Vendors Drive Mexico's 'Informal' Economy

Daniel Gonzalez  squeezes oranges for a client. i i

Daniel Gonzalez squeezes oranges for a living. Every morning he wheels around an old shopping cart for door to door juice service. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
Daniel Gonzalez  squeezes oranges for a client.

Daniel Gonzalez squeezes oranges for a living. Every morning he wheels around an old shopping cart for door to door juice service.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
Porfirio Salinas has modified his bike to become a mobile knife sharpening shop.

Porfirio Salinas has modified his bike to become a mobile knife sharpening shop. He blows a plastic whistle so people know he's around. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
Jose Luis Hernandez buys and sells anything and everything, but he does a lot of traffic in papers.

Jose Luis Hernandez buys and sells anything and everything, but he does a lot of traffic in papers. His distinctive cry was taught to him by the older men in the trade. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR

Mexico's "informal economy" employs millions of people who work on a small scale with no official oversight or support.

Many are street vendors, such as Porfirio Salinas, who walks his modified bicycle down the street blowing into a plastic whistle — a distinctive sound that tells the people in the neighborhood that the knife sharpener has arrived.

The tools of his trade are mounted behind the bike's seat: two electric stone wheels.

As he sharpens a blade to a fine point, he says he learned the business 28 years ago from his father-in-law. On a good day he earns up to $30. He's never had a bank account, he doesn't pay taxes and the only government issued document he has is a driver's licence.

"If I want to get a loan from a bank, I can't because I don't have the right documents," he says. "People who have businesses and own homes they have access to the bank's money but us street people... I have nothing of value."

An estimated half of all jobs in Mexico City come from the informal economy. Millions of people work on the streets here doing odd jobs, selling and buying anything they can.

Jose Luis Hernandez, 28, pushes a bright blue cart along a tree-lined road. He's a kind of junk dealer who collects anything old and used, especially newspaper. He learned his cry from the old men who taught him the trade when he was a teenager.

He says he's doing good work for the environment.

"I take paper, plastic, glass, and metal," he says. "It's all recycled. Nothing is wasted, everything is reused."

But it's hard work. Rainy days are the worst. And if he doesn't work, he doesn't eat... a reality that reflects the state of nearly 50 percent of Mexico's population.

Daniel Gonzalez pushes an old metal grocery cart down the street. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. If it has wheels, someone in Mexico somewhere will adapt it for some use.

Inside Gonzalez's basket is a load of oranges. Mounted on top is a juicer. He sqeezes oranges as he talks about delivering fresh juice to his clients in the neighborhood.

"When it's hot, business is good," he says. "When oranges are cheap, business is good. I buy good quality oranges. And because I make it in front of them, people see that I don't cheat them by diluting the juice with water."

He's 33 and has two daughters. His wife is expecting a son any day now. The best thing about his job, he says, is that he sets his own hours. And since most people buy juice in the mornings, he can be with his children in the afternoon.

Perhaps the juice will wash down a tamale. Go to any neighborhood in Mexico and you'll hear a familiar voice played over a loudspeaker. It's a recording sold by a man in Veracruz, and it's the signature cry of the tamale vendor. Virtually anyone who is selling them anywhere in Mexico uses his tape played on a loop.

The tamales — made of hot corn meal and meat — are driven around on a four wheel-cycle laden with steaming metal pots.

Juan, 23, says he has sold tamales for eight years. He dreams of having a job in a shop, maybe wearing a suit and selling shoes. He's tired of peddling... and pedaling.

"I ride the bike everyday from miles away on the other side of the city," he says. "I go to the city center and then I peddle here. I work all day and part of the night. I get up at 6 a.m., I get home at midnight."

He's trying to get enough money together to build a house... and maybe open that shop he fantasizes about.

He's not close to being there yet.

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