MEXICO CITY — First there were four of them, lined up against the subway platform wall. Then five, then six, then 11— all of them blind, all with retractable canes, all with bulging backpacks strapped to their torsos.
Socorro Jimenez was among them, waiting her turn. The unwritten rule is one per train. Soon, hers came.
This is how it always works on mornings such as this one: Few of the strap-hanging housekeepers or half-asleep students or impassive office workers will pay much mind to the 55-year-old, or her cane, or her nondescript black backpack.
Until the backpack roars to life.
Jimenez, like all of her competitors waiting for their train, had stashed a sizable off-brand guitar amplifier in her bag, and rigged it to a portable CD player. With the push of a button, she would overpower the dull trundle of the train with thunderous, digitally immaculate music.
On one recent journey, she opened with a Spanish-language version of the wistful 1957 doo-wop hit “Silhouettes,” which became the morning soundtrack to scores of 21st century Mexican lives. They had no choice but to hear that old, sad story: the teenage kid burned by the sight of his lover’s figure in a window, making out with some other lucky guy.
Jimenez cut the volume. “I’m selling CDs, rock ‘n’ roll ballads in Spanish, normal format!” she yelled. “Ten pesos.”
Jimenez looks like she could be your mom, with a lavender hoodie, hoop earrings and short dark hair with a tint of red that has definitely benefited from the attentions of a hairdresser.
She is a mom, in fact, and a widow, and a pirate — an unrepentant outlaw hawker of unauthorized bargain-basement CDs, one of dozens (or who knows, maybe hundreds?) of CD slingers who ride the rails of the Mexico City Metro system every day, under the subway cops’ radar with their nondescript backpacks.
The job, like the city itself, is a mix of the ancient and the ultramodern, a steampunk peddlers’ gig that runs on jury-rigged wires and ripped-off bits and bytes — though Jimenez is aware that more recent technology is hot on her heels.
“With iPods and MP3s,” she says, “it’s getting harder all the time.”
Jimenez has a way of floating, slowly and gracefully, down the crowded aisle of a moving train, like a weightless astronaut. Now she was playing a Spanish version of “Rhythm of the Rain,” the weepy 1962 number by the Cascades. A look of recognition came over a woman with a big leather bag, and she fished out a 10-peso coin — worth less than a dollar.
Jimenez handed over the CD with its 26 songs and a garish cover dominated by a half-naked model straddling and stroking a Gibson guitar.
This seemingly benign transaction, lasting all of 15 seconds, illustrates two enduring problems in Mexico. One is the continued brazen disregard of copyright protection, with growing Internet piracy adding to the more old-fashioned practice of burning stolen songs and movies onto discs.
The other is the informal economy, which accounts for almost 30% of the country’s total employment, a nightmare for tax collectors and a challenge for President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who has promised to try to move workers such as Jimenez into more conventional jobs.
For the time being, the only thing Jimenez could imagine taking her out of the subway is bad luck: She has blind friends, she says, who have fallen to their deaths on the tracks.
But what else to do? She suffers from a degenerative eye disease and began losing her sight as a teenager. When it wasn’t quite so bad, she worked in a beauty salon, and then in a shoe store. Finally — when she could see little more than silhouettes — a brother, who is also blind, talked her into strapping on the blaring backpack.
There are dozens of other subway CD hawkers, some blind and some sighted, and they all have their reasons. Jimenez said the government gives her a paltry disability payment of about $60 a month, hardly enough to live on. So she and two of her blind brothers burn the discs at home and she spends two or three hours a day riding the rails, selling as many as 100 CDs a day.
She knows it’s illegal, and she knows that the unwanted noise can come off as rude: “It’s practically pollution,” she said. But the Mexico City subway accommodated nearly 1.5 billion riders last year — a captive audience too large to ignore.
“You’ve got to make a living somehow,” she said. “Right?”
She’s been stopped before by Metro police, and let off with a warning, though she says they have been stricter with her brothers, who have been jailed or had their equipment confiscated.
Jimenez is using some of her proceeds to help her daughter finish a drama and literature degree. Then she’d like to save a little, to invest in a salon or a taxi.
But today it was back to riding the rails, and the 10-peso pitch for the disc full of songs whose titles might describe a life:
“Tus ojos"— your eyes. “El pecador"— the sinner. “Quiero ser libre” — I want to be free.