In the media, Mexico City’s most important people often appear to be male politicians and businessmen. But on the city’s crowded streets, it’s women who run things.
There are no public numbers on the leadership of the myriad street vendor organizations, self-produced housing developments, and indigenous groups in the metro of 21.2 million. But Alejandra Barrios, perhaps the most influential street vendor in Mexico City, estimates that of the approximately 100 organizations in the city’s central areas, 80 percent are led by women.
Members of Mexico City’s much-maligned “informal economy”—key to Mexico’s political stability—depend on these organizations to represent them and intermediate with city authorities in order get permissions for selling merchandise on the street or occupying land for housing—services the formal economy can’t fully deliver. Many of these organizations are in the hands of families, and when a father or brother falls aside, mothers and sisters often fill their shoes. According to Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia (INEGI), the informal economy accounted for 23.7 percent of Mexico's GDP in 2014. Markets found in neighborhoods like Tepito and La Merced serve as wholesale suppliers of clothes, compact, electronics and other trinkets to street markets throughout Mexico's central region.
Tepito, a barrio is just to the north of the Zócalo (the city’s vast colonial central square) is an example of the informal economy at work. Seen from above, the streets of the city center are covered with vinyl sheets and lawn umbrellas, a color-coded map indicating the organization to which a street vendor belongs.
Ghettos of the second perimeter neighborhoods inside Mexico City’s historical center have brought forth legendary women leaders such as Guillermina Sanchez Rico, who—as retold by local leaders anecdotally—would walk into a city official’s office without knocking, wearing her vendor’s smock with bulging front pockets while proclaiming, “Here I carry enough cash to buy authorities!”
Threats, violence, corruption, and crime are a daily reality for inner-city street leaders. “It is not money which gets people killed, it is power,” says one woman leader interviewed for this story, who asked not to be named.
Mexican culture's matriarchal undercurrent bubbles to the surface in the capital's vast informal sector. Indigenous culture in many ways lies at the heart of how Mexico organizes itself. Gender parity was reached in the leadership of some of the megacity’s toughest inner-city barrios long ago.
Only natural leaders can maintain the loyalty of their followers. Only the most resolute can tangle with cartels and authorities. The glass ceiling has proven too fragile a construct, so women wield authority on an equal footing with men.
Alejandra Barrios Richard
Barrios is the leader of Association Légitima Cívica Comercial, the largest organization of street vendors in the center of Mexico City, which she founded in 1982. It has 6,000 members and has expanded into housing development.
Julieta Cornejo Campos
Leader of the Asociación de Comerciantes Fijos y Ambulantes del Barrio de Tépito, which was founded by her father. She took over the reins of the organization after her brother was assassinated in 2015. Cornejo controls approximately 1,400 vendor stalls in the Tepito neighborhood.
Lucila Corredor Rodríguez
Corredor’s organization, Unión de Comerciantes Fijos y Semifijos Zona Centro Norte, controls 480 stalls in the streets of Republica de Argentina and Republica de Brasil in central Mexico City. Her predecessor resigned after receiving death threats.
Felipa Beatriz González Hernandez
González is founder of the Organización de Comerciantes Ambulantes Fijas y Semi-Fijas Centro-Poniente, which has 900 members. The daughter of the famous street vendor Maria de Lourdes Hernandez de Flores (also known as “Maria de los Arbolitos”), she sold socks and towels on the streets as a child.
Maria Elena Luna Garcia
Luna founded the Union de Comerciantes Independientes ‘Equidad y Justicia’ del Barrio Bravo de Tepito in 1990 after starting work as a street vendor selling toothpaste in 1978. Her organization has 450 stalls in Tepito. She is also the president of the Confederacion de Organizaciones de Comerciantes de la Zona Economica de Tepito, which represents 21 street vendor organizations.
Eusebia Moreno Polo
Moreno is a member of the Mazahua indigenous group from the area around San Felipe de Progreso to the northeast of Mexico City. She came to the city as a child to escape rural poverty and became a leader at the age of 36 when five previous male leaders had depleted communal funds for housing of the Organización de Inquilinos Mazahuas without results. Polo was chosen because she was the best speaker of Mazahua among the younger generation. She has negotiated apartments for 20 families in the city’s historical center and her organization now represents 100 households.
Mayra Nuñez Tenorio
The leader of Asociación Vecinos Comerciantes del Mercado Alternativo en Tepito y Distrito Federal, which has 270 members. She assumed her current position after her father, the famed Tepito leader Aaron “el Jarocho” Nuñez Ibarra, retired from the organization in 1998.
Hermelinda Rodríguez Salazar
Rodríguez is the leader of Comerciantes en Objetos Varios de Tepito, which she founded in 1980. Her organization controls 340 stalls on the Eje 1 Norte. She started selling popcorn in the streets of Tepito at the age of seven outside of her tenement.