Monday, December 4, 2023

These are good times for Mexico’s venerable pawnbrokers

Every cloud has a silver living: that’s a modestly comforting expression to add a little good cheer to every difficult situation in practically every culture on Earth.

In Mexico the expression is “Es un mal viento que no sopla bien” (It’s an ill wind that blows no good). The pandemic, a struggling economy and the northbound crossing of the country by scores of impoverished refugees have added up to ample good cheer for a venerable profession in almost every town in Mexico.


Casas de empeño.

And you.

Every town in Mexico of a certain size has seen an explosion of pawnbrokers, usually clustered together, often in a single block. Have a look, next time you are at home or in an unfamiliar town. I’ve seen clusters from Matamoros on Mexico’s northern border to Comitán to the south. But don’t look for the three balls you may be familiar with elsewhere. Their origin is debatable, but not Mexican.

Medici? Norse gods? Las Vegas?

Although they’ve been given new breath by a popular TV show in the U.S., most of us, excepting inveterate and unlucky casino-goers, have probably never been in a pawnshop, but maybe now’s the time — on the buy side, not necessarily the pawn side.

Forget the pawn side, remember that Shakespeare’s Shylock is synonymous ( erroneously) with pawnbroker, but on the other side: I am writing this on a nifty 19″ monitor acquired just across the border in Comitán, at a pawnshop, at a fraction of comparable retail.

As times have advanced since Shakespeare’s day, pawnable items have keep pace. It’s no wonder that the swords, jewelry and mantles of the 16th century have given way to watches, cell phones, TVs, household appliances, computers and, in my case, a 19″ Taiwanese monitor.

So the next time you’ve out and about, remember the verb, empeñar. Get to know your local prestamista: maybe he’ll turn up some old musical instruments or furniture or some sports gear.

Carlisle Johnson writes from his home in Guatemala.

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