In a Mexico City barrio a foreigner finds fellowship

An American resident discovers a sense of community and camaraderie in the Tepito quarter's famous flea market.

A man carries puddings on a tray on his head while walking through a busy market in Mexico City.

As far as the black market goes, any authority on bootlegged DVDs and “Mercrombie + Finch” sweaters can tell you that Mexico City’s Tepito barrio is the high church of pirated goods. No brand is left untouched: not Nike, not Lancôme, not the Rolling Stones. Tepito is the culmination of the city’s dominating stereotypes: drugs, corruption, and stolen goods – a chaotic tent city of vendors.

Three years ago, before it got trendy to go to such corners of the city, I ventured a visit to La Lagunilla, the flea market that clings like a slightly more legitimate barnacle to raucous Tepito. I had lived in Mexico City for a year and was still searching for inexpensive furniture.

Set on a curved, warehouse-lined street, La Lagunilla long ago took over the roads along the exterior edge of Tepito. Tarps, tables, and open trunks line the sidewalks and, farther back, dust-coated furniture piles up in dark warehouses. Back there, Lucite end tables and ornate early 20th-century door knockers clutter all possible surfaces. Closer to the front, it’s miscellany: family photos, tortoiseshell hair clips, vintage action figures. At the mouth of the market, music booms from the stand that sells pirated CDs of 1950s music, Spanish covers of Elvis and Sinatra songs. The scent of hot oil, fresh corn tortillas, and pineapple hangs in the air.

My first time, I bent over a tarp of vintage glassware. The hodgepodge of objects, influences, and time periods confused and amazed me. Vague memories of reaching up to hold my mother’s hand while shopping in New England flea markets crept into my mind, but still I was overwhelmed. I knelt until my knees hurt, wondering at the glass – organized ashtrays in front to flour jars in back.

The doyenne of vintage glass at La Lagunilla ignored me pointedly until I asked how much a set of water glasses with slim white stripes cost. Too timid to bargain down, I bought them for the asking price. It felt very foreign, like a souk (an Arab market) or a tuna auction, an accumulation of everything I didn’t know yet about Mexico. She smiled at me, the gullible gringa, before I walked away.

I returned a few Sundays later. My glass supplier sat on a stool at the back of her stand, the weight of her ample body pitched forward, her hands on her knees. I squinted and waved hello. That time, I widened my eyes in surprise at the price she quoted for a shallow milk-glass vase. She played along, shaking her head and cutting the price by a fraction. I haltingly bargained her down $3, and then, as I handed her the money, I asked her where I could buy the spongy stuff that Martha Stewart-types put in shallow pots to hold the flowers in place. She detailed the three markets where I was likely to find it, gave me my change, and said goodbye. I was jubilant – and hooked.

The following trip, I bought a series of tin nesting pots and asked about where she found the sundry items she sold. Her eyes were slightly different then, newly interested in the foreign girl who came bearing questions. She told me about the society dames whose families are not interested in inheriting old goods but prefer modern shapes and the smell of new upholstery; about the middle-class families who sell items to send grandchildren to college. She and her nephew buy furniture and small objects and sell them at two separate stands in La Lagunilla. It is their livelihood, an entrepreneurial venture unrestrained by government taxes and less risky than selling pirated goods.

She spoke of children who left cabinets filled with vases and serving plates to be picked over and purchased by vendors like her. She’d then sell them to people like me with a soft spot for secondhand goods. I introduced myself to her and told her I’d be back soon.

I began to wander through La Lagunilla’s mazelike passageways on all of the lonely Sundays when it seemed as if everyone else was busy.

I munched on tacos and finally explored Tepito, looking for a bootlegged copy of the new Spoon album.

On a subsequent visit, a thrill shot through me when my vintage glass purveyor greeted me by name.

I had been trying to negotiate the delivery of a beautiful Danish modern sideboard in the buying price from her nephew, as stubborn a haggler as any Mexican I’d seen. As she scolded him and told him to send it to my neighborhood – she had remembered where I lived! – I understood that this teeming metropolis, once so foreign, was now my town, my life.

Somewhere between sticky lipstick and Lucite, doorknobs and someone else’s action figures, a community had found me.

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