Mexico’s Black Market, 1692-1903


A review of Black Market City: The Baratillo Marketplace and the Challenge of Governance in Mexico City, 1692-1903, by Andrew Philip Konove.

Any visitor to Mexico City will have been warned, at some point, against straying into Tepito. The neighborhood just northeast of the zócalo has a reputation as “the quintessential barrio bravo,” and residents are often as proud of the community and its reputation as outsiders are intimidated (p. 333). But Tepito is equally well known as a market, where second-hand and stolen goods can be found as easily as anything else. “En Tepito todo se vende menos la dignidad,” runs a popular refrain. As Andrew Konove shows, the reputation pertained to a market long before that market moved to Tepito. The market was the Baratillo, the subject of this superb dissertation.

Konove traces the evolution of the Baratillo and the struggles of its vendors, the baratilleros, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the dawn of the twentieth. He relies on a wide range of sources including government decrees, city council minutes, petitions from vendors, court and inquisition records, and newspaper editorials to reconstruct the struggles and evolution of this scarcely formal but highly durable institution. The result is the first in-depth look at the day-to-day economic and political activities of one of Mexico City’s most important urban groups. Konove shows that the baratilleros faced down persistent challenges and unpredictable change from the colonial era to the twentieth century, and that their struggles can cast new light on both elite and working class political, economic, and intellectual life.

The dissertation is divided into five chapters. The first two both examine the Baratillo in the late colonial era, from the middle of the seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, approaching the period thematically. Chapter 1 explores the back-and-forth between Baratillo vendors and colonial authorities, as the latter sought to redesign Mexico City’s principal public square. The efforts to remake the market and the Plaza Mayor began in response to the famous riot of June 1692, previously examined by Douglas Cope, among others. Colonial officials saw the political unrest and resulting fire damage as an opportunity to rebuild the plaza, replacing wooden stalls with stone ones so that it could be “free, spacious, uncluttered, and controlled.” They hoped not only to reduce future risk of fire, but also to “change the social composition of the vendors and customers who occupied the space” (p. 39). Konove shows that local and imperial elites viewed the free-for-all of the Baratillo as a threat to the colonial order. With its Rabelaisian leveling and “reputation as the most unsavory of Mexico City’s markets,” the Baratillo was “consistently seen as a site where subversion could be fomented, and from which disorder could easily spread” (p. 8).

The authorities made this particularly clear in the wake of another disturbance four years later, when the alcalde del crimen was clearing vagabonds from the Baratillo. One of his deputies spotted a man believed to be an escaped convict, and attempted to detain him. But a large group of students claimed he was one of their own number, and snatched him from the deputies. The incident provoked an exchange of letters between the new viceroy, Juan Ortega y Montañés, and Juan de Palacios, rector of the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, culminating not only in the clearing of stalls from the Baratillo—vendors were ordered to leave upon penalty of death—but also in the viceroy’s ordering the rector to adopt stricter dress codes, so deputies of the alcaldía del crimen could more easily distinguish students from the rabble (and so that the students could better learn and adhere to the standards of comportment appropriate to their station).

The zenith of colonial officials’ efforts to reorganize public space came with the viceroyalty of the Conde de Revillagigedo II in 1789. Revillagigedo was “determined to transform the seat of his jurisdiction into a model of Enlightened urban planning” (p. 72). The Viceroy’s efforts to modernize sanitation, revenue collection, transportation and communication are well known. But Konove argues that his “most significant public works project—the one that had the greatest and most lasting effects on the social and economic landscape of the city—was his transformation of the Plaza Mayor” (p. 72).

He carried out the project over the strenuous and persistent objections of Mexico City’s Cabildo, which depended on Baratillo rental fees as one of its largest and most consistent revenue streams, and expected to have a voice in any decision about the administration of the city. Revillagigedo did not accommodate. By the end of his tenure, he had succeeded in splitting up the Baratillo, moving part of it (along with the food markets and stalls) out of the Plaza Mayor and into the nearby Plaza Volador; the rest of it into the somewhat distant Plaza del Factor, and leaving only the clean, orderly, high-end Parián market in the main public square. Day-to-day commerce had ostensibly been segregated into separate spaces for rich and poor; and the Plaza Mayor “had become a plaza de armas—a vast open space where the army, stationed in New Spain since the 1760s, could provide visible manifestations of the Crown’s emboldened presence in the Americas” (p. 79).

But imposing order on the Baratillo was easier said than done. Chapter 2 looks beyond officialdom to examine how the fascinatingly complex Baratillo economy worked. Konove reveals the ebb and flow of competition and collaboration between baratilleros, ambulantes (vendors without stalls), members of the artisan guilds, cajoneros (shop owners in the upscale Parián nearby), and wealthy merchants. He also catalogs the “staggering variety of wares available” in the Baratillo economy, but notes that “used iron goods, small pieces of jewelry, and textiles appear most frequently in colonial era records, and seem to have raised the most concern for the city’s artisans and merchants” (p. 100). His decision to refer to a “Baratillo economy” highlights the differences between this and an “informal economy.” As in an informal economy, barriers to entry were indeed low and regulation light. But the market was recognized in law as an important part of colonial society, and new, licensed manufactures as well as used, damaged, and stolen ones were sold there. The guilds fought shopkeepers and artisans—both masters and journeymen—who had struck out on their own in the Baratillo to escape regulation and price controls; but the same guilds also formed alliances and filed petitions that effectively cut across class lines for the benefit of all retail traders, the dignity of commerce, and the “common good” (p. 139). Among consumers, plebeians depended on the Baratillo for basic needs as well as used or imitation luxuries and foreign goods that elsewhere might be beyond their means or station; and elites (or aspiring elites) came there to sell and buy things that might cause embarrassment in more upscale locales. The Baratillo was, in short, a place where social passing was the norm, and everyone took advantage of that fact.

Even so, many elites still saw this blurring of status distinctions as a threat. In addition to lawsuits, Cabildo minutes, and Hacienda records, Konove draws rich insights from colonial and independence-era literature. Hipólito Villaroel’s well known treatise, Enfermadades políticas que padece la capital de esta Nueva España, and Don Joseph Carlos de Colmenares’s Ordenanzas del Baratillo—an unpublished manuscript consisting of 377 “ordinances” regulating the daily operation of the Baratillo, and likely the first major work of satire written in the Americas—reveal the colonial elite’s attitude toward the Baratillo. Both portrayed the Baratillo pejoratively as a place of inferior races, a “kingdom of the castas,” while ignoring the fact that many baratilleros were white. (A large proportion of the market’s cheap and used clothing vendors, for example, were poor Spaniards, including journeymen who had been denied entry to the tailor’s guild, as revealed in lawsuits brought by the guild’s overseers.) Both also warned against the treachery of appearances in the Baratillo; neither goods nor people there were likely to be what they seemed.

Through all this, Konove illuminates the workings of Mexico City’s “multiracial underclass,” and the hierarchy that it supported. While its existence and composition largely conforms with the findings of Douglas Cope and Pamela Voekel, among others, Konove points out that calling this underclass “oppositional” (as Cope does) might obscure the extent to which Mexico City’s elites remained connected to, indeed an integral part of, the commerce of the poor. They bought, sold, and invested among the capital’s undesirables. Nor did this change with Revillagigedo’s reforms. The Viceroy’s segregation of commercial space altered the ties of paternalism, but didn’t sever them.

Leaving the colonial era behind, Chapters 3 through 5 move forward chronologically, each focusing on a different Baratillo controversy over the course of the nineteenth century. Chapter 3 explores a series of little-studied urban renewal projects undertaken by President Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Mexico City Ayuntamiento (municipal government) in the 1840s, as well as the baratilleros’ evolving and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to convert the new republican vocabulary into political rights.

The challenge began in 1841, with the Ayuntamiento’s decision to rebuild the city’s major food market, the Plaza Volador. But this plan soon broadened into a general effort to transform Mexico City into “a modern capital of European stature” (p. 152). By then “baratillo” was a widely used derogatory epithet: “poeta del baratillo” was a pointed insult. Asignifier of all that was lowly, dishonest, and disgusting in Mexican society,” the Baratillo came to be seen as an obstacle to progress, and the Conservative Santa Anna government and Liberal Ayuntamiento worked side by side to push it out of the way. Konove shows in fascinating detail how the baratilleros fought back against elite efforts to (further) marginalize them.

Konove demonstrates three interesting features of the baratilleros’ efforts. First is the way they very quickly embraced liberal and republican principles of rights and effective representation in their struggle to be left alone. Baratilleros sought and found what they claimed were legal contracts and other precedents to shore up their theoretical claims to individual rights of property and access to common space. Meanwhile, baratilleros wrote a letter to their patrons in the Ayuntamiento, reminding them of their legal and moral commitments to Mexican citizens, and effectively threatening them with withdrawn electoral support should they fail to protect their constituents’ interests. Konove suggests this is an instance of petty vendors playing politics—“that is…using the political system to defend their interests against what they viewed as the arbitrary exercise of government power”—decades before historians have heretofore noted (p. 185).

The second feature is the extent to which baratilleros relied on a well-recognized but surprisingly little-studied character of nineteenth-century Mexico: the evangelista, an unlicensed advocate hired to help the uneducated represent their interests to the authorities. Mario Barbosa Cruz has written about evangelistas in post-Revolutionary Mexico, and Marc Becker in Ecuador (where they were known as tinterillos). But Konove digs into the work and lives (where possible) of multiple evangelistas across the decades in this and subsequent chapters, making his work the most sustained analysis of, and the indispensible guide to, this vital group of intermediaries.

Lastly, Konove unearths a collective letter to the Ayuntamiento in which the baratilleros, frustrated in their attempts to be heard, shelved the language of liberal republicanism and overtly took up the language of class conflict. By holding their ground against attempts to dislodge them, they were defending not only “our own private interest, but that of the whole social class to which we belong” (p. 185). They abandoned appeals to elite sympathy and patronage, even denying such sympathy existed:

“The true cause of the war that some have declared against us is the intolerance of the wealthy, which has come to the point at which it cannot stand the aspect of misery, nor that, with its repugnant appearance, it remind them that there are men hounded by hunger and necessity while others live in comfort and abundance and pass their days between feasts and delicacies. But, Your Excellency, so long as there are poor people in the world it is necessary that the rich tolerate us, just as we patiently suffer the inconveniences of their thunderous carriages, and all the other ills that their whims inflict upon us (pp. 186-87).”

Despite their having received relatively little attention from historians, then, Konove argues persuasively that the comparatively stable years of the Santa Anna regime in the early 1840 actually were the site of significant, tumultuous, at times violent negotiation over the shape of the Mexican state, and witnessed the germination of class-consciousness. The Baratillo was central to this process.

In the end, the Baratillo was relocated to the Plaza Villamil, and by the 1860s had settled in the Plaza del Jardín, today Garibaldi. It remained there until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Chapter 4 focuses on an 1872 case brought by a group of ambulantes against the Ayuntamiento for once again ordering that the Baratillo relocate, this time to the newly built Guerrero market, in the remote Plaza de Madrid. Curiously, this case divided the Baratillo. Vendors who owned stalls complied with the eviction, without protest. But the poorer ambulantes insisted the move and the new locale would ruin them. They enlisted the assistance of Vicente García Torres, owner and publisher of El Monitor Republicano and (briefly) member of the Mexico City Cabildo. García Torres made the ambulantes’ complaint “his signature issue during his first months of office” (p. 227). García Torres appeared prominently as a dynamic “combat journalist” in Pablo Piccato’s The Tyranny of Honor: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), but otherwise has not received much scholarly attention. Konove delves into his political career and it impact on the baratilleros, as well as its consequences for the implementation of liberal theory in day-to-day city governance.

García Torres and the ambulantes made the case that removing them from the Plaza del Jardín infringed on their fundamental constitutional rights to dispose of their property and to assemble freely. Eventually they brought the Supreme Court around to their point of view. The cajoneros and majority of the Ayuntamiento, on the other hand, joined forces to argue that the municipal government had an obligation to determine appropriate use of public space, and regulate markets; and that the ambulantes were an impediment to another constitutional principle: free commerce. The cajoneros and Ayuntamiento were able to make this argument because the ambulantes moved their wares to and from market each day. This made them manual laborers; commerce by definition was not manual labor, and merchants could not be manual laborers.

García Torres and the ambulantes met this logic head-on. They filed a writ of amparo in the federal district court, arguing at the same time in El Monitor Republicano for the ambulantes’ rights to trade wherever they wished, and touting the benefits of petty commerce for the development of the city and nation. “[A]lthough I support large-scale foreign trade…I am a more decided partisan of the commerce which engenders the work of the poor—mixed, of little value, and ambulatory, but generalized [and] extended throughout the Republic” (p. 228). Furthermore, both manual labor and commerce, whatever the boundary between them, were “honest” work, and conferred the commensurate status of honest citizens on the ambulantes. This was a major challenge to the overwhelmingly negative perception of the Baratillo and of petty commerce that dominated both the colonial and the national era to that point. Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada overruled the lower court, coming down decisively on the side of the ambulantes.

Even so, the Ayuntamiento remained intransigent. García Torres only prevailed by taking the debate to the public, where the principle of individual rights eventually trumped local administrative purviews. Here Konove comes to an important point about Mexico as a whole in the nineteenth century. As late as the 1870s, colonial institutional arrangements that had divided labor between the Viceroyalty and the Cabildo remained a major problem for effective governance. In this particular case the friction worked to the advantage of the ambulantes and of a democratic liberalism pushing against the well-known current of positivist authoritarian liberalism. But the difficulties were generalized, and had negative as well as positive effects through the dawn of the twentieth century. Konove reveals on the one hand a country still in transition, “where political institutions were stronger than ever before, but where the boundary between government authority and individual rights was still far from defined” (p. 29); and on the other the poorly defined place of Mexico’s municipal governments in the republican order. The ayuntamientos:

“were colonial institutions that had survived independence but…whose autonomy from the upper echelons of government was increasingly curtailed. They were at once vestiges of the old, corporatist regime, and the bodies most directly responsible for implementing the policies of the new, Liberal order…. This lowest rung of government became a critical battleground in which ideologues, street vendors, and other actors—both elite and popular—fought to determine the course of post-colonial Mexican politics and society (p. 263).”

With Konove’s fifth and final chapter, we finally arrive at a Mexico City fully recognizable to twenty-first century eyes. Konove shows that as the nineteenth century closed, the capital began to resemble two separate cities: the wealthy, modern city of the west; and the poor barrios curving around it to the north, east, and south. Porfirian científicos, like Bourbon reformers more than a century earlier, sought to order and modernize the city, and to centralize its administration. Unlike Revillagigedo, they did not seek mere physical segregation—this was largely accomplished already. Nor did they undertake the razing of whole city blocks, as was then occurring in Buenos Aires or Paris. Rather, led by Ayuntamiento President Guillermo Landa y Escandón and councilman Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, they sought to transform Mexico City’s elite and lowly inhabitants alike by modernizing infrastructure and sanitation. They completed the centuries-old desagüe, built sewers, paved streets, and planted trees. Needless to say, the modernization and beautification of the capital focused overwhelmingly on the center and wealthy western quarter of the city. But Landa y Escandón dreamt of transforming the whole city into “the most beautiful capital on the American continent.” He sought to “modernize Mexico’s barrios without razing them” (p. 299).

The pace of change became almost frantic by 1901, on the eve of the Second Pan-American Congress. Unsurprisingly, this meant renewed assaults on the Baratillo, which still retained its unsanitary and dangerous reputation. Proposals to permanently shutter the Baratillo had been in the air for a decade. Quevedo added the novel argument that the Baratillo had become obsolete, given the recent flourishing of Mexico’s domestic industries (whose output and affordability he grossly overestimated).

In time-tested fashion, through letters to the Ayuntamiento and public advocacy in the press, the baratilleros protested. Moving out of the center of the city, far from their homes and from consumers, would threaten their livelihoods. One letter observed that merchants like themselves conducted their businesses “not so much by the class of merchandise they sell, but rather by their personal credit and stability in a fixed place, where the consumer knows to look for them…To move these shops from one place to another is to lose the credit acquired…” (p. 319). Other vendors cannily acknowledged the Baratillo was an eyesore in the modern, prosperous new city, but suggested it be modernized rather than abolished. This proved an agreeable compromise. The Ayuntamiento ruled that the Baratillo would relocate, temporarily, to the Plazuela de Tepito, then on the city’s fast-growing northeastern fringe, and remain there just long enough for the city to build permanent stalls, sewage, and street lighting at Plaza del Jardín (Garibaldi). The baratilleros made the move in early 1902. Given that the new site was supposedly temporary, there was little effort to improve infrastructure, aside from paving the plaza. Baratilleros who had been in stalls and storefronts in Plaza del Jardín set up improvised benches and tents in Tepito, and made do without running water or other amenities.

They soon began to have second thoughts about the move. After substantial infrastructure modernization for a number of the city’s peripheral neighborhoods, in 1903 the project was derailed by a major political reorganization. On 1 July, the Law of Municipal and Political Organization of the Federal District transferred the assets and most responsibilities of the ayuntamientos over to the federal government, turning them into purely advisories bodies for the new Consejo Superior de Gobierno del Distrito Federal (Superior Government Council of the Federal District).

This was an enormous blow to the openness and accountability of municipal government in the capital. However imperfect electoral representation in local government had been before 1903, Cabildo sessions had been open to the public. Artisans had enjoyed consistent representation, and vendors could at least bring grievances to their representatives, with electoral support proffered or withheld offering some leverage, however minimal. The new Federal District government, by contrast, lay in the hands of three appointed officials accountable only to the president of the republic and his interior minister. Furthermore, the reorganization fragmented the market administration responsibilities that had lain in the hands of the Ayuntamiento, further contributing to the disarray, uncertainty, and neglect of the Baratillo after its move to Tepito.

Konove points out a number of surprises in this outcome. One is the continued importance, in terms of democratic accountability, of what was in effect a weak institution left over from the colonial era: the Ayuntamiento. He also notes that the Porfirian tendency toward centralized, technocratic rule, in this case, undermined the modernization project that was the touchstone of hegemonic ideology; the overlapping and ill-defined jurisdictions of the nineteenth century had afforded the baratilleros much better opportunities to defend their own interests and to find cooperative solutions to urban development problems.

Konove also notes that elite efforts to eliminate, control, or relocate the Baratillo were continuous over centuries. The unwelcome Baratillo was pushed around the capital whether the prevailing form of government was monarchy, dictatorship, or republic, Conservative or Liberal. The baratilleros’ resistance also was continuous, and although the language of protest changed—incorporating appeals to paternalistic sympathy, the common good, utility, or the natural rights of individuals, as the situation required—the methods changed little. Baratilleros used the courts, the press, letters to patrons, access to the Ayuntamiento, and sometimes physical violence to make themselves heard. Sometimes they were successful, if not often. Often the weakness of the Ayuntamiento allowed baratilleros to overcome elite attempts at prohibiting the Baratillo’s petty commerce, but at times it also kept them from attaining infrastructure improvements that could have left them in a less precarious situation. And throughout, jurisdictions were vaguely defined or overlapping—sometimes to the advantage of baratilleros, sometimes to their disadvantage.

Konove’s focused attention on this quintessentially marginal, semi-formal institution over the better part of two and a half centuries—what he calls micro-analysis on a macro time scale—also reveals how ideologies and institutions worked in the day-to-day lives of Mexico City’s working poor. As he notes, “Studying a society’s most unwanted elements, especially over such a long period, provides invaluable insight into how its values were negotiated” (p. 2). The 1870s contest to define liberalism—whether it should mean ordering space, including markets, lowering overall transaction costs, and facilitating productivity and commerce, or guaranteeing unalienable individual rights of property, assembly, and speech—is a particularly striking example of this truism. Konove also succeeds in historicizing the concept of an informal economy. In the Baratillo economy, elite interests and political principles were at stake as much as the high enforcement costs of property rights for the poor, and often the Baratillo economy seemed a better guarantor than the alternative.

Along the way to these major insights, Konove’s dissertation provides innumerable collateral benefits. We learn about the ambitious urban development schemes of the supposedly venal and chaotic Santa Anna government; about the patterns, significance, and concrete lives of the crucial evangelistas; and about the popular politics of figures more often seen as critics or victims of the state, like García Torres. We see colonial elite concerns about status, passing, and utility, and the physical segregation of urban space in the late Bourbon era. Dozens of fascinating contemporary maps accompany the text. And Konove has sifted through a truly impressive number of archives, large and small, to provide fine-grained detail of urban life in the capital’s vital underclass on every page. His dissertation contextualizes and illuminates the long-term developments and continuities of social class and racism, discourses of tradition and modernity, the expansion and contraction of the public sphere, legal and institutional frictions, social and spatial engineering, criminology and commerce, and much else. Above all, it gives voice to a little known community, formerly known as the Baratillo but effectively still in existence today as Tepito, that continues to face deep-rooted structural and perceptual challenges, and that maintains its long tradition of resistance through survival.

Eric Frith
Department of History
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Archivo Central de la Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación
Archivo General de la Nación
Archivo General de Notarías del Distrito Federal
Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal
Archivo Histórico del Museo Nacional de Antropología
Archivo de Salud Pública
Fondo Reservado, Biblioteca Nacional de México
Archivo General Municipal de Puebla
Archivo Histórico de Zacatecas
Archivo General de las Indias

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2013. 360 pp. Primary Advisor: Gilbert M. Joseph.

Image: Photo by Author.

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