Mexico Life
Micheladas Lupillo is one of the many hot-spots at Tianguis el Tepito. Micheladas Lupillo is one of the many hot-spots at Tianguis el Tepito.

The market in Tepito, one of Mexico City’s most feared neighborhoods

It will keep your hands in your pockets and your feet on your toes as you peruse the merchandise amid a hail of narcotics marketing

The name Tepito, the “barrio bravo,” strikes fear in nearly every Mexico City resident’s heart. But it’s home to one of the city’s most visited and bargain-filled street markets.

El Tianguis de Tepito is a trip. It’s a strange market “netherverse” that will keep your hands in your pockets and your feet on your toes. Don’t be surprised to find yourself perusing the merchandise amid a hail of narcotics marketing.

Although apparently safer on its daytime streets in recent years, in 2019’s Tepito, crime is still quite high. Depending on how the statistics are broken down, it appears that the neighborhood is one of the most dangerous, or just mildly more dangerous than much of the rest of the city.

At one of the many entrances into the market — where Matamoros crosses Jesús Carranza — the  blaring CDs, DVDs, video games and loaded USB sticks vie for attention. They decibel-wrestle for supremacy to determine which will bring the most customers to their vendor masters.

Some vendors have interior shops, like spacious garage units, but most sell on the streets. So much of the neighborhood is closed to car traffic every day but Tuesday, the tianguista’s day of rest.

“What do you want? Weed? Meth? Coke?”

“Weeeeed . . . Coooooke . . . Meeeeeeth . . .”

“Weed/Coke! Weed/Coke! Weed/Coke!”

Drug dealing is pervasive and blatant, despite the strong showing of police throughout the market. Lookouts intermingle with the crowds, I’m told, motioning to dealers should a cop come too near.

There’s a sticky party happening in the tent at Micheladas Destrucción. Paper cups filled with a liter of beer and enhanced with mixtures of syrups, powders and gummies, depending on the drinker’s persuasion — salty, spicy, sour, sweet, the Mexican taste rainbow.

Two kids erupt onto Matamoros on a motor scooter going far too fast. They whip around a sunglass stand in the middle of the street, regain balance and very nearly lay a lady flat.

The ladies' wear at Tianguis el Tepito.
The ladies’ wear at Tianguis el Tepito.

She was simply enjoying an ice cream. Damn kids made her look like an idiot.

Across Tenochtitlán begins the forest of footwear — Nike, Adidas, Vans, Puma, Crocs, Timberland including dress shoes, work boots, heels, slippers, snow boots. Snow boots? They certainly look legitimate.

I handle a few pairs, wondering if it’s possible to tell which are the poorly-made knockoffs and which are bootlegged from actual factories of the real-deal brands.  But it’s difficult to concentrate with all the marijuana and cocaine sellers. There are dozens of them. They’re around every turn.

“Marijuanaaaaaa! Cocaaaaaaine!”

A couple on a scooter with a full load of purchases weaves through the crowd, speeding straight ahead — just a few meters at a time — then skids quickly to a stop, nipping at the heels of the crowd.

Aside from the drug dealers, there are a handful of glue sniffers looking dazed-out and barely conscious but sufficiently high so as not to appear to be a threat. Paranoia strikes every now and again as I feel I’m being followed too closely. Yet, I witness only fair transactions — money  for goods. Not a robbery in sight.

The clientele are principally families wandering with kids begging for logos, toys and candy. Old ladies sit on curbs chatting. Couples suggest new outfits for each other or themselves — maybe it’s time to try something new. Hands wave in practiced pageantry to entice us to the rug-laid wares of coin collectors or porn merchants.

A leathered and long-haired shadowy man on a Harley makes a ridiculously tedious eight-point turn in the narrow aisle.

”Why would you ride a Harley into a tight-laned tarp market?” I wonder. Well, probably because it’s much safer in here than it would be out on the open street. And if this dude could get away with riding his Harley through Sears, I’m certain he would.

The clothing prices at Tepito are often not much different than what you’d pay at any other market, but the selection is insane — obscure jerseys, hard-to-come-by counterfeit high-fashion labels, collectible streetwear. If not the prices, then it may just be the coordinated lawlessness of Tepito that maintains its popularity.

As I pay for football jersey gifts for my nephews, the vendor asks if I want Nike and Adidas price tags attached. The tags look authentic, with the recommended price printed on them in U.S. dollars. I don’t want the kids to think I spent $120 on a couple of simple jerseys. But, then, they would probably cost only a little less from some guy elsewhere who doesn’t print his own labels, so I go for Tepito “authenticity.”

A train of three scooters zips past in quick succession, like knights into battle. If the first shall fall, two shall remain to fight on.

Tepito's surrounding streets can look a bit bombed out.
Tepito’s surrounding streets can look a bit bombed out.

“Coke. Coke. Coke.” This dealer is tapping people on the shoulders as they pass, speaking directly in their ears from a finger’s length and patting their backs — as if he thinks they may not have noticed the general availability of cocaine on the streets of Tepito.

He tugs a man’s sweater as he passes, holding on, following him into the aisle. A handcart making haste through the crowd runs over the dealer’s toes.

Surrounding dealers look over to see what he might do. Their questioning glances ask: “Have you been disrespected?” “Is retribution in order?” But the dealer just laughs it off and the cart disappears into the throng.

Passing through the crowd, people occasionally project bad vibes, but nothing is outwardly threatening. I take photos surreptitiously and a cop mumble-growls under his breath as I pass, “Not here, güero [whitey].”

There are sniffs of weirdness and mistrust everywhere.

I ask a man with stacks of Chinese cigarette cartons if I can take a photo. It’s like a smokers’- pride float. They’re beautifully stacked, alternated side-to-side, at least three meters high and look like a well-crafted sculpture.

He doesn’t just laugh and say “no,” like “Ha-ha, of course not.” He says, “No,” firmly and brutally.

At one of the wrist-watch stands I ask the attendants if there are a lot of scooter accidents within the market confines.

“Sí, sí, sí!” they respond in concert, with concerned looks.

“Do they run into people or tables or other scooters?” I ask.

“Everything,” one of the ladies tells me. “They crash a lot. They don’t know how to drive, and they just jump right on. Be careful out there!”

Still more scooters fly by in suicidal joy.

The sound of rain begins to hit the tarps like the fidgety drum of fingers on a table. It’s a pleasant feeling under the tarps — kept dry in the middle of a downpour.

You can stay dry under the many tarps of Tepito. But the sound of pattering rain is intermingled with calls of “COKE! WEED! COKE! WEED!” As you leave, new possessions in hand, the drug drumbeat grows ever fainter behind you.

• Tianguis de Tepito runs along Rivero (and surrounding streets) from Peralvillo to Eje 2 in Morelos, Mexico City, from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily, but closed on Tuesdays.

This is the 20th in a series on the bazaars, flea markets and markets of Mexico City:

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