In my previous post, I described my experience navigating what turned out to be just a small bit of the 20 hectares of La Salada, the self-proclaimed “largest informal market of Latin America,” located just beyond Buenos Aires’ southern edge as being, for the most part, chaotic and uncomfortably multi-sensory. This stands in stark contrast to some of what I witnessed within the city itself.
While the massive La Salada remained relatively illegible to me during my visit, having been disoriented most of the time I was there and then having needed an architect with a special research interest in the market explain its workings to me through different kinds of media in order to get some sense of its scale and complexity, the city markets often offered more intimate moments with both the vendors and the spaces out of which they sold their goods. This was largely in the shape of small, itinerant neighborhood, government-registered markets located sporadically throughout the city.
As a part of its “Haciendo Buenos Aires” or “Making Buenos Aires” campaign, which was initiated in 2008 as a part of a rebranding campaign promoting city government sponsored events and projects, the city of Buenos Aires has branded these markets with easily identifiable yellow banners and slogans like “Disfruta Espacio Publico,” or “Enjoy Public Space,” as part of its more specific focus on “la humanizacion del espacio publico” or “the humanizing of public space.” Some of these markets are new, having been instituted along with the campaign, while some others have been “grandfathered” in and, thus, retain most of their original condition, although still some others have a hint of cohesion that comes through in their tent and tarp colors. With the help of the city-maintained online market directory, as well as my understanding of the city population’s socio-economic distribution, I identified a diverse set of markets to visit. Consequently, I ended up traveling throughout a great deal of the city, along the way getting to meet an array of vendors.
At a feria in La Boca on an early and crisp Tuesday morning, I met Vanesa, a local resident who sold coffee and media lunas to both feria customers and vendors from her 26” beach cruiser bicycle, with a large basket containing her warm merchandise attached to its handlebars. After having watched me walk around the approximately 20-stand feria, having only taken one picture from afar, she approached me and asked what I was doing. The “What I was doing?” was part sincere inquiry, part accusatory, as in “What are you doing here taking pictures? Are you crazy?” Vanessa was concerned for my safety, she further stated, suggesting that someone would take a malicious interest in my small “point and shoot” camera, which I had purposely purchased as a way to remain relatively incognito. Again, as in times passed, I had taken note of the fact that some of the places my research would take me might be of questionable character, but had taken my precautions, notably, not profusely taking pictures, if any. However, in this case, despite having been told that trailing off from the regular tourist path might bring some trouble, I was willing to take the risk, especially after my harmless experience in La Salada. Still, despite my attempts to not attract too much attention, apparently the mere texture of my “soft, olive facial skin,” as Vanessa put it, was enough to give me away as a foreigner thus placing me in a potentially vulnerable position.
As a result, while partly suspicious of Vanessa’s own intentions, I thought I would take her offer in accompanying me as I explored the feria, which was relatively small and limited to two sides of a neighborhood plaza’s perimeter. Given that it was a “social interest” categorized market, for sale were everyday household goods and other wares in addition to the fresh produce and meats that could be found at other markets. Vanessa introduced me to several of the vendors and some of the regular customers, thus giving me a quick overview of the neighborhood’s residents. The introductions quickly became pleasant conversations about the neighborhood, the market, and the trajectory of people’s lives as vendors. One of the vendors, Don Pablo, a jeweler and watch and computer repairman, told me that he had been selling at the feria for well over 15 years, in that time having watched several other vendors come and go, the feria come under threat of dissolution because of extraneous concerns about the legality of its transactions, and the progressively and positively changing recognition of the market’s utility as a neighborhood asset by city government. He also proudly explained the design decisions he made for his uniquely framed stand.
Another experience included meeting an enthusiastic market inspector in Palermo who, dressed in a bright yellow jacket matching the rest of the city’s branding campaign, explained that the markets were regularly randomly inspected for quality, health and safety, and regulation compliance. There, too, were also my encounters with less enthusiastic and less willing to chat vendors who, with their stern faces and a wave of their arm, had me walking away even before I could ask a question. Apparently, as Vanesa eventually made it known to me, my face gave me away and was not worthy of any explanation or offering of time. Thank goodness for the Vanesa’s out there who go out of their way to provide some perspective.