Trade in freedom

5 Apr 2023

We are immersed today in hyper-regulated society structures that have distanced us from certain simple gestures. Sometimes all it takes is a stay abroad to rediscover the essence of certain actions. Here is my experience and my awareness in North America, in Mexico. During my stay, I was surprised by the way people trade in this country. There are a multitude of shops as well as a very wide variety of points of sale. This ranges from large international brands such as Walmart, Costco or Decathlon to the small retailer, seller of matchboxes at the market.

The most common are the “abarrotes”, grocery stores that can be found on almost every street corner as soon as there are a few houses. These grocery stores mainly sell “synthetic” food, such as Coca-Cola, Bimbo bread or Sabritas chips. These are small structures, usually family, often in the garden or the garage of the house. The distribution network supplying these grocery stores is particularly well organised. I was surprised to see small trucks in the colors of Coke or Pepsi arriving deep in the Chiapas jungle on dirt roads that turn into giant, slippery ruts during the rainy season. Nothing prevents the delivery of synthetic foods in order to properly maintain addicted people under dependence. These grocery stores generally have no labeling for the products sold, no bar codes, or even a cash register. It is rather rare to be given a receipt at the end of purchases.

At the market in the city center, there are several types of retailers, not often producers. It ranges from fruits and vegetables to the seller of fish from the lake in a bucket, through the butcher or the peanut seller. Some stands are simply a few vegetables placed on a tarpaulin or cardboard on the ground. There are also stands made of planks on wooden or plastic boxes. In the maze of the market, sellers of matchboxes, garlic or cinnamon stroll. The small stands are run by women, often elderly. They can sell produce from their garden (avocado, chaillotte or guava) but it is often retail resale (radish, chard or carrots).

There is also street food, a real national sport! I don’t know if it’s for cultural, practical or economic reasons, but home cooking in the street is incredibly successful. In total contrast to the synthetic food of neighborhood grocery stores, you can find traditional Mexican home cooking in the morning or in the evening. On small mobile stands equipped with gas or wood-fired stoves, everyone offers their own version of home cooking. We usually sit on plastic stools placed around a folding table, not very comfortable, but simple and effective. The various menus depending on the stands with great classics. First, the large family of corn cakes of different sizes or shapes (sopas, tortillas, tacos, empanadas…) accompanied by meat and vegetables cooked with a choice of a multitude of hot to very hot sauces! There are also the tortas whose name intrigued me long before I decided to taste them. It’s simply the equivalent of a sandwich with a round loaf. You can also find in the street podzol, corn soup and meat whose composition varies according to the region. These stands are called upon in the morning for a second breakfast between workers (the first breakfast is generally a coffee accompanied by an industrial sugar bread). And on Sunday morning, whole families share this first meal of the day on the sidewalks of their town or village. In the evening it’s a little different, we eat in the neighborhood a family kitchen, sometimes grouped around a fogata (wood fire).

There are direct sales where the goods are stored in the trunk of cars or in the back of parked pick-ups. You can find in this kind of trade fruits such as watermelons or coconuts, detergents, strong alcohols of artisanal production (mezcal) or sweets. One afternoon, I was surprised to see a crowd in front of my door. A man was getting out of his car some clothes (perhaps second-hand) which he was presenting to a group of women in the neighborhood. Just raise your hand if a garment interests us. This flash sale only lasted half an hour, I didn’t dare ask where the fitting room was…

We meet at the bend of the streets peddlers on foot carrying baskets, coolers, buckets or pushing wheelbarrows. In their bucket there are jars of honey, fish from the lake or raw nopal (without the thorns!) or cooked. I must admit that my favorites are the sellers who combine the wheelbarrow and the megaphone, unstoppable! Or those women who sell sandwiches and drinks at recess through the school fence, not stupid! Women go door to door with their baskets filled with “gorditas”, thick wheat flour pancakes that they have made by hand and cooked over a wood fire in the morning. The solicitations of these sellers can be numerous when walking (or even when staying at home). These encounters can be providential or burdensome depending on our own needs and the limits that we may have to set.

And there are also members of the large family of motorized street vendors: from tortillas, ice cream, chicken, sweet potato empanadas (beware, very sweet!) to “garafon” water and bottled gas . To distinguish themselves and build customer loyalty, everyone adopts a strategy that can be noisy. But beware, there are codes, make no mistake! The bell is for garbage cans, the moped horn is for tortillas. Some shout or sing, others have recorded soundtracks, noise pollution assured if you live in a busy street.

And finally, there are the traditional vendors at red lights. Again, it’s varied: flowers, sweets, tortillas, vegetables or just bottles of water. In fact, there’s more going on than that at red lights. Regularly, you are offered (or imposed) a windshield wash (very useful in the dry and dusty season). I once saw a man of incredible dexterity handle the squeegee with such skill that there was barely a drop of water to dry with his cloth at the end of the wash. There’s also juggling, dancing, and even fire-eaters!

All this diversity shows a certain ease and fluidity in trading. It’s all the more surprising when you come from Europe. This comes of course from the low standard of living which obliges them to develop a force of adaptation to survive. Poverty has forced Mexicans to be creative and efficient in simplicity. Also, one may be surprised to see children and elderly people working in family businesses, it’s commonplace. Many merchants are excellent salespeople and their favorite phrase when serving a customer is “what else?” (Que mas?). No, it does not encourage consumption… The Mexican spirit of freedom and the legislative framework that accompanies it allows you to undertake in a light-hearted way. And here, there is no pressure for perfection or the obligation to succeed the first time. We do, it works, so much the better, it doesn’t work, too bad, we adapt. The illustration of this practical side is this stubbornness in wanting to drive cars that are obviously no longer capable of doing so (owning a car seems to change social class). Doing 200 meters in 15 minutes, in a deafening noise, leaving 3 liters of oil on the way, I call that mechanical relentlessness. And what doesn’t exist either is the pressure of aesthetic appearance in the realization, I admit sometimes, it’s missing!

In the end, you meet very few beggars, some old people or the infirm, and even then, they often have small things to sell, such as chewing gum. The low incomes of full-time jobs push many people to find additional income. There are many small jobs by the hour, half-day or day paid cash (cleaning, childcare, private lessons, gardening…). You come across a lot of job opportunities, even if you’re not looking for one. Note that cash is very present and circulates very quickly. Almost everything is settled in cash, except on the internet and in national and international stores. I even saw a woman shopping in a supermarket paying at the cash desk for a shopping cart in banknotes for the amount of nearly 14,000 pesos, the equivalent of an average monthly salary. And this circulation of cash is so fluid that it made me want to go into the loop. I felt great joy when I earned my first pesos by sharing my donations (photos, massages or tinctures of medicinal plants). And even, extreme abundance, I received daily while walking dogs.

The last notion that surprised me in Mexico is the notion of contract. It is sometimes extremely simple. We don’t clap hands but it’s just like: we agree on the conditions, on the price, and that’s it. There are rarely any papers, signatures or assurances. The administration reduced to its simplest expression, and it feels good! The agreement is based on trust, a concept that we have perhaps forgotten in France.

There is a space in this country that is not subject to the regulations of the modern consumer society. Everything that takes place in this space is free, simply subject to the laws of nature. In this space, the people are in power, free. There is no insurance, assistance or control and dependency. The religious, political, family, educational or even geographical communities are very tightly knit. In the event of a hard blow, an accident or a natural disaster, there is a lot of solidarity. For example, deep in the jungle, on a dirt road, after dark, a wheel of our car got stuck in a hole. I was surprised and moved to see everyone stop to get information, chat and help. In the end a dozen men lifted the heavy Chevrolet filled with lumber and pulled it out of the rut.

While doing this experience of Mexico, I felt in contrast that the laws and rules that imprison and stifle the trade and freedom of the French. Do we need so much regulation? Can we regain our former freedom and creativity? Yes we have (had) a lot of security, but isn’t the price to pay a bit too high? And if this system taken to its extreme were to collapse. Wouldn’t it be a good opportunity to take back our power, and return to the simplicity of exchanging locally. Become aware of our real needs, not those invented by a sick and out of breath consumer society.


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