Over the course of my adult life I’ve come across people who are very knowledgeable about my country, some others that have at least an inkling of what goes on around these parts, and some that are just plain clueless about modern Mexico. Here are some of my favorite stories:
– A guy I met at a bar told me “Dude, are you from Mexico? I know this Mexican rock band! They’re from Brazil!”
– I live in Guadalajara; I state that plainly whenever it’s pertinent to the conversation. My Twitter friend, Paul Biedermann, asked me once: “So, Juan, how’s Guatemala these days?” There’s no bad blood between us due to that incident, but Paul has to put up with my constant ribbing every time we chat.
– Another Twitter friend, Sam Parrotto, posed this interesting question: “Do you have psychiatrists where you live?”
– One day I got the chance to discuss with Paula K. Porter, from Oklahoma (and yes, Twitter), the quintessential Mexican stereotype: a drunk native, garbed in a colorful sarape, resting by a tall cactus amidst a barren landscape, and with a bottle of some or other type of regional spirits by his side. I asked her if Okies lived in tepees.
To set the record straight: yes, we still do have sarapes, drunk people, cacti and Tequila. But in a different way. Gimme your hand; I’ll guide you.
As in every other developing country, the line between the urban and the rural inexorably blurs with the passing of the ages. Trends meld, mindsets converge (or clash), and mysticism meets pragmatism in ways that confuse and exalt the senses at the same time. And there is no better way to experience this mix of the economies of old and new, than a stroll through a modern-era Mexican mercado (market).
The market as a life-giver
It all boils down to this: man’s gotta eat. And so does his family. Be the currency corn kernels or paper and metal, the basic principle of the trade system that our ancestors set up for us still holds true in the everyday comings and goings of both buyers and suppliers of produce, meats, and assorted goods. And the market remains an important hub for this kind of activity.
At Mercado San Juan de Dios, the largest in my town, there’s always a large variety of ingredients that go either straight to people’s homes or to the kitchens of the hundreds of surrounding eateries.
Beware: for some of these foods you will need a stomach somewhat accustomed to spiciness and/or exotic flavors. Don’t shy away, but be cautious. Also look out for cleanliness; you never know.
The market as a sign of the times
Located a few steps away from the Historic Downtown, this market –a multi-storied behemoth spanning over 4000 square meters of space– is always teeming with visitors.
As the Mercado grew and expanded over the years –a sign of the also evolving city it sits on– and became a more recognizable landmark, the nature of marketable products also changed: the food stalls now share the land with export-ready wooden and leather items, toys, traditional sweets, regional clothing, and even a whole floor dedicated to counterfeit and pirated electronic items and media. Go, bootleg Wii games.
As I toured the place with a cousin (daughter of Mexican parents) and her boyfriend (American-Canadian), I described it as a Training Center for the Haggling Arts. That description is not that far from the truth: everything is negotiable; the vendors NEED the foreigners’ business and hence every given price is somewhat marked up to allow for some bartering room. A keen eye for quality and basic commerce skills become great assets for the shopper. In the end, a cheap sale is better than a no sale, and believe me, sellers won’t go as low as to negate a profit, so don’t be afraid to tongue your way into a good deal.
One word of advice: do buy items that you –or the people you are giving to– would appreciate. These guys will try to sell you ANYTHING, and even if you don’t need it, you might fall prey to the all-too-common tourist trap due to the charm of this thing or the cuteness of that thang.
You can find these markets –some big, some a bit more restrained– all over key cities in Mexico: Guanajuato, Mexico City, Veracruz, etc. Check your Fodor’s or Lonely Planet guide to get an idea of what to expect in each place.
The sarape, cactus, and Tequila thing
As in every other stereotype, there is always a fraction of ingrained truth. The trick is to know how to get an updated version of the model and then take away with you and enjoy the best bits and disregard –or be mindful of– the bad. Me thinks.
Come to the Mercado!