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Mexico's princess and the paupers

A great-grandmother defends the turf of 5,000 street vendors in the capital's core.

August 13, 2007|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

He said the typical arrangement is that vendor leaders deliver votes and cash in exchange for public spaces for their members to operate without being hassled by authorities. With three dozen organizations and an estimated 12,000 hawkers operating in the historic center -- a 1.25-square-mile area that encompasses the famed central square known as the Zocalo -- competition is fierce.

Hernandez said Barrios, a handsome, charismatic woman, can more than hold her own.

"She knows how to give and how to get," he said.

Still, Barrios blames shifting political winds at City Hall for landing her in jail on the homicide rap. She said a rival vendor leader aligned with the Party of the Democratic Revolution, which now controls the city government, fingered Barrios for the shooting in an effort to move in on Barrios' territory.

"There are people who envy me," she said.

Small wonder. Barrios' members occupy some of the most heavily trafficked spaces in the city center. She said they paid 50 pesos a week -- about $4.65 -- to the organization for the privilege. Some vendors say they pay that much a day. Whatever the figure, Barrios denies speculation that she has become rich on the backs of the poor.

Although her eight children are involved in the business and have assumed many day-to-day responsibilities, Barrios says she still works six days a week and still lives in La Lagunilla, the rough neighborhood she grew up in near the city center.

She is particularly proud of the housing and education benefits that she has provided for members, a social safety net that some have likened to a parallel government. To date, the organization has built 199 apartments, with 38 more planned. Some vendors are paying installments as low as $46 a month to purchase their units, Sanchez said.

Guadalupe Rodriguez Flores, a 61-year-old widow, said the program was the only way she could have financed her small apartment. She said the $185 a month she pays is still a struggle on the little she earns selling headphones.

Things could soon get tougher. If the city government has its way, Rodriguez and thousands of other vendors in the historic center will be relocated by mid-October as part of a beautification effort. The plan is to get them off the streets and sidewalks and onto vacant properties in the district.

Such plans have been tried before, and failed when vendors gravitated back to their old spaces after sales plummeted in their new digs.

Barrios said she was open to dialogue with the mayor but wouldn't make any promises unless her merchants were guaranteed spots as good as the ones that they have now.

"If [the government] tries to give us sites that don't suit us I'm going to reject them," Barrios said. "I'm here fighting so that the people have work."

marla.dickerson@latimes.com

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