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The Sounds of CDMX

How informal street vendors define the sonic landscape of Mexico’s capital In Mexico City, many notes in the city’s soundscape come from itinerant merchants — a largely informal labor force that traverses the city’s streets and alleys selling goods, buying things, and offering services. Each type of merchant calls out to potential customers with a unique, identifying noise or cry. Here, we explore this sonic code of Mexico City (also known as Ciudad de México, or CDMX), composed of the calls issued from these merchants and workers that drift through the city’s neighborhoods — pushing rickety wheeled carts, riding modified bicycles and tricycles, and lugging heavy baskets on their heads and shoulders. Each of their sounds give another layer of meaning to the din of this beautiful metropolis. Read on to learn about the relationship between the city & its street vendors,or to explore the sounds of the city on your own. A Part of Daily Life With records of their presence dating back to the days of the Aztecs, mobile vendors have long been a part of life and commerce in the city. Especially as CDMX began to sprawl more widely in the mid-1900s, entrepreneurial vendors found increased opportunities to reach customers by cart, truck, bike, and foot. Today, an estimated 800,000 “vendedores ambulantes” (roughly translated as wandering merchants or peddlers) currently make their living on the streets and sidewalks of Mexico City, and have come to occupy an important place in the economic system and culture of the city. This integral status, however, is threatened by changes in the global supply chain, shifting consumer habits, and the rise of app-enabled shopping and delivery services. While their collective future remains uncertain, for many city dwellers, these mobile merchants remain a vital part of daily life. In today’s Mexico City, residents inside their homes — relaxing at their desk with a cup of coffee or working in the kitchen cooking over the stove — will hear the calls from: The knife sharpener (afilador), who plays a pan flute as they cycle around the city. Their bike is outfitted with an ingenious contraption that uses the rotation of the bike’s wheels to spin a whet stone for sharpening. The garbage collector (recolector de basura), who walks up and down the street, ringing a small bell on a wooden handle like an old-time town crier. The bell tolls for thee: anyone with bags of garbage piled up at home. The tamale vendor (tamalero), who plays a well-known recording that may trigger a pavlovian response from many residents. Their tamales are served warm (calientitos) from large, steaming drums in the front of their tricycle cart. A Largely Informal Economy Despite the large number of itinerant merchants in CDMX, the legality of their work is unclear. Many of them operate informally (without express legal permission or protection) — a phenomenon common anywhere that people face inhospitable economic and legal conditions. There has long been conversation about regulating them — an effort that could bring more tax revenue to the city as well as more control over traffic flow and food safety. But city officials have opted instead for a kind of management through legal ambiguity, an approach that allows the government to crack down on these merchants or let them be, depending on what is politically expedient. Operating in a legal gray area does mean that workers can often avoid paying taxes, rent on a space,  » Read More

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