- Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence, and Public Space in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico by Sandra C. Mendiola García
Clashes between popular classes and the forces of government who represented upper classes and business interests on the streets of Puebla, from the 1960s to the present day, afford us a new perspective on the Mexican Revolutionary project. Mendiola García explores the historical experience of the street vendors as they resisted corrupt politicians, vicious police, and inexorable neoliberal transformations. In this way, she represents the ways that informal economic sectors resisted state repression. Vendors formed independent unions, like the Popular Union of Street Vendors (UPVA), they built grassroots movements, and they petitioned and sued and organized. They also suffered. Inspired by international ideas and Maoist thought, they seized public spaces in demonstrations, theater, and even hijackings. Officials at street, city, state, and federal levels responded with confiscations, arrests, violence, and torture. Mendiola García aptly demonstrates the numerous methods by which the reactionary government attempted to "cleanse" the streets of Puebla.
Street Democracy asserts that the role of vendors in providing services and living spaces to the poorest classes collided with the interests of the PRI and neoliberal capital, and that the vendors did not break. To chronicle the movement, Mendiola García has drawn extensively on city archives of petitions and complaints, lawsuits and newspapers, interviews with vendors, and the files of the secret police (DFS), whose members infiltrated the UPVA. These she complements with a broad secondary literature that situates the conflict within the realm of the Dirty War, the Cold War, and the neoliberal turn.
Mendiola García's interviews with street vendors and student organizers offer rare insights into the popular classes as politically engaged agents quite aware of the larger context in which they operate. Her use of the secret police files, increasingly difficult to access in Mexico, demonstrates the violence of the state. She begins with a solid historical overview and goes on to focus on vendors' interactions with student groups, the politics of the union, repression by the government, the neoliberal turn of 1986, and, finally, the impact of global capital as it erased old markets. Throughout, she persuasively shows the resilience and adaptability of the street vendors and their importance as actors in Mexican political spheres. [End Page 447]
Mendiola García tells a compelling story of an often-ignored and even reviled segment of the Mexican Revolutionary family as it suffered through, and survived, the latter decades of the twentieth century. She proves less persuasive with some other parts of her argument. Whereas she gives voice to fayucas and ambulantes, at times she reduces their neighbors and competitors to stereotypes as the mindless instruments of racist class warfare, rather than as rational and sometimes well-meaning people. Labeling government concerns over hygiene as discursive slander is one thing, but the fact that authorities could clear Victoria Market of over 50,000 rats in 1971 suggests that neighbors might indeed have had valid complaints. Likewise, the police discovery of a few old rifles during a raid might look more like a frame-up if more guns had appeared, or if leaders like Simitrio were not, in fact, avowed Maoist revolutionaries. Yet, while we should likely concede the malevolence of the police, Mendiola García's case lacks a clear accounting of the numbers of vendors arrested, tortured, and disappeared, especially in Chapter 4. Given the nature of the police files, this is understandably difficult, but it becomes difficult to generalize with such tenuous empirical data.
The road to a democratic Mexico may indeed begin on the streets of Puebla. In a city where disappearing the street vendors has turned now to wiping out the markets themselves, a history of the vendor community offers important warnings and lessons about democracy and justice. Eminently readable and suitable for undergraduates, scholars, and general public alike, Mendiola García's book offers a unique view into a struggle...