In these satellite images, the street markets glow red.

Scientists will sometimes stain a certain element of organic matter to enhance its visibility under a microscope. These surreal and sharply colored images could be mistaken for such contrast-enhanced biological material.

They are actually Google Earth photos of tianguis, the famous street markets that spring up all across the Distrito Federal. In a collection compiled by Fabian Neuhaus of UrbanTick, and featured on Nicola Twiley's Edible Geography on Monday, the markets -- sheltered beneath red plastic tarps, which gives them their distinctive appearance from the air - look more like living organisms than groups of merchants. They sprawl down certain streets, seemingly chosen at random from an endless grid, turning corners or branching off into side streets. Their logic, from above, is mysterious and undeniable.

On the ground, they are much more chaotic. (See this wonderful description, via Twiley, by food historian Rachel Laudan.) The tianguis, which comes from tianquiztli, an indigenous word for market, are self-regulated and totally unofficial, and hence a constant source of concern for the government, both for health risks and the inevitable traffic jams that ensue when a market consumes a dozen city blocks.

But they are wildly popular. Laudan estimates there are over 1,300 tianguis in Mexico City (metro pop. 21 million) and the city government says there are about 50,000 merchants that participate. They sell everything from groceries to cooked food to household appliances to pirated DVDs - one critic has called them "a pirates paradise." Generally, each tianguis operates according to an informal operational hierarchy, which determines everything from stall selection and placement to parking arrangements.

They are not farmer's markets, Laudan is quick to point out. Many of the groceries come from the city's vast central produce store. But though Wal-Mart is huge in Mexico (the company paid billions of dollars in bribes to become so) and many urban families can get staples at the American superstore, the tianguis retain their popularity among Mexicans of all incomes, for their social atmosphere, contact with vendors, and traditional specialties.

All images from Flickr/UrbanTick.

HT Edible Geography.

About the Author

Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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