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Foreigners in Their Own Town

Mobile Vendors Policy Hinders Rural Residents Selling in the Historic Center

By Jesus Aguado

“Where shall we go if they don’t want us in our own city?” asks a worried Javier Gonzalez, a resident of the San Lucas rural community. He’s talking about the constant pressure by inspectors from the city’s Dirección de Servicios Públicos y Calidad de Vida (Office of Municipal Services and Quality of Life), who don’t want him selling his wood crafts and fresh produce in the Historic Center.

“We take our children to sell alongside us because we want them to learn the craft, want them to have an occupation, so that they don’t turn into delinquents,” says Manuela Ramirez, also from San Lucas.

González and Ramírez, like residents of other communities surrounding San Miguel de Allende, say that the the city’s policies on selling wares in the Historic Center make them feel like foreigners in their own town—rejected and without hope, with the desire to work but not the permission.

Two options

San Lucas is a rural community located off the highway to Guanajuato, nestled in the mountains. There is potable water, but no sewerage other than septic pits. There is a church, a rustic soccer field, and a kindergarten, primary, and secondary school on the other side of the river. During the rainy season, there are no classes since there is no bridge to allow students to cross the swollen river. At that point, young people have two options: stay home and help with chores, or to go with their parents, or alone, to sell things in “faraway” San Miguel—which is how they describe it, even though they are residents of the San Miguel de Allende municipality.

According to municipal delegate Isabel Ramírez, San Lucas had 950 residents as of the last census—not counting infants. Of these residents, the majority of the men and young people work at the Champiñones company, in Querétaro’s industrial park or else do field work at the La Minita ranch. “The buses come and take them,” said Ramírez.

Once the men and young people are gone for the day, the community is left in the hands of the women and children who stay behind. Some of those people come to San Miguel’s Historic Center to sell to people walking through the Historic Center near the Jardín their wooden toy burros and their homegrown produce, such as corn, beans, squash, and chickpeas. For these women and children, business is difficult because they don’t have permission from local authorities to sell.

One example is the wife of don Delfino Gonzalez, who, after processing her own fresh corn, prepares homemade gorditas and tortillas. She also cuts, peels, and cooks nopales, which she later mixes with chickpeas, onion, cilantro and chile serrano. She takes the bus at 7:30am, and when she arrives in San Miguel, she places herself wherever she can in order to sell her wares without being bothered by the inspectors.

“Sometimes they think—because they see us like this, not well dressed—that we are poor; that is not true. We know how to work. We sow what we can. We harvest what the locusts don’t eat, and look,”—she points to a room full of cobs next to a patio with beans on the vine and sacks of grains—“here we have this.”

But, she added, “We need clothing, shoes, health, services, and that costs money.” That is why, she says, they come out to the Historic Center to sell their products.

“If not, how are we going to do it?” she asked.

Permission not granted

Situated in her kitchen by her daughter, who holds a baby, Manuela Ramírez is busy: she simultaneously prepares tortillas near a mound of firewood and works on attaching “the load”—little decorative sticks of wood—onto the backs of her small carved burros. She tells us that when she comes to the Historic Center, she brings food to sell, but also the burros. On occasion, she has sold all the burros, some 20 in a day, but there have been occasions when she has not even sold four. If the Dirección de Servicios Públicos inspectors come, “one will take three [burros], another four, another seven, and so on,” she says. “They say they have orders to take them from us. But I say they should let us work. We are not delinquents. Let them go after those who rob. We don’t harm anyone. We are earning a living in an honorable way. They should not take away our work. And then, when I went to see if I could get a permit, they told me that nothing had been decided yet.”

According to Director of Public Markets Angel Saavedra, prior to confiscation, inspectors give vendors three warnings, including information on how to apply for a vendor’s permit. However, he says, the vendors do not apply. Owners also have 10 days to reclaim confiscated merchandise, he said. After that, it can be legally donated to charitable organizations.

Asked if she brings her grandchildren with her to sell goods, Ramírez said she brings them to teach them how to earn a living and to keep them away from delinquency. “Yes, I heard the mayor say that we are exploiting them, but how do we teach our children an occupation, to earn a living? Is that exploiting them? The inspectors have badgered me. I’ve told them to go after the real thieves, that to sell is not a crime,” she said.

“We have gone to sell in Dolores, Guanajuato, Comonfort, and Irapuato,” she added. “They don’t want us here in our own city; they’d rather allow sellers who are not from here, those who come from Guerrero or Oaxaca. How about us? Where shall we go?”

Saavedra said that his department is working on regulations to govern all mobile vendors in the Historic Center, regulations he expects to finish in two months. There are people who have stopped paying their dues, and others who have retired. The information is being cross-checked with the Treasury Department. Then officials will see which slots have become vacant and assign them to new people, he said.

As of now, it’s easy to identify an ambulatory vendor with a permit; they have a nametag assigned to them.

As far as guaranteeing the rights of children, Saavedra agrees that it is important that parents teach their children to work. However, he also believes in allowing children to live out their childhood and have access to education, which it is the parents’ responsibility to provide, he said. Finally, Saavedra said that vendors have been offered spaces in markets and tianguis, but they have rejected these options because, as some told us as well, it just isn’t convenient.

Let the parents be punished

Recently, Mayor Luis Alberto Villarreal sent a public warning to parents that they are not only coming to sell in the city center but are also engaging in “labor exploitation” of their underage children. In an interview, he said that he will notify the state attorney general, as well as the Council for Human Rights. “There should be a system that protects minors when parents exploit them in public venues,” he said. “It’s not a matter of [San Miguel] looking good or bad, ” he added, “it’s a most grave crime of exploitation of minors, and to not do anything makes us accomplices.”

The mayor also said his administration will work to guarantee respect for the human rights of children, “that the attorney general’s office, with the proper process, should protect the rights of minors and place the parents—and those who are in criminal organizations [exploiting children]—before the proper authorities, and so be punished.” And, if necessary, he said, parents should lose custody of their children.


A separate case

The case of Rosario Patlan is different. She is 36 years old and has spent 14 of those 36 years selling nopales, tortillas, and pumpkin seeds in the municipal tianguis (open market). She says she and other vendors used to have a space in the tianguis, but later she paid 750 pesos and the Dirección de Servicios Públicos gave her a card so she could have a space in the Historic Center every Sunday to sell her product. Now her only problem is that if she arrives late, her space is assigned to someone else.


Burros that carry histories

In a little workshop, filled with pieces of wood and a few finished toy burros, Javier Gonzalez says he began doing his craft five years ago. He is not the first one in his community to do so, he makes sure to clarify. Adan, Jacinto, and Juan started before him, and when he was facing poverty, he had to learn how to make the burros and sell them in the Historic Center. Javier says that he can make up to 30 burros per day, although he might only sell five in a day.

Inspectors have confiscated his merchandise, he says. “They took a bucket full of burros. The truth is, I have not gone to reclaim them. They say the fine is 200 pesos, and we don’t have that kind of money.”

The inspectors are abusive, he says, but he has never complained to the human rights office nor to the Dirección de Servicios Públicos “because people say it’s a crime to sell in Centro, so, what’s the point?”


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