Vendor-free zone in Mexico City center

Times Staff Writers

mexico city -- They disappeared from the colonial historic center of this capital city overnight, leaving behind empty sidewalks and open stretches of cobblestone street.

Friday morning, residents of Mexico City awoke to an eerie quiet. Tens of thousands of street vendors, for decades a fixture of this hopelessly crowded city, were gone. And the sea of cheap and often pirated goods with which they covered concrete and asphalt was gone too.

Looking at a helicopter shot of empty Corregidora street, Televisa news anchor Carlos Loret de Mola quipped, “Look, sidewalks! I didn’t know they existed.”


Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard pulled off this feat through several weeks of hard bargaining. Ebrard first announced his plan to clear 192 city blocks of vendors in July. Late Thursday, he finally persuaded the street vendors’ powerful union -- many here call it a “mafia” -- to clear the streets without a fight.

The result was a city landscape transformed.

The facades of many colonial-era buildings, no longer blocked by tarpaulin-covered stands and large umbrellas, were fully visible Friday for the first time in a generation or more.

“It’s been 40 years since it looked like this,” Hipolito Valdez, a 55-year-old security guard, said as he looked down Correo Mayor street and a corridor of old stone and brick structures. “Look at the buildings. How pretty. It’s like a holiday out here.”

Miguel Oseguera said the entrance to his clothing store on Correo Mayor had been partially blocked by sidewalk vendors since the 1980s. He reveled in his newfound “freedom.”

“Today, for the first time in years, we’ve got a ray of sun shining on the front of our store,” he said. “The street is clear because for once we were able to bring out our brooms and sweep.”

But for more than 26,000 street vendors and their most visible leader, the great grandmother and ex-convict Alejandra Barrios Richard, the city ban was a bitter pill to swallow.


Barrios had said the vendors would not give up without a fight. They relented under enormous pressure from city officials, who said the vendors would not be granted the right to relocate if they did not comply with the order to vacate. The new location is several blocks north of the historic center.

On Friday, Barrios predicted that the battle was not over.

“I can’t guarantee that my members won’t return to the streets of the historic center,” she said. “Hunger and need will surely force them to return.”

For two decades, Mexico City’s street vendors have paid Barrios and other union leaders “dues” in exchange for the right to do something illegal -- occupy a piece of sidewalk without city permission. The unions have, in turn, bribed and cajoled city officials to allow the vendors to stay.

City officials have cleared sellers off the streets before, but never with the scope and fanfare visible Friday. About 1,200 police officers, some in riot gear, were deployed in the area to ensure that the vendors did not return.

“Today we are showing that this is a firm decision, that we will not tolerate or permit any slackening,” said Jose Avila, the mayor’s chief of staff. “No activity will be allowed starting today.”

Some people who work in the city center sympathized with the plight of street sellers, few of whom have other viable sources of income.

“This isn’t like the United States where you have welfare,” said Martin Robles, a tour guide who works outside the Templo Mayor, the ruins of a 15th century Aztec pyramid. “Here, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Robles, like others, was skeptical that the vendors would stay away for long. Oct. 20 is the beginning of the romerias, the holiday shopping season. He predicted that the vendors would return by then and begin to “bullfight” -- setting up stealthily, and then picking up their goods and running away when the police show up.

Still, Robles enjoyed the open spaces between the Templo Mayor and the city Cathedral, which had been packed with vendors. “Listen to how quiet it is,” he said.

The few pedestrians seem to speak in lowered voices, as if in respect for the departed street sellers. A hurdy-gurdy could be heard playing in the distance.

Carlos Iglesias, the 45-year-old hurdy-gurdy man, said he missed the vendors. “They brought more people here,” he said. “But they were also very rude. Sometimes they would throw lemons at us and tell us to stop playing.”

Vicente Platas, 84, and Maria de la Luz Lopez de Platas, 79, said the vendor-free streets bore a greater resemblance to the city of their youth.

“We left in 1985, after the earthquake, because it was full of people, criminals and street sellers,” said Platas, who had come with his wife to celebrate their 55th anniversary at the San Fernando Church.

“This is fantastic,” he added. “It’s a lot more tranquil now.”


Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.