In these 30 photographs, the most significant consumption practices of the interviewees from Mexico City are presented*. The visual material portrays scenes of everyday consumption such as fresh food purchased in local markets, flea markets or supermarkets, goods related to technology devices and services such as cell phones, computers, internet access and online shopping services, medical care, housing improvements and different forms of urban mobility based on the use of private cars, bicycles and public transport services. That is to say, the elements that allow us to survive and choose how to travel and transform life in the largest city in the country are represented. The diversity of the sample was a fundamental part of the methodological design of the research, which allowed us to have a broad overview of the social organisation of this specific group.

Likewise, the photographs presented here emphasise the planning, consumption and daily survival strategies that have been developed to solve the needs that the social confinement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic starting in March 2020 has brought with it. It is at this point where we allow ourselves to develop reflections on the changes in social dynamics, since a good part of those interviewed have transferred the strategies implemented during social distancing to a new scenario that we could call the post-pandemic city, which has allowed them to devise new ways of acting, spending and living together, with caution and prevention. Such an issue meant an important lesson in the lives of consumers, since experiencing a phenomenon of such magnitude called into question their ways of understanding and living their lives, which led them to rethink their priorities and modify their consumption habits.

*Under the framework of the project No Longer Poor, Not Yet Middle Class: New Consumer Cultures in the Global South (DP190100727) funded by the Australian Research Council and coordinated by Dr. Anna Cristina Pertierra from the University of Technology Sydney and Dr. Ahtziri Molina Roldán of the Center for Studies, Creation and Documentation of the Arts of the Universidad Veracruzana.

In February 2023, almost three years after the declaration of social distancing, we find a quiet city, which has changed and adapted to the necessary ways of life within what we have called the new normal. Although concentrations continue to occur in common spaces, in some neighborhoods and we find some neighborhoods of the city semi-empty, quiet places with limited interaction. An example of this is the characteristic purple condominiums of the Infonavit Agua Miel Housing Unit, located in the Iztacalco Mayor’s Office, which presented themselves to us as extremely calm and welcoming spaces, full of young people and older adults who avidly participate in different activities in the area, such as those related to the local church and sports spaces such as outdoor exercise or soccer games. Signs were also found hanging over the main esplanade that showed the unity of the neighbours in the face of robberies or assaults that may occur in the area, under the premise “rat found, rat mothered”, which contrasts with the cards printed and pasted on the posts of missing persons that the community itself is searching for: violence is present everywhere.

The area’s surroundings are adorned by colourful murals that present the country’s cultural identity and the brown skin revolution and its takeover of public stages. These murals are, in turn, interspersed with posters that present social assistance information such as medical tests and the holding of visual health days, these being supports clearly linked to various political organisations. The establishments that circumscribe the area have different types: from the sale of fast food to grocery stores and street establishments selling bread and vegetables. A constant in all of them is that they have had to adapt to new forms of purchasing by consumers, mainly implementing payment via bank terminal and QR code. In this way, it is possible to identify the relationship between tradition and modernity, since the premises built with sheets and canvas present the new payment strategies via cell phone or bank transfer in the form of signs or posters.

On the other hand, the tianguis or local markets are spaces of special importance for the local dynamics, since this is where people go to mainly stock up on fruits and vegetables, meats and other bulk ingredients for the week’s food. During the pandemic period in Mexico, these spaces achieved a notable preference over supermarkets or self-service stores due to the accessibility of prices, the freshness of the food and the proximity to home. To walk through them is to confront to a great variety of colours, smells and flavours, representative of the city and its population. The flea market on wheels located around the Iztacalco neighborhood is an example of what was just mentioned. This space does not have fixed facilities or a roof that brings together a large number of stores, rather, it is about merchants who stand at the foot of the avenue, where they offer a wide variety of products on the tables, tarps and awnings. They set up early in the morning to have the products ready to sell around 10am. The custom of trading goods in itinerant supply centres established in the open air is part of a tradition with origins in pre-Hispanic Mexico that continues in force and that can be interpreted as the convergence of surreal microworlds of tradition and culture; they are spaces of meeting and closeness with society. Something that needs to be highlighted is that when taking the photos there was always a certain distrust on the part of the sellers, to the point that when we were taking a photo at a clothing stall one of the sellers approached us and told us “here we are all fugitives from justice, so don’t take photos”.

The pandemic meant that the sale of food was no longer the only (and main) interest of the flea markets, but now they are seeking to meet other needs: the sale of second-hand clothing or the sale of clothing that has been auctioned off or discontinued, known commonly in Mexico as baled clothing, coming mainly from  outlets in the United States, sale of items by catalog or ordering them through authorized distributors (mainly selling quilts, kitchen and household instruments and personal hygiene items), sale of household tools, toys and more recently cleaning items such as detergents, disinfectants and face masks.

When walking through the flea market we can find people of all types: older adults, young people, children, families shopping together. They are considered, by tradition, as spaces for leisure and/or recreation and that were strongly affected during the pandemic. Little by little, people have resumed their daily traffic, going to eat, for example, at a street stall selling “carnitas” or “tacos”, while they have a direct view of the inhabitants of the neighborhood who are doing some sporting activity, such as zumba in nearby parks or soccer on the fields installed in the area. It is also very easy to find scenes that portray the new coexistence between the most local dynamics of the neighbourhood with consumption strategies enhanced by the pandemic such as home deliveries of online purchases and home delivery of food.

However, there are other spaces such as Mercado 17 – Bethoven located in the Peralvillo neighbourhood that still maintain a close relationship with the tradition of the area. It is a property that was inaugurated around 1950 and houses more than 800 tenants. Currently it can be referred to as a living example of the country’s pre-Hispanic culture, with the modifications that modernity has brought with it such as the implementation of home deliveries and card payment. Not only is it a space for buying and selling products, but it is a socially appropriate collective heritage and recently recognized as cultural heritage. The market continues to present itself as a space of important movement for the inhabitants of the area, who on weekends close the streets to prepare the street sale of food mainly with products made from corn, clothing and household items, which complement the services provided by local pharmacies, grocery stores and cheap kitchens.

As you walk through the hallways you meet people of all kinds, from young vendors dodging people with their carrying “little devils” full of vegetables and fruits, to older adults who still wear their face masks when running their errands. Although it is true that physical contact has been resumed with a certain naturalness, in some places there are vestiges of the social distancing imposed in recent years, through posters that encourage the use of face masks and antibacterial gel for their use, installed somewhere of the premises.

It is also important to mention the case of the Abelardo L. Rodríguez market located in the heart of the city, where history is part of the daily life of tenants and buyers, because between the walls and ceilings there are murals painted by disciples of Diego Rivera. The works mainly reflect socialist themes related to the worker, peasant and mining struggle and racial discrimination. Very interesting scenes are created, and to a certain extent baroque, which easily impress whoever stops to look at them in the midst of the very accelerated buying/selling dynamic that manifests itself in the streets that circumscribe the area. The works represent the past and the present, what happened and what continues. It is common to see these murals on grocery stores, cheap kitchens, juice sales businesses, so while you may be consuming a traditional Mexican snack or an “energy” juice, you are contemplating a scene of the clearing of a forest for the production of charcoal and vegetables.

The streets around the Abelardo L. Rodríguez market and that connect this area with the historic centre of the city are characterised by maintaining a very important dynamic of buying/selling items of all kinds. For example, the Republic of Argentina, in its almost one square kilometre area, has merchants planted in almost any occupiable space in the area. It is more than 10 chaotically ordered blocks, since the Archaeological Zone of the Templo Mayor up to Axis 1 North is presented with a multicoloured sky, thanks to the yellow, orange and blue tarps of all the vendors that activate the economy of the quadrant. It is possible to find backpacks and bags of all sizes and for all uses, some of them imitating the design of the listed brand of the moment, which leads us to reflect on pirated products, clones or replicas as a booming consumer phenomenon in the face of a social need to fit into spaces where the use of brands takes on special relevance for social status, which is why they are forced to look for alternatives at affordable prices for all these products, often putting the resemblance to the original product before the quality that they may have had.

Also, it is possible to find toys of the most popular characters of the moment, novelty caps, jewellery, underwear, stuffed animals and clothing for the whole family. It could be said that it is a true paradise for compulsive buyers or wholesale buyers, as it is very easy for the “chatter” of novelty to attract people’s attention. The dynamic is chaotic for the external agent, but maintains its order for the local seller/consumer. Walking in the middle of the street avoiding motorcycles, “little devils” and cars is not an easy task, but it is part of the experience.

Now, if what is required are more specific products, the other streets will probably be able to fill those gaps. The Republic of Chile, also known as the street of brides, specialises in the sale of wedding dresses and other items related to weddings. Entering the Republic of Honduras, we can find the sale of XV dresses, proms and jewellery, until we find the “Dress Plaza”, which was affected in terms of sales in times of pandemic and despite having stabilised with the years, fails to achieve the goals of previous years. Mesones Street, for its part, is characterised by a colourful atmosphere of school products such as pens, pencils and notebooks that are described with three attributes: good, pretty and cheap.

In the midst of this overwhelming space of buying and selling that plays between the established and the informal, there is a group that goes further: that of street vendors. In some cases, within this dynamic, products of dubious origin are sold, or from “Roberto”, to refer to the fact that they are stolen. The so-called “bullfighters”, who are easily recognised because they put their product on a black cloth, are an example of this dynamic. This cloth has knots in each of its corners, and when they are notified by a whistle of the police presence, they gather the four corners of the cloth and run to take cover. The sale of products by bullfighters is extremely varied. During our visit we found new products such as plastic bottles and thermoses, cell phone chargers, boxed face masks and even computer software such as the sale of packages of Microsoft Office tools or programs that promise to hack the WhatsApp application for various purposes.

The great Tianguis de Tlatelolco, the one founded by the heirs of the founders of Tenochtitlan, which amazed the conqueror Hernán Cortés, is still alive in the streets of Mexico City, the visual incursion that was made on this visit demonstrates this, we can find literally everything you can imagine, and if there isn’t any, the very confident local sellers will tell you that they can get it for you. There are no limits to consumption, to exchange, to the satisfaction of consumer needs whatever they may be, it is only the imagination and the resource that is available, COVID only generated new strategies to get us what we need.

Plazas or shopping centres, for their part, present a logic that is quite interesting to analyse. Firstly, they are spaces commonly visited during the weekends and fulfil different tasks: they are spaces for purchasing clothes, technology products or some other item of non-immediate need, they are meeting spaces, where families or couples commonly go, to the cinema, to established restaurants or to the dining area where fast food options are mainly found. From the tour we realised that, beyond full parking lots, full stores and long lines at restaurants, there is little consumption by the population. It is common to see people walking through the corridors of shopping plazas, but few carry shopping bags, which gives us an idea of ​​the habits and purchasing power within the plazas. We consider that these are more purchases planned in advance and with a previously assigned budget. We observed a closer interaction with dessert sales stations, who have the cheapest price compared to the competition.

Without a doubt, the visit to Mexico City as part of the preparation of this visual essay allows us to have a broader overview of the consumption practices of this sector of the population, the changes they have navigated in recent years and how the situation of social confinement generated by the pandemic came to enhance survival strategies, related to new ways of acting, spending and living together, with caution and prevention. Cautious consumers are identified, who manage to compare products and choose the best possible option, under the framework of the relationship between quality and price, since the effects of economic crises are things that are taken into account to implement strategies within their habits of consumption. The local dynamics for the consumption of fast-moving goods are an example of this, although they are in a stage that attempts to establish a relationship with new forms of consumption based on payment with credit cards and the increase in the preference of online shopping alongside retail.

The city, although it continues to present all those characteristics that make it frenetic due to the continuous movement of the population to work, consume and live, after the pandemic it has allowed itself to slow down. And, above all, it has allowed itself to be open to new lifestyles and new ways of interacting that navigate between physical environments and virtual environments.

Visual essay by Miguel Alba Cristales and Manuel Acevedo Rivera.