Excerpt: Street Democracy

The Mexican Experience Series explores the rich and varied character of the Mexican experience through narrative, description, and analysis. With an emphasis on the many Mexican cultures, the series examines historical, anthropological, geographical, ethnographical, and environmental issues in modern Mexico.

The following is an excerpt from one of the newest books in the series, Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico (April 2017) by Sandra C. Mendiola García. García is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas.

From Chapter 2: Vendors and Students in the 1970s

After thirty years of living together as parents of six children, Teresa Rosales, a lifelong street vendor, and Bulmaro Vega León, a former student-teacher at the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (Autonomous University of Puebla, UAP), decided to formalize their union and get married. When Rosales met Vega in the early 1970s she was a young single mother of three who had migrated to the state capital from the impoverished town of Tepeaca, Puebla. At sixteen she had become a fruit vendor, the only economic activity that allowed her to take care of her children, including a newborn, while making a living. Like many other street vendors who tended their merchandise on sidewalks, Rosales faced several violent removals at the hands of police officers until she and her fellow vendors began organizing the UPVA. Born in Tecamachalco, Puebla, Vega (1945–2011) was a physics student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM) and a self-proclaimed Maoist. After witnessing the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, he moved to Puebla to continue his studies and engage in activism. He became a student-teacher at a state university-affiliated high school, worked as an organizer for several independent unions, and joined the street vendors’ struggle.1

Rosales and Vega’s relationship was emblematic of a larger alliance between street vendors and left-wing, working-class students who interacted on the streets, shared common experiences, and worked together to create the UPVA in the fall of 1973.2 Like other unions that emerged during the labor insurgency of the 1970s, the UPVA was independent of the PRI. Unlike the others, its members worked in the informal economy. The alliance with young left-wing students helped vendors create and shape an independent and democratic union. Street vendors became the ideological and political heirs of Puebla’s students in the 1970s, who in turn had inherited their political culture from the national student movement of the long 1960s (c. 1956–71).3 From their student allies vendors borrowed ideological and structural traits, as well as organizational strategies, political practices, and negotiation skills that helped vendors build an organization independent from the ruling party.

This unique vendor-student alliance represented a political challenge to local and federal authorities and a threat to conservatives at Puebla’s state university.4 Locally the formation of strong links between students and vendors occurred at the very moment when the most conservative political forces of Puebla’s PRI since the 1930s, the avilacamachistas, were experiencing a political crisis in relation to the federal government that ultimately led to their fall.5 From 1970 to 1973 two avilacamachista governors, Rafael Moreno Valle (1969–72) and Gonzalo Bautista O’Farrill (1972–73), carried out repressive campaigns against progressive students and administrators at the UAP, including acts of violence that resulted in the death of half a dozen people. As Wil Pansters has shown, a coalition of students, street vendors, and other popular groups made public the state repression against members of the university community, an act that helped undermine the remaining power of the avilacamachistas, especially vis-à-vis the administration of President Luis Echeverría Álvarez.6

Abbreviations:

UPVA: Unión Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes (Popular Union of Street Vendors)

PRI: Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party)

Notes:

  1. The Dirección Federal de Seguridad kept track of Vega’s political activities. His file contains information that goes back to 1966. For his activities in 1968, see “Embajada Cubana,” exp. 100-4-1970, leg. 112, hs. 93–94, DFS, AGN.
  2. For the student-worker connections, see the case of university students in Monterrey who supported miners in the 1930s and 1940s in Snodgrass, Deference and Defiance in Monterrey, 225–26, 292. For teacher-student organizing with peasants, see Blacker, “Cold War in the Countryside.” For urban guerrillas, see Herrera Calderón, “From Books to Bullets”; Padilla, Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata; and more recently Aviña, Specters of Revolution.
  3. By “the long 1960s in Mexico,” I am referring to the historian Jaime Pensado’s periodization of the student movement, approximately 1956 to 1971 (Rebel Mexico, 3).
  4. Pansters situates this broader alliance through the Frente Obrero Campesino Estudiantil Popular that Puebla’s state university articulated (Política y poder en Puebla, chapter 7, especially 241–42, 260–65).
  5. For a discussion of the several factors that resulted in the collapse of the avilacamachistas, see Pansters, Política y poder en Puebla, chapter 7.
  6. Pansters, Política y poder en Puebla, 265.