The evening before visiting El Tepito, a neighborhood just a few blocks north of the Zocalo, to explore its ever-sprawling, six days a week street market, I was advised not to go. Then, I was advised to go. Then, I was advised to go, but to go with someone. When it was understood that I was intent on going on my own, I was hesitantly advised to go, but to take my precautions. I was given a stern warning of its dangers peppered with the utmost hope that my experience at El Tepito would be a good one. Go there, explore, enjoy, and don’t give anyone reason to doubt the normalcy of you being there, but explore cautiously and swiftly, I was told. “Tu ve con confianza, con calma.” So, I did.
As I made my way through the infamous market and its neighborhood, which is regularly cited as being Mexico City’s most corrupt and toughest delegation and is regarded as being a nearly autonomous entity where the visibility and enforcement of the law is negligible, I could not help but chuckle a bit – multiple times and for many reasons.
There was the expansive “no holding back” open-air sex shop/market with piles of obscenities and loads of video playing. There was the lone Christian music stand, which blasted its speakers from the middle of the sex market. Then there were the vendors who openly stated that their merchandise was stolen, even using it as an advertized selling point. Too, much to my delight, there was the obnoxiously big teddy bear that sat on a teeny, tiny box. All of these things almost seamlessly blended into each other – one just as ridiculous as the previous, easily being lost in the chaos. It took a second glance – or, in the case of the open-air sex shop, a few moments – to take note of their particularities and to find myself both amused and perplexed by these contrasts, juxtapositions, and bundles of awe.
Something about all of these things butted up against each other in the most intimate and perverse way made me feel more relaxed about my exploration. I never failed to move “cautiously and swiftly,” but what had started as an exploration of a violently inured battleground turned into a playful, if not fabulous, day at the market. The visit’s only hiccup (thankfully) being my occasional disorientation – with tarps overhead and a maze of rows and stands, figuring out where north was located required a couple of leaps of faith.
I hesitate to break out into an overture on how El Tepito is a microcosmic expression of Mexico City’s, if not Mexico’s, social, cultural, and economic complexities, but there certainly is something to be said about the parallels of a place that displays, at level, bootlegged sex videos next to likely bootlegged Christian music and a city that does not seem to blink at the sight of sidewalks lined with prostitutes who are intermingling with local cops in broad daylight and in the shadow of a sinking, outwardly severe and historic Cathedral. For now, I will take joy in knowing that there’s a market for adult human-sized teddy bears.