartesian dualism. For Heidegger, the human being (the subject) is inseparable from the external world (the object). Dasein (translated to "being there") is a neologism introduced by Heidegger to indicate a projection into, and engagement with, the external world. Dasein provides a non-linguistic, pre-scientific access to meaning that circumvents abstract forms of knowing, such as logic and theory, and activates the external world as the medium through which projects of the Self can be articulated. In this way, the external world provides the opportunities, as well as the boundaries, for the construction of meaning.
In Mexico, street markets provide access to culturally meaningful forms, patterns of interaction, social proxemics, mythologies and metaphors. They buttress the collective psyche by offering multiple projects through which the Mexican Self can be articulated. They are simple. They are sacred. But the story doesn't end here. Much of what has been described is only half of it. It was the half that occurs during the day. Mexico, though, has two acts: day and night. At night, there is a radical shift inside.
It gets dark in Mexico around 9 pm. At this time of the night, only the street lights and passing cars illuminate the urban realm. Pedestrians adopt a different pace. Instead of leisurely daytime saunters, they scurry down streets like feverish mice, beelining straight to their destination. It behooves them to do so. Muggings are not uncommon. In fact, Mexico has one of the highest robbery rates in the world. A full three-quarters of Mexicans do not feel safe aginst muggings in their own communities. And robberies are the least worst outcome. Violence is also a fact of life in Mexican cities, both between strangers and within family units. The situation is particularly bad for women, of whom seven out of every ten report experiencing some form of violence in their life. Many Mexicans, including young men and women working in the service industry, sport astoundingly aggressive face, neck, and skull tattoos. Daggers that cross through eyes and massive slogans in Gothic script covering the full circumference of the neck. I am in awe of the artistry on display and don't mean to come across as a Karen, but I admit we just don't see these types of expressions in Canada. I can't help but interpret these signs as if they were like the colours of venomous jungle snakes that signal their damage potential. They are adaptations that evolved to increase survival chances in a harsh environment. In Guadalajara, the walls of a monument in the middle of a busy traffic circle are completely covered with hundreds of civilian portrait posters that read at the top in big bold red font DESAPARECIDO - disappeared. "Corn and death", I remember a Mexican friend I met saying. "Those are the two most Mexican things".
If people can adapt to live in these harsh conditions, so will the architecture. At night, the buildings go into a comatose state. Windows are shuttered. Plats and pets are pulled off the streets. Life moves indoors. Sometimes you can hear people talking within their compounds. But you can't see them. All you can see are massive walls and multi-tiered metal gates lined with aggressive barbed wire or broken glass bottles that reflect the dim lampost light. It creates an eery effect. It both activates and negates your presence. It tells you in no uncertain terms to GO AWAY, which is different than saying nothing at all. Without a doubt, Mexicans are some of the most cordial people you will ever meet, but the realities of theft and violence have worn themselves into the psyches of every citizen, and now manifest as brute boundaries built into buildings everywhere. It is a remarkable degree of internality that exists in stark contrast to the daytime externality. Yes, the streets themselves can still be occupied but at night their occupation becomes laden with conceptual meaning. Passerbys are surveyed with intense scrutiny. At night in these streets, you are either a potential criminal or a potential victim.
I am coming to the realization that I am addicted to traversing conceptual boundaries. Truly addicted. If there is a place or space in the world that has a conceptual boundary but no physical boundary, then I will go there. This includes far-off spaces in cities, forgotten spaces, poor spaces, unsafe spaces, artistic spaces, gay spaces, immigrant spaces, you name it. I had to do so as a matter of existential necessity, but that's a different story. I will probably meet my end by traversing a mundane boundary, like jaywalking. Up until then, I will continue to traverse conceptual boundaries in search of objective evidence that explains their existence. Are the poor spaces really poor? Are the unsafe spaces really unsafe? It's not enough for us to think it so, they have to be so, objectively.
One Friday night in Guadalajara I made it my mission to traverse the conceptual boundary preventing many others from understanding the city at night. I walked through a well-occupied part of the city, through streets lined with bars and restaurants and on towards the central cathedral. Entire families were out enjoying the warm evening weather as they socialized and bought treats from the local vendors. I took my phone out so I could take a video of the crowd that had gathered in the cathedral square. As I was panning the scene, the spotlights that lit up the cathedral as well as the lampposts throughout the square suddenly shut off, plunging the entire crowd into darkness. No one seemed to know why, but I wasn't going to stay to find out. The abrupt transition from light to dark had a remarkable effect on the atmosphere of the space. You could tell the crowd felt uneasy being so spatially exposed and also unlit. People began to vacate the open spaces and gather by the shops along the perimeter of the square that were still lit. I made my way there, too.
(3) Central cathedral Guadalajara. Taken by the author.
"Polícia! Polícia!" A woman yelled.
I turned back to look toward the centre of the square and saw a rush of people running from one end of the space to the other. It looked as though a mugging and assault had just occurred a whole family of people were chasing the perpetrator to enact vigilante justice. But the social physics of the situation were unlike anything I had ever seen. The surrounding crowd, which numbered in the hundreds, were unsure if a gun had been or was going to be shot. You could see one of the women chasing the perpetrator had blood on her face. They looked like they wanted revenge. It just so happened that the cops were nearby, and from what I could tell they did resolve the situation. I didn't stay to find out. The whole event left me feeling unsafe. Sometimes objective reality does confirm the stereotype, I remember thinking. I scurried home.