Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: email@example.com.
“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”
If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.
Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?
I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.
Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.
Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.
I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:
…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).
This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.
Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.
Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.