‘What we do is help’: Mexican neighbors boost each other in pandemic

Why We Wrote This

Many chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known, are used to receiving little or late support from the government during a crisis. Instead, they try to support their neighbors. And COVID-19 is no exception.

Courtesy of David Antonio Perez Beltran
Daniel Castillo Pérez stands in front of the flower stall where he's worked the past 15 years in a bustling, trendy Mexico City neighborhood, on April 8, 2020. Some 60% of Mexicans work in the informal economy, unable to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Mexico City is known for its cacophony of sounds, unique to each category of street hawker: from the high-pitched whistles of sweet potato vendors; to the thumping beat of horn-honking, drum-pounding bands playing for tips; and the ding-a-ling of trash collectors’ bells.

Many of these vendors are among the 60% of Mexico’s workforce that labors in the informal economy – making them particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic. While countries around the globe are passing vast stimulus packages and offering businesses tax breaks, Mexico has largely left individuals to take on the burden themselves.

But a long history of absentee governments, along with natural disasters that have demanded immediate action from citizens, has combined to create a sense of resilience and community support among neighbors. From online support for street musicians with no public to play for, to vegetable markets offering delivery for people without credit cards, to neighbors offering to run errands or barter cooking for child care – creativity and adaptability abound amid the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of support among families and communities, and I think that’s part of who we are as Mexicans,” says Héctor Bialostozky, a volunteer with a mutual aid organization.

Daniel Castillo Pérez has worked at a bustling intersection in central Mexico City selling flowers for the past 15 years. The heavy foot traffic in the neighborhood – filled with young families, business people, and tourists – meant a steady income, despite the inherent precariousness of working in the informal economy.  

But when the coronavirus started shuttering office buildings and quieting sidewalks, the florist began to worry.

“I hate to say it because it’s really quite sad, but I never expected to see any help from the government,” Mr. Castillo Pérez says. He’s the sole breadwinner in his family of four, and daily sales, the majority of which go to the stall’s owner, fell from roughly 2,500 pesos ($112) to 750 pesos ($33) by late March.

Before he could panic, his neighbors stepped in.

By the end of March, Mr. Castillo Pérez was contacted by a mutual aid group that arranged to give him a basic box of food. By mid-April, he was featured on an Instagram account called Héroeslocales.mx, or Local Heroes, that provides a way for people social distancing or staying home to purchase goods from informal merchants.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Some 60% of Mexico’s workforce labors in the informal economy. Mexico City is known for its cacophony of sounds, unique to each category of street hawker: from the high-pitched whistles of sweet potato vendors; to the thumping beat of horn-honking, drum-pounding bands playing for tips; and the ding-a-ling of trash collectors’ bells.

While countries around the globe are passing vast stimulus packages and offering businesses tax breaks, Mexico has largely left individuals to take on the economic burden of the pandemic themselves – putting informal workers in an especially precarious situation. Some 12 million Mexicans dropped out of the labor force in April, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency, and roughly 1 million formal-sector jobs disappeared between March and May.

But a long history of absentee governments, along with natural disasters that have demanded immediate action from citizens, has combined to create a sense of resilience and community support among neighbors. From online support for street musicians with no public to play for, to vegetable markets offering delivery for people without credit cards, to neighbors offering to run errands or barter cooking for child care – creativity and adaptability abound amid the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of support among families and communities, and I think that’s part of who we are as Mexicans,” says Héctor Bialostozky, a volunteer with Ayuda Mutua CDMX. The mutual aid organization has been delivering food baskets, face masks, and hand sanitizer across Mexico City for the past four months.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Not alone

Eli Palma runs a handful of neighborhood chat groups via the messaging service WhatsApp, and for years has been an informal moderator and liaison to local officials. Before COVID-19 there were groups dedicated to reporting illegal construction or other suspected crimes in a handful of trendy neighborhoods. Other chats focused on community-led litter cleanup efforts, or forums to ask questions about navigating the local government bureaucracy.

But in recent months the groups have exploded with neighbors asking for help – or offering.

“A community that is participative and that works collectively, it’s not alone,” says Ms. Palma, who was recently chosen as a representative for a community participation commission.

Hire a neighbor to pick up food instead of using services like Uber Eats, she says. If you’re looking for a carpenter or painter or messenger, she’s got a growing list of people now willing to assist or barter – even if they dedicated themselves to other fields before.

Ms. Palma’s also started promoting local businesses on Twitter, instead of the comparatively narrow channels of community chat groups. She says the priority is to put a spotlight on established businesses because they already have employees, rent, and services to keep up with.

“We have people making cakes or food in their home, selling cleaning supplies, jewelry. We are all motivated; we don’t want to go hungry or let our neighbors fall – we want to help each other,” she says. “It’s a collective fabric of support.”

Geronimo, who lost his job washing dishes and tidying up at a small food stand in the Roma Sur neighborhood in March, has started picking up odd jobs, many of which come to him via strangers on WhatsApp. He thinks his number has been shared by word-of-mouth, initially handed out by his former employer. Almost every day someone writes to ask if he’s free for small errands: picking up a spare tire, dropping off dirty laundry, delivering takeout food.

“It’d probably be better if I didn’t leave home at all, but I’m grateful for the income. And it’s all distances I can manage without public transport,” he says. “I have to work.”

“Local heroes”

For many, this is just the latest event requiring chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known, to band together. From natural disasters to previous pandemics, this isn’t their first emergency. After the September 2017 earthquake, many mutual aid organizations and community support efforts emerged, delivering food and clothing, and even searching rubble for life in the absence of an immediate government response. Even then, residents pointed to another deadly quake in 1985 as the source of their knowledge and willingness to step up.

“If there’s an earthquake, you don’t wait for the government to take the initiative. If you see a problem, what we do [as Mexicans] is help,” says Carla Fernández, a fashion designer. In the first several months of the pandemic, she pivoted her business to produce face masks that honor Mexican culture and keep scores of employees on the payroll.

Informal workers, like Mr. Castillo Pérez, are particularly at risk during the pandemic: They’re outside the home, sometimes in crowded markets, and interacting closely with people to put food on the table.

Early on in the pandemic, he met Lianne Dorscheidt, a Dutch national who moved to Mexico last December after falling in love with the country on a vacation the year before.

Under the umbrella of Ayuda Mutua CDMX, she launched HéroesLocales.mx, an Instagram page that connects street vendors with clients. Roughly once a week she and a friend will find a new vendor to interview and photograph, providing a little bit of his or her story and contact information so people can put in orders over the phone. Vendors profiled sell everything from lottery tickets to woven baskets, fresh fruit to plants.

The group also set up Mother’s and Father’s Day campaigns where people could order flowers or gift baskets made up of products from different street vendors. Some, like Mr. Castillo Pérez, have been put in touch with online stores that are helping take their informal businesses digital, at least temporarily.

“This is the time to give something back to Mexico,” says Ms. Dorscheidt. “A big part of why we love this city and this country is because of the people. They are super welcoming, willing to show you things and to be helpful,” she says. “Now is when we have to stand up and share our skills and resources, and also help spread the love for Mexico.”

As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mr. Bialostozky’s last name.

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