Informal Commerce In Mexico – How My Mexican Family Managed The COVID Restrictions

Girl with face maskHave you ever heard the term “informal commerce”? It means “commerce which is not regulated, or taxed, by the government.”

Most of my family in Mexico makes a living through informal commerce. This article talks about informal commerce in Mexico, how my family participates in the informal economy and how they have managed to continue working during the COVID restrictions.

This article is critical about the restrictions which have been put in place by world governments in the name of our safety, so if you’re sensitive about having the establishment narrative regarding COVID challenged then you’re welcome to put your blindfold back on and go back to sleep.

You have been warned.

Informal Commerce and Mexico Today

Informal commerce represents a gigantic part of Mexico’s economy. It’s the type of commerce that takes place on the street, with no governmental oversight nor taxing. It’s the taco stands which populate the entrances to the subway, the vendors selling rosaries while weaving through a line of cars stuck in traffic, the ladies spreading blankets on the sidewalk on which to display their handwoven scarves and the children skittering through parks and alleyways holding packets of gum going for a peso a pop.

Last year, the percentage of working people in Mexico who derived an income from the informal economy went from 54.2% to 56.9%. With that increase, the informal Mexican economy now employs 30.8 million people.

That’s an incomprehensible number of people hustling on the street. Informal commerce is essential to the running of Mexico. Formal jobs are few and far between for a country of 130 million inhabitants in which the median age is 30 and only 1 in 4 of 25-34 year olds receives a higher schooling. I don’t write “higher education” because schooling and education are not equivalent.

Opportunity is difficult to come by. So, naturally, people make their own.

Food stall in Oaxaca

Informal vendors are a hallmark of the Mexican landscape. Anywhere you go you find them. Except, I imagine, in buildings which demand top-level security. Even your own home is not out of the reach of vendors, as they can waltz up to your doorbell at any time of the day and ring it, offering whatever wares they may be carrying.

Growing up in Mexico, I not only witnessed the informal economy. But I grew up in it.

My Mexican Family’s Role In Informal Commerce

On my mother’s side, I have 3 aunts and 1 uncle. All of them are participants in the informal economy. Of their 10 children, only 2 of them hold formal jobs with steady salaries. The rest live on the ebb and flow of commercially informal success or failure. Financial life, for most of my family, is found on the edge of discomfort; marked by a constant need for reinvention and rethinking.

Neither of my grandparents graduated from elementary school. They could read, write and do the basic math required to run a one to two-person informal commercial operation, but that’s about it. Both of my grandparents were active in the informal economy from the outset of their lives.

It’s only to be expected that their children, my mother included, also grew up to be a part of the informal Mexican economy.

My mother is a special case, throughout her working life she worked two jobs. On weekdays, she worked in the swanky corporate world of Mexico City, on the weekends, she labored in the tumultuous world of Mexican street commerce. She has always told me that selling on the street is a part of who she is. That she did it not to make a living, but because she found true enjoyment in the act of selling things to people in a tianguis (pronounced teean-geese).

A tianguis is the most formal of the informal commerce in Mexico, it’s a mobile market which regularly sets up at a certain date, time and location. Vendors in a tianguis may or may not pay taxes, depending on where they’re selling (most likely they don’t).

The Community Of Informal Commerce

I spent many a Saturday of my childhood at the tianguis where my mother and aunt worked in San Angel, a refined colonial-era neighborhood in Mexico City. Indeed, about half of my family worked in the same tianguis while I was a child, with the number of relatives occupying the stalls steadily increasing over the years.

When I go to San Angel now, it almost feels like I’m related to more than half of the vendors. Not because I’m actually related to them, but because they know me. The vendors at San Angel watched me grow up. Going to San Angel for me is like arriving home to be welcomed by an extended family too large to count. Even the itinerant soft drink vendor, Hector, knows my name and chats with me when he has the time.

This story is meant to show a crucial aspect of why informal commerce is such a persistent phenomenon in Mexico, one that the government has tried time and time again to cap and regulate, always ending with failure. Technically, informal commerce is illegal in Mexico. But when more than half of the working age population engages in it, what are you to do as a government? Lock them all up? Good luck.

Informal Commerce Is Necessary

Informal commerce is not only a utilitarian solution to the problem of making a living. It is also about the community which comes with the commerce. It’s about the camaraderie which is born from the shared challenges of not having had a formal education as a child and having to figure out how to make a living with the tools available at hand. It’s the communal plight of the working woman and man, the struggle for survival in a world filled with competition (which is the scarcity mindset). The haphazard improvisation that one must undertake in order to pay the bills. The getting on with things however one can, winging it until something works.

For as long as I can remember, my Mexican family has been locked into the informal economy. My aunts and uncle and their children have been engaged in a ceaseless quest for financial security, searching for the one product or service they can provide well enough and often enough that they can derive a livable income from it. Sometimes they succeed. Other times they don’t. Their lives are tenuous dances poised at the fringes of financial stability.

But what my family has lost in the peace of mind resulting from financial security they have gained in sheer resilience and adaptability.

Adapt And Overcome

Selling on the streets of Mexico ain’t no picnic. You have to be constantly on the lookout; for customers, competitors, new products, better places to sell with more foot traffic; for crooked cops and corrupt government officials looking for bribes and sneaky colleagues looking to take advantage of you (again, our perception makes our reality. If you believe that people want to take advantage of you, that is what you’ll perceive. I’m sharing my family’s experience here).

As an informal street vendor you own your own business. It’s a reality which, I believe, escapes most street vendors. They aren’t aware that they’re actually business owners. Except that as a street vendor you have no brick-and-mortal to call home. Your wares come with you wherever you go and you have to carefully pack, transport and store them before, during and after every workday. It’s tedious, tiring work.

Chiles in baskets

But It Comes With A Tremendous Advantage

One which became clear during 2020, when government restrictions in Mexico and the rest of the world prevented millions of people from working at their formal jobs. In fact, from what I have seen, the more formal the job, the more likely it was that the person would be unable to work. Unless he/she was considered “essential” or could work from home.

As street vendors my aunts and uncle have been engaged in a never-ending journey of self-reinvention. The demands of owning their own businesses has made such an existence necessary. But here’s the thing. My family members don’t know they’re business owners! They consider themselves “street vendors”, not “business owners”, they are completely unaware that throughout all of their working lives they have been making the decisions which steer the ship of their business. They are all the CEOs of their small, sometimes miniature, businesses and they don’t even know it!

So when the government restrictions due to COVID hit, what do you believe happened?

They adapted to them and managed them, without missing a beat. Because that’s what they’ve been doing their whole lives.

How My Family Overcame The COVID Restrictions

It’s becoming more and more clear that the COVID restrictions were a gigantic mistake. And I’m being generous in using the word “mistake”, I could have written “weapon for control.” Some people have yet to catch on to this, but in the future, once emotions are calmer, I believe we will look back and collectively ask ourselves “How did we allow such a disaster to happen?”

I believe I have an answer: ignorance. Ignorance of how the immune system works, of what keeps us healthy and how to live in harmony with the germs and viruses of our planet. Ignorance of what it means to be a healthy human being on planet Earth, really.

Washing hands

Anyways, the Mexican government also implemented restrictions. Shops were closed, except for the conglomerates, of course. People were instructed to hide their faces behind masks and become germophobes who disinfected their hands compulsively. And all of these restrictions were trumpeted by the media to the ubiquitous tune of fear.

The economy was shut down. Millions lost their jobs. Even the tianguis was prevented from doing business.

What Did My Family Do?

They tapped their experience as informal merchants, they relied on their adaptability and resilience, and figured out how they could make things work.

My uncle (and his two sons), who make and sell wooden bed tray tables, actually started doing more business during the lockdown, because lots of people were having meals in bed, apparently. On top of that, since they were prohibited from setting up at the spots where they regularly sold their wares, they simply came up with other places where they could post up.

My aunt who worked alongside my mother in the tianguis switched her inventory. Instead of selling the jewelry, handbags and luchador masks she usually carried, she began selling disinfectant gel, sanitization products and face masks.

One of my other aunts continued selling on her regular spot on the street, because she had no one who could tell her what to do nor how to do it. Also, she got COVID, and she made it through without too much trouble. This is a woman who has had a tougher life than most. It’s exactly because of that tough life that she had the strength to both continue working AND recover from the virus.

It Wasn’t Too Bad

In the end, my entire immediate family and most of my immediate extended family made it through the worst of the restrictions in Mexico while experiencing little actual harm. One of my other aunts got sick and was close to death, but thanks to the care and attention of her son she was able to weather the illness. Most of the suffering experienced by the rest of my family was thanks to the media’s fear campaign designed to get people to obey insane restrictions which do nothing to strengthen our health.

On the contrary, compulsively disinfecting your hands, staying indoors and staying apart from those you love are excellent ways to weaken our immune system. And it’s been shown that the people who are relaxed about COVID are the ones who fare the best if and when they get the virus. The ones who fare the worst are the stressers and worriers, which is exactly the mental and emotional state encouraged by the establishment media. People who have been taking the news seriously are so stressed and worried about COVID. Was that really the best course of action the news media could have taken?

In any event, this article is meant to exemplify how no matter what happens we always have options if we choose to think creatively, rather than become despondent victims of our circumstances.

How Adaptable Are You?

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you don’t agree with me on the restrictions that’s fine. You are free to do so. Just as I’m free to give my opinion on the matter.

What I believe everyone can agree on is that life will always present challenges to everyone. How we respond to those challenges fully determines our quality of life. My family is a great example of adaptability in the face of adversity. They relied on their knowledge and skills to create new sources of income for themselves while many remained jobless, waiting for a job which was going to take a while to return, if it did at all.

We forget we are all wild animals, living in a wild world. Despite our best attempts at covering it up, we are still primal beings with all the tools we need to adapt and overcome challenges which threaten our survival.

What matters is whether we choose to use them or not.

So what about you? Do you adapt to challenges as they come? Or do you sometimes remain stuck on old solutions which used to work but no longer fit the situation?

To our wealth and success.

Share the wealth!

2 thoughts on “Informal Commerce In Mexico – How My Mexican Family Managed The COVID Restrictions”

  1. It is wonderful to see how Mexico was able to manage this pandemic. I think most of the countries all over the world do informal commerce and that is more dangerous than having your business online but at the same people need to survive and not all have access to technology. 

    • Hello and thanks for your comment. People solve their problems with whatever tools they have available. Informal commerce is just one of those tools.

      All the best,



Leave a Comment