The markets of Latin America: the heart of the cities

By Roger Vela

They are an infinity of colors that illuminate the lives of thousands of people. They are a mixture of aromas that provoke vivid memories and insatiable appetites. They are thousands of sounds that make up perfect melodies to tell the history of the metropolis. They are the popular markets that for centuries have been pumping the blood that keeps Latin American cities alive.

Latinos have a special connection to markets. The growth of the large cities of Latin America could not be explained without those places where the exchange of goods and money occurs 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. A huge part of the Latin identity is rooted in that set of commercial premises where you can find fruits, vegetables, pork, chicken, fish, shoes, clothes, books, furniture, cleaning products, candies, pre-Hispanic kitchen tools and even the latest electronic devices.  

In the case of Mexico, the markets are so important to the country that there are people dedicated to telling the history of those places. One of them is Julen Ladrón de Guevara, who, beyond being a specialist in cultural issues, introduces herself as a market chronicler. For Julen, Latin American markets are fundamental for the economic and social life of the different countries, because beyond being merchandise supply centers, they function to preserve cultural and gastronomic traditions.

“In Mexico City there are 329 markets. Some are local, in other words, they sell a bit of everything but they have areas for different products: there you will find the meat, fruit or grocery area. Others are known as specialty markets, in which most of their stores sell a specific product: flowers, shoes or candies.”

Julen explains that the markets were born along with the development of Mesoamerican civilizations. In the Mexican capital there is a record that since the 13th century — 300 years before the arrival of the Spaniards — markets were already operating to supply the needs of the population.

“But it was at the beginning of the 20th century when the markets as we know them today were established: roofed, more organized and with better sanitation measures,” explains Julen. For the chronicler, the markets are a reflection of the neighborhood where they are. “They are not only places where you go to eat delicious street food, they are popular centers full of tradition and culture where we can even find murals made by great contemporary artists.”

For Rafael Acosta, an artisan and merchant in the San Juan market, one of the most traditional in Mexico City, the importance of markets lies in contact with people, in weaving relationships between the seller and the customer, and in enriching dialogue daily with the visitors and the merchant neighbors of the nearby premises. “As the renowned Chilean writer Pablo Neruda said: who does not know the markets does not know Mexico.”

The truth is that to get to know any country in Latin America it is necessary to go through its markets, taste its fruits, smell its flowers, feel its textiles and admire its colors. The tourist areas are important to know the history and culture of the countries, but only through the markets is the true Mexico, the real Colombia, the authentic Brazil, the original Cuba and the genuine Argentina known.

But in addition, the markets function as a connection point between the countryside and the city and many of them employ people who migrate from their homeland to seek better opportunities, to find employment and to improve their quality of life.