The special section of the May/June-July/August double issue of Orion begins with “Mango, Mango!,” a report from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest marketplace. We put a few questions to the author, Douglas Haynes, who spent a day with Dayani Baldelomar, an eleven-year veteran of the market. She’s featured in the video below.
The Oriental is located in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital and a city that’s experienced a series of physical devastations over the last century. Can you tell us more about its history?
I think Managua prefigures a number of global trends that will define the increasingly urban human future. The first is rural-to-urban migration. Managua’s population has sextupled over the last fifty years to more than 1.2 million people. Managua is also one of only ten cities in the world that face high risk of more than three kinds of disasters, according to the United Nations. Earthquakes, storms, and floods have vanished entire neighborhoods and hollowed out the city’s historic center. On top of these physical transformations, the city’s people have suffered a series of economic crises: a U.S. embargo in the 1980s, government austerity forced by the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank in the 1990s, and, more recently, skyrocketing food prices.
So as jobs disappeared, the cost of living rose, and migrants flooded into Managua from the impoverished countryside, many families turned to selling whatever they could where the most customers were: in the Mercado Oriental. The crowds in turn drew wholesale retailers from all over the region. The result is not just one of the biggest markets in all of Latin America; it’s a city within a city, a microcosm of what’s both vital and dysfunctional about Managua.
The main character in your piece, Dayani, is someone you’ve gotten to know over a period of six years. How did you meet, and what made her an ideal window into the Central American informal economy?
I met Dayani during my first visit to Nicaragua in May 2008. I was leading a group of study-abroad students hosted by the nonprofit organization Compas de Nicaragua, which supports a community development project called Women in Action. Dayani is a member of the group, and after a meeting she invited us to visit her stand in the market. I’d been to large street markets elsewhere in Latin America before, and I wanted my students to have this experience, which is always a feast for the senses. Dayani gave us a thorough orientation to her business, and her enthusiasm was infectious. She also struck me as a natural storyteller who could help me understand the seemingly forbidding world of the market.
When I returned to Nicaragua to research my current book project about Managua, I started spending days with her in the market, and I began to see how her own story is both ordinary and extraordinary. The market is filled with female entrepreneurs from the mountain villages around where she grew up. Their work ethic puts the average American eight-hour-day to shame, and they represent ways of making a living much more common in the world than the desk and retail jobs predominant in the United States. So on the one hand, some aspects of Dayani’s life embody the experiences of many other people, in Nicaragua and elsewhere; on the other hand, Dayani is exceptional in her ability to communicate what she does and why.
Also, because she lived in the market for many years, she also knows it like the back of her hand and knows people in every part of it. She introduced me to her family and friends all over the market who helped me understand other aspects of its complexity. And she kept me safe in parts of the market that gringos shouldn’t visit unaccompanied—such as the dump and the Callejon de la Muerte. Last but not at all least, Dayani is really good company. I feel fortunate to count her as a friend.
The Oriental appears to function in a state of self-organizing chaos—no one’s really in charge, and yet the system as a whole seems to work. Some of this, as you write, has to do with how “the social networks that arise in the market provide a sense of security.” Can you illustrate what you mean?
In Dayani’s words, “Trust inside the market is very important, especially when you go shopping.” Crime can be a problem for shoppers there, like it can in any crowded place in a big city. So when Dayani goes deep into the market to buy the goods she’s going to sell, she has to have a safe place to leave her purchases; she buys more fruit than she can carry while she’s moving through the tight alleys. She knows that the people she buys bananas from are not going to rob her, so she leaves her purchases with them as she shops, and she has to trust the men who push her carts, too, because, as she says, “Sometimes I’m in a hurry and go ahead on my way.”
This sense of community revealed itself to me once when Dayani sent me across the road to fill a five-gallon bucket of water at a shop that has a tap vendors pay to use. I went in the wrong shop, and the owner sent me around the corner down an unfamiliar alley. I had never been alone in the market before, and fantastical newspaper headlines of a robbed, lost gringo in the Mercado Oriental started running through my head. Suddenly, I recognized a friend of Dayani’s named Dudly. He was leaning on a tower of soda bottle crates and greeted me with a handshake, then asked what I was looking for. I told him I was looking for the water shop, and he grabbed the bucket from me and disappeared. A few minutes later, Dudly reappeared with the bucket full of water. When I tried to pay him the five córdobas Dayani told me the water would cost, he refused to let me pay. In the Mercado Oriental, such gestures are commonplace and not just for lost foreigners. Community is required to get things done.
Despite its informality, the Oriental does appear to have an official figure and governing body in Augusto Rivera and COMMEMA. What exactly is Rivera’s role? And does COMMEMA attempt to formalize aspects of what is an otherwise informal space?
Rivera directs COMMEMA, an autonomous corporation of the municipality of Managua charged with regulating and maintaining the city’s eight markets. He touts such recent achievements as creating a health clinic and free daycare center for workers in the Oriental. Rivera is also facilitating a plan to reorganize the market that would make it easier for emergency and cargo vehicles to enter. Another part of this plan is to ensure that all electrical connections in the market are safe and legal.
There are three main obstacles in executing this plan. One is getting vendors to cooperate, since many fear they will be evicted. The second obstacle is the market’s insufficient infrastructure, primarily a product of it having grown so fast. The other huge obstacle is lack of money. COMMEMA is mostly financed by the fees licensed vendors pay for their stalls. Vendors who have a licensed stall in the market proper pay a monthly fee of four to six dollars a month on average. But this revenue isn’t sufficient to fund all of COMMEMA’s work. And there are thousands of unlicensed vendors like Dayani who have a place on the sidewalk or in the street who do not pay a fee.
Periodically, COMMEMA attempts to make sure the streets and sidewalks are clear enough for pedestrians, cargo traffic, and emergency vehicles, but it’s a losing battle because vendors are all struggling for a space to make a living, and they quickly spread into any available space. The challenge of formalizing the entire market mirrors many development and regulatory issues in Nicaragua: there are institutions and laws in place to do the work, but one poorly-funded municipal body can’t overcome the consequences of the country’s poverty.
One of the characters in your story, Juan, hopes to leave the Oriental for a different sort of life. When we meet him, he says he wants to work at a call center, speaking to American customers. Is this a common story among Nicaraguans? And does leaving the informal economy for a more formal setting result in a better life—or is the story more complicated?
It’s difficult for me to answer these questions unequivocally, because almost all of the people I know best in Nicaragua live and work in situations that one could call informal. One of the reasons I’ve kept returning to Nicaragua is to follow what happens to the children of people like Dayani who migrated to the city from the countryside to reinvent their lives. I’m currently writing a book that tells the story of Dayani’s family and another family that moved to Managua in the 1990s. As the children of these two families come of age, I want to see if the educational opportunities that their parents’ migration afforded them bring them more economically- and ecologically-secure lives. Like Dayani’s brother Juan, much of the younger generation is taking advantage of educational opportunities that were unimaginable for their parents. But it’s not at all clear that well-paying, life-enhancing jobs that make use of this education will be available to them.
And there are legitimate questions to be asked about the trade-offs involved in working a wage-paying job with benefits. Often, such jobs are more financially secure than street vending or other informal activities and this may allow people to invest in a better home. Dayani’s sole experience in the formal economy is a good example. Her job as a seamstress in a free-trade-zone sweatshop earned her enough money to buy squatter’s rights to a small piece of land in a shantytown. There, she and her ex-husband built a sheet metal house, which was a step up from sharing space with relatives. But for Dayani, working in the free-trade zone damaged her family life, because it meant she couldn’t see her children during the week. Working twelve to fifteen hour days required her to leave her children with her mother. Working in the market, though, she could have her children with her. So, just because a job is “formal” doesn’t necessarily mean it promotes a better quality of life.
You end the piece noting that during times of high unemployment in the U.S., untaxed economic activity seems to rise. Do you see the informal economy assuming a more important role in the future of American life? Could we see an American version of the Mercado Oriental in our lifetimes, perhaps?
Yes, the informal economy is already becoming a more significant part of economic life in the U.S., though we may not necessarily identify informality as such. The fact that a record number of people are now employed only temporarily in the U.S. should be a wake-up call that corporations are increasingly squeezing profit margins by making their obligations to their employees less formal. According to journalist Robert Neuwirth, the U.S. now accounts for 10 percent of informal economic activity in the world or approximately $1 trillion in off-the-books income. As long as economic health continues to be largely defined by corporate bottom lines and stock market indexes (rather than living wages and full employment), I think this trend will continue.
Could we see a U.S. Mercado Oriental? Well, some might argue that Craigslist is a sort of virtual Oriental. But I’m not convinced that the social and environmental relationships involved in an informal online market are all that analogous to an on-the-ground public market. If you go to a U.S. urban neighborhood with a lot of migrants from the global South, however, you can easily see the seeds of permanent markets sprouting up around a church after Sunday mass, for example, or in formalized weekly venues such as Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market. And as U.S. cities become both poorer and increasingly disaster-prone, we may well see such seeds grow into more spontaneous, self-organizing markets out of necessity. When both the public and private sectors abandon entire groups of people, these people will make a living any way they can. The drug trade is good evidence of that.
But not all alternative economies are so destructive. When I was researching “Mango, Mango!” I talked to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Alfonso Morales, who studies public markets and street vendors. One thing he told me has really stuck with me: “From time immemorial, markets have served to integrate people.” He believes that the more diverse the goods offered for sale in a market, the more accepting, the more able to connect, people become. I’ve seen this process in action in the Oriental, where migrants have been absorbed into a vibrant community for generations now. What worries me about the prospect of an American version of the Oriental is not that one might arise, but that if it does, it would be ghettoized and treated as an indication of the further disintegration of the social fabric. In other words, that such a market and its vendors would be viewed as problems in and of themselves rather than as symptoms of our society’s larger structural failures.
Douglas Haynes teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. Special thanks to Elizabeth Kay and Wayne Abler for the photos and video.