The Santiago province consists of 47 communes (or municipalities), with the Municipality of Santiago, located in the center of the province, having the biggest budget. Within each of these municipalities exist several ferias libres, or street markets, that take place regularly throughout the week and occupy anywhere from a few to several blocks. While ferias libres, like street markets anywhere, have always contributed to the shaping of Santiago’s public space, it is only recently that feriantes, as the street market vendors are called, have successfully and cohesively integrated themselves into the country’s economic strategic dialogue. This has come about out of a series of municipality-implemented tactics to address crime during strained economic times, and defensive unionizing strategies executed by street market vendors.
Over the course of Jaime Ravinet’s and Joaquin Lavin’s mayorship of the Municipality of Santiago in the 1990s and early 2000s, respectively, and during which unemployment rates were hitting record highs, put into action was the application of a kind of broken windows strategy a la former New York City Police Chief William Bratton so as to deal with safety concerns that overwhelmed the city center’s public space. Aside from an increase in federal police patrolling (which remains very visible today and throughout the region and other municipalities), also done was the installation of cameras and other “security” devices throughout the city center. The strategy was at least superficially successful in dealing with targeted areas as crime rates decreased, however, the crime rate increased on the fringes of the secured spaces; as Professor Ernesto Lopez Morales of the Universidad de Chile’s School of Architecture and Urbanism put it, “pickpockets are mobile” and the concentrated, single issue strategy proved to be futile.
Included within these efforts was a push to remove street vendors from the city center’s public space. Given that it was understood that with high unemployment rates it would be hard to justify an attempted all out removal of them and, thus, was simply out of the question, the city sought instead to put in place what seemed to be a progressive relocation program that would – for better or worse – quickly boomerang, as illustrated with the case of the Persa (bazaar) Ovalle.
In response to a high concentration of vendors located near and along the Alameda, a main drag that crosses through the city center and is also known as Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, the Municipality created the Persa Ovalle just south of the Alameda in 1997, as part of its street vendor relocation program. Rows of stands were fitted into an enclosed space and street vendors located along the Alameda were given leases at no cost and without a contract, the only real requirements being a minimum income base and city residency – a condition a municipal economic official begrudgingly shared, noting that this may have been one of the biggest contributions to the program’s eventual failure. The program appeared to be sustainable for about the first year, but, eventually, the former street vendors found that it would be more profitable to sublease their spaces at a price, which they did — they also returned to the Alameda where tens if not hundreds of street vendors, some sedentary, some not, congregate regularly. Some believe the sub-leasing has continued, with the original leaser being several leasers far from the current one. As the city official put it, the city inadvertently facilitated the creation of an underground market out of their relocation project and their attempt to “formalize” practice.
These kinds of relocation attempts – of which there were few given the difficulty to relocate vendors and, as illustrated above, unfavorable results – ended quickly. However, the tension it created between concerned street vendors and both the Santiago municipality (as well as other municipalities who sought to enforce similar strategies) and the police force, or carabineros, proved to be enough of an impetus for street market vendors to organize and seek representation at both the local and national level.
In 1998, as an attempt to protect their ferias libres from relocation or complete dissolution brought about by both the government tactics mentioned above as well as an increase of competing forces, like increasingly visible supermarkets and malls, a group of vendors from the Greater Santiago area came together as La Federacion de Sindicatos de las Ferias Libres de la comuna de La Florida, La Florida being another municipality located within the Santiago province. Their efforts, which included a series of reunions and negotiations made with several federal and municipal governmental entities as well as other vendors which sought for the recognition of previously acquired rights and the declaration of new ones, eventually morphed into the Asociacion Chilena de Organizaciones de Ferias Libres (ASOF). As of today, the ASOF, which works to protect street markets and encourage their proliferation, is considered the national representative of registered street market vendors (who pay union and permit fees); as one feriante put it, “Es el sindicato contra el estado” or “It’s the union against the state.” Their influence is all encompassing and they enthusiastically facilitate a strong network and community within ferias themselves and between them, by putting on competitions that may highlight the “best” ferias and creating branding and marketing material. Some ferias libres have also been transformed into ferias modelos, with the help of the ASOF’s efforts and on-site vendors themselves, which are ferias libres retrofitted and redesigned to have a more unified aesthetic and are, sometimes, resituated in an on-site permanent open-air structure. It was insinuated by several vendors that the ferias modelos had added protection from the state because of their aesthetic and physical condition.
I should note that the ASOF does not represent street vendors (or coleros, as their called by Santiaguinos) like those found along the Alameda; the ASOF simply protects those vendors who are formerly recognized as part of a registered street market. It could be said that coleros are at the bottom of the street vending/public market totem pole, since they always run the risk of being cited by police and having their goods seized and, more simply, do not have any legal rights, their only protections being their mobility and, perhaps, a carabinero’s averting eye. Coleros can be found anywhere and often place themselves seamlessly and directly adjacent to ferias libres or persas – often at the cost of the feriantes woes.
On one occasion, while visiting a feria libre in Huechuraba, a municipality located north of Santiago, I struck up a conversation with a colero, who had, in this case, laid out a bed sheet no bigger that 4 by 6 feet to demarcate his space and on which to place his goods. He was one of the several there, who, as a whole, were double in size than the actual feria libre, and, which together with the coleros, covered approximately five blocks with arms stretching out into side streets. We discussed a variety of things, mostly related to the government, education, and jobs – the tone of the conversation could be summarized with something he firmly and repeatedly stated, “Hay que trabajar … siempre hay que trabajar y pelear” or “One has to work … one always has to work and fight.” The conversation ended pleasantly and I calmly worked my way back into the actual feria libre where I began to converse with feriantes. One noticed that I had been chatting with a colero and urged me not to do it again and, more so, to simply stay away from coleros and where they vended; others around him agreed. As he put it, the coleros, for the most part, were up to no good, selling drugs and using their “stands” as a front for illegal activity.
I had no experiential reason to believe this and, with a few less explicit exceptions, this type of antagonism toward coleros from feriantes had not been and was not again expressed to me. However, as shown in this video, it is clear that the relationship between feriantes and coleros has been routinely contentious and, through a clear and relatively simple circumstance, the clip illustrates how power (and the question of who does and does not have it) is negotiated to produce – and design – space. So, while some, like the feriantes, achieve higher levels of recognition and institutional legitimacy, there continue to be those who remain without these rights (or privileges) and who attempt to integrate themselves by slipping into the spatial cracks of these ephemeral events.