One of the areas the Inter-American Development Bank is targeting is the so-called informal economy. That's a sector that depends on small-scale, individual work that has no official oversight or support. In Mexico, the largest group in the informal economy are the street vendors.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of a whistle)


Wearing a bright yellow shirt and a baseball cap to match, Porfirio Salinas walks his modified bicycle down the street, blowing into a plastic whistle. It's a distinctive sound that tells the people in the neighborhood that the knife sharpener is here.

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

(Soundbite of knife sharpener)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As he sharpens the 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. The only government issued document he has is a driver's license. It's not a bad living, but...

Mr. PORFIRIO SALINAS (Street Vendor, Mexico): (Through Translator) I do think it is unjust. If I want to get a loan from a bank, I can't, because I don't have the right documents. People who have businesses and own homes, they have access to the bank's money. But us street people, I have nothing of value.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's not alone. An estimated half of all the 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.

Mr. JOSE LUIS HERNANDEZ (Street Vendor, Mexico): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-eight year old Jose Luis Hernandez pushes a bright blue cart along a tree-lined road. He's a kind of rag and bone man, or junk dealer, who collects anything old and used, especially newspaper. He's learned his cry from the old men who taught him the trade when he was 15 years old. As he collects a load of glossy magazines, he says people like him are actually good work for the environment.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: (Through Translator) I take paper, plastic, glass, and metal. It's all recycled. Nothing is wasted. Everything is reused.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, he says, what he does is hard. Fifty percent of Mexicans live in poverty and jobs are scarce for some. Rainy days, he says, are the worst. But if he doesn't work, he doesn't eat.

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

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

Mr. DANIEL GONZALEZ (Street Vendor, Mexico): (Through Translator) When it's hot, business is good. When oranges are cheap, business is good. I buy good quality oranges. And because I make it in front of them, people see I don't cheat them by diluting the juice with water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's 33 years old and has two daughters. His wife is expecting a son any day now. The best thing about his job is that he can set his own hours, he says. Most people buy juice in the mornings, so he can be with his kids in the afternoon.

Unidentified Man: Tamales. (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Go to any neighborhood in Mexico and you'll hear this voice playing out over a loudspeaker. A man in the coastal city of Vera Cruz sells the recording for about $20. And his has become the signature cry of the Oaxacan Tamale. 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. Steaming metal pots are crammed on.

Juan, who doesn't want his last name used, is 23 years old and has been doing this for eight years. He dreams of having a job in a shop, maybe wearing a suit and selling shoes, anything not to have to move around so much anymore.

JUAN (Street Vendor, Mexico): (Through Translator) I ride the bike everyday from miles away on the other side of the city. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's trying to get enough money together to build a house, maybe open that shop he fantasizes about. He's not close to being there yet. It's still early evening. He excuses himself and pedals off into the night.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language) Tamales.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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