Feike de Jong is a journalist and urban researcher in Mexico City. He is the creator of the app, “Limits: On foot along the edge of the megalopolis of the Valley of Mexico."
A profession that dates back to Aztec times, most today are indigenous farmers on the grey divide between migration and seasonal work in the city.
In Aztec times the tamemes—bearers—would wait at the edge of the markets on the edge of Tenochtitlan, looking for customers.
There were no beasts of burden to carry loads in pre-Hispanic Mexico and humans were the best and only option. Several transport revolutions later, this occupation still exists in the iconic markets of Mexico City’s historical center such as Tepito and the Merced. Though the mecapal—a headband used for tying loads to one’s back—has been changed for a metal dolly called a diablo due to the resemblance of the handlebars to the devil’s horns, bearers of cargo still work the city’s streets.
Today, most of these diableros are indigenous farmers on the grey divide between migration and seasonal work in the city. According to Mexico’s Institute for Geography and Statistics (INEGI), 784,000 speakers of indigenous languages live in Mexico City, many from the impoverished countryside of the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. This number is reportedly on the rise in recent years due to the greater difficulty of migration into the United States.
“I came here to work during the vacations,” says Vicente Pescador Cid, 19, a Mazatec Indian from the state of Oaxaca who is studying to become a teacher. “The difference with the village is very big. There, you can walk as you please. Here, there are many thieves and even some people that kill.”
In 2010, about 240,000 people migrated from the rest of Mexico to Mexico City, according to the INEGI. Though statistics capture migration into Mexico City, the first job, the first place to sleep, and the details of arrival elude the numbers. The principal riddle anybody coming to Mexico City or entering its labor market must solve is how to make a living and the Merced—with its almost 5,000 stalls—is a better place than many to begin.
A dolly rents for 15 pesos, and another 15 pesos will get you a place to sleep beside it in a warehouse. There are few additional costs to being a diablero—there’s no central organization, and anybody who wants to can carry loads for clients in the market whenever they like.
“When people arrive from the countryside you see them wake up,“ says David Ramirez Victoriano, an 18-year-old local who already has more than five years of experience as a diablero. “One thing about this place is you meet a lot of people, it opens your mind.”
This doesn’t mean that it’s easy. According to Ramírez, you have to be very aware of the size of the cargo you are carrying, otherwise you may knock over a stall in the market or get tangled in the coverings. There are four different knots he uses to tie down different cargo. If the cargo is badly loaded, it can pull you down or flip the dolly upwards.
Negotiating with customers and creating a fixed customer base is one of the bigger obstacles faced by indigenous migrants to the Merced, since many do not read and some do not even speak Spanish. The price of the trip varies between 20 and 100 pesos and to calculate it you need to know the weight, volume, and distance needed to travel. To do that, you have to know your way through one of Mexico’s biggest and most chaotic markets. Ramírez makes between 300 and 500 pesos a day, a very respectable amount especially considering his age.
León Garcia Garcia, a 52-year-old Mazatec from San Lucas Zoquiapam in Oaxaca, is not so lucky. When he isn’t working the fields in his home village, he comes to work in the Merced, like many of his fellow Mazatecs. But he barely breaks even and spends long hours waiting for customers.
“This is very hard work,” says García, “but it’s what we can get since we haven’t studied and cannot read or write.”