- Associated Press - Monday, September 19, 2011

MEXICO CITY For 30 years, Estela Moran has sold almost every edible part of a cow at her meat stand in a neighborhood market. The sale of tripe, feet, tongue and prime beef has put three of her sons through college.

But all is not well at Gascasonica, the small market in a lower-class Mexico City neighborhood where Ms. Moran works.

Several stands are vacant. Others are used just for storage. Ms. Moran said her sales have declined gradually as U.S.-style supermarkets have flourished.

Across from her post, other meat sellers haven’t been at the market in days.

“I don’t know where they are,” the 60-year-old Ms. Moran said as she packed leftover meat in plastic bags. “I’ll be here selling until I get sick or I can’t do it anymore. We don’t earn much, but it’s a living. I have customers that depend on me.”

Mexico City’s neighborhood markets - the rowdy, smelly, vibrant landmarks of concrete and corrugated tin that sell everything from cactus salads to pinatas - are struggling as more Mexicans migrate to the relatively more orderly, cleaner, air-conditioned and foreign-owned supermarkets.

Shoppers say supermarkets have easier access, have a wider variety of items and are safer.

“I know that by coming here we’re making a foreign company richer and the market vendors poorer,” said 57-year-old Maria Teresa Hernandez as she left her local Wal-Mart with bags full of chocolate, juices and underwear. “But they have everything here.”

Others, however, say the abundant offering of fresh fruits and produce at low prices is what keeps them going back to the local markets.

Most of the markets, like Gascasonica, were built 50 years ago and have not aged gracefully. A city government survey showed recently that 200 of the 318 markets need urgent repairs to their plumbing and electrical wiring.

More troubling for the more than 70,000 vendors is a steady decline in sales.

Once a staple of this megacity’s daily life, the markets sold 80 percent of the city’s groceries in the 1950s and ‘60s compared with 30 percent now, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development.

A 2002 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico estimated that sales had declined nearly 60 percent over a decade.

Nearly 10 years later, university professor Gerardo Torres Salcido said sales have dropped even further.

“There are markets that are basically dead,” said Guadalupe Loaeza, a columnist for the daily Reforma newspaper and an author who has chronicled Mexican life. “Many are in bad conditions. There are rats and leaks. I remember many years ago, no one went to the supermarkets. Now everyone goes to them.”

The debate over the future of the markets was reignited in April, when Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard successfully pushed an ordinance banning the construction of supermarkets and convenience stores in the middle of neighborhoods, where the markets are located.

The ordinance, though, has a three-year life span and will have to be reapproved. Other government officials have proposed ideas such as installing debit card machines in the cash-only markets.

Still, some of the old-style markets thrive.

Even at an off-peak hour, La Merced market in the city’s historic center was bursting with activity on a recent afternoon.

The city’s biggest retail market is a seemingly endless maze of stands. It anchors a commercial area that spills onto the street, where shoppers can find everything from pirated porn to Mexican flags made in China and grilled corn on the cob.

Next to a post of spices, belts are sold. Next to the chili-based mole sauces, children’s toys hang. Next to plastic dinosaurs, tripe is fried at a taco stand.

The pathways between the stands resemble this city’s horrible car traffic, except that the human jams are caused by the carts carrying produce or by mobile vendors hawking soda.

Cumbia, salsa and ‘80s American music booms from stereos some vendors keep. TV shows and movies thunder at high volume. Wires covered in dust are suspended above the stands. Flies hover near the produce.

“We come to markets because it’s part of our tradition,” said Pedro Ismael Marquez Hernandez, 37, as he shopped with his wife, mother and young daughter. “It would be sad if we lose that. It’s part of our heritage.”

Mr. Marquez Hernandez said he finds prices at the market more affordable but admitted that he prefers to buy some products, such as bathroom items, at the supermarket. Though they are more expensive there, they are a better quality, he said.

He also said that sometimes sales at the local grocery stores are too good to pass up.

In this city of nearly 9 million, there are 7-Elevens or the like seemingly every other block. Wal-Mart de Mexico has become the biggest private employer in the country, providing jobs to about 176,000 people, according to the discount giant’s website.

Wal-Mart began expanding its presence here in 1991, opening a Sam’s Club. Today it has 1,880 locations in Mexico, which includes its flagship stores, the Mexican chains it bought and 364 restaurants.

In 2010, it recorded $26 billion in sales from Mexico and its Central American branches.

Edgar Alvarez, director of the association of public markets, blames the markets’ decline partly on the government, which he said caters to international companies while discriminating against markets.

When foreign companies open a supermarket, “they fix up sidewalks,” Mr. Alvarez said. “They should do for us what they do for the multinationals.”

At the same time, the government doesn’t allow the street markets to accept food stamps, which translates into millions of pesos in lost income, he said.

Mr. Alvarez said banning construction of supermarkets and convenience stores is a move that is too little, too late.

At Ms. Moran’s market one recent afternoon, a mutt of a dog ate scraps of chicken. Children ran around aimlessly. Vendors peeled onions. The stands were closing. It was quiet.

In a corner, the market has a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The aroma of mangos and prickly pear fills the air.

Angelina Espejel, who has run a dry-cleaning stand at Gascasonica for eight years, said she thinks markets will survive whatever is thrown at them. They still serve too many people from the working class, she said.

“Can you imagine the unemployment if the markets disappeared?” Ms. Espejel asked.

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