Nine Inch Nails. Metallica. Tool. Rage Against the Machine. The driving beats, shredding guitar solos and iconic howls are attention grabbing to say the least as you meander through the colorful labyrinth that is Mercado de Coyoacán. From its famous tostadas and comida corridas to spiritual cleansings using Santa Muerte magic and all things Frida (it’s located just three blocks from Kahlo’s Casa Azul, arguably the most visited site in Mexico City), the Coyoacán Market is always abuzz with diners and shoppers, as many locals as tourists.
In this case, the music is coming somewhat incongruously from behind an array of fresh-cut flowers: lilies, sunflowers, hydrangea, roses, carnations. The list goes on and spans two traditional puestos (stalls). In perpetual motion, making funeral arrangements and putting together romantic bouquets for impulsive suitors, is Jonathan Renata Belmont, a bearded man of tall stature with a penchant for heavy metal.
He rents the spaces from his aunts who inherited them from his grandmother, another florist who dedicated her life to the craft. For the past 14 years, he and his brother Marcos have run the show.
“It’s a tough job like any job,” Jonathan says. “It has its stressful side, its exhaustive side. It requires a lot of dedication.”
As a market vendor in Mexico City, a day off is a rarity. “There is no designated vacation here,” he says. “Days off, practically we don’t have them. Being in a touristic center that receives Mexican and foreign tourism means that when others have vacation, we work. There’s always movement here, so we have to be working.”
When they started, the two brothers were each at the market about 362 days per year. Nowadays, either Jonathan or Marcos can be found selling flowers and arrangements every day aside from Good Friday, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The rest of the year, each manages to take a total of around 15 days off. Holidays and weekends are mandatory work days, being times when there is the most foot traffic, even if, as Jonathan says, the flocks of tourists are not often looking to purchase flowers.
Prices for produce at the market are inflated in comparison with the weekly, roving tianguis markets and neighborhood grocers. But the displays of fruits and vegetables are nevertheless enticing. As central Mexico’s dry season comes to an end, the variety of local goods will soar dramatically.
Mangoes, avocados, guava, strawberries, blackberries, mamey and figs are among Jonathan’s favorite fruits that come into season between May and August. Into the summer, he says, you’ll see more variety such as juicy peaches and pomegranates, often incorporated into national dishes, such as chiles en nogada.
“The entire year we have a lot of variety here,” Jonathan says. “But in late spring and summer time, the produce tends to be more related to the rainy season. Local mushrooms cultivated in the forests of Morelos and the State of Mexico, huitlacoche, flor de calabaza, those are foods that I love from that season.”
Flor de calabaza and huitlacoche, squash flower and corn fungus respectively, are often grilled into quesadillas, eaten as tacos or used to stuff chicken breasts. La Cocina de Mi Mamá is a more upscale version of the typical Mexican comida corrida (a multi-course meal featuring a few different options per day) and is located a few winding pasillos down from where Jonathan’s flower stand is. Another is just one puesto away – find it by passing the rosaries, chains of garlic, potions for love and vengeance, herbs for spiritual cleansings and even a woman who will unbind clients (for a fee, of course) from hexes.
Despite being surrounded by delicious food year round, Jonathan says he doesn’t get that much of an opportunity to partake in sit-down meals. Yet the period of Lent is particularly good for fish fanatics, as a seafood salesman passes down the aisles each day offering market vendors the first choice of his offerings.
“I like the tacos de canasta (homemade steamed tacos sold out of a basket) on the weekend,” Jonathan says. “In the mornings, there’s a man who sells tamales and another who sells coffee, pan dulce, molletes (bread topped with beans, onions, tomatoes and cheese) and cakes. Sometimes we aren’t that hungry, so we get some fruit or juice or even one of the milkshakes that they sell here.”
His and Marcos’ days start early. Five days per week, they make the trek to Villa Guerrero, a town in the State of Mexico where there are about 15,000 producers of flowers and hundreds of massive greenhouses. The drive is nearly two hours if they leave Coyoacán at 4 a.m. After making their purchases, they head back to the market, arriving in time to open shop at 8:30 a.m. Other days, they head to Texcoco, a closer option also known for its quality but with fewer greenhouses.
“In spring, now we see a lot of daisies, snapdragons, gerbera daisies, garlic and artichoke flowers, there are so many; it’s never ending,” Jonathan says. “In summer, there [are] more options in most cases because the flowers are getting more water and we see the addition of gladiolas and dahlias, for example.”
“It’s great working here because we have a camaraderie amongst each other.”
While the job can be taxing and the hours long, the atmosphere in the market makes it worth it. “It’s great working here because we have a camaraderie amongst each other,” Jonathan says. “As you can see, it’s mutual if someone needs change or if I need to step away for a minute, someone will look after my post and I will do the same for them. There is a coexistence here. Some [vendors] become good friends. When it’s hot out, at the end of the day there’s always someone who wants to stop by and bring you a beer and we drink it in the puesto.”
Though, as in any situation where people are coexisting, there’s a bit of drama as well, Jonathan adds. “There are some disputes among people with competing businesses,” he says. “People have their differences. And then there’s the typical relationship thing where you shouldn’t work with someone that you are dating. Things like that.”
“But then there are things that are a bit more tragic, like when someone who works here passes away,” he adds. “Recently there were two older women who died, one from an illness and one in an accident, and there have been older folks who have passed away working here at the market. It is always difficult for us to lose part of our community.”
Still, the liveliness of the market and the interactions with his clients keep him joyful day in and day out. “We receive all kinds of customers,” he says. “There are people who come, buy and leave, and then there are people who stay to talk with you for a while and in many cases become friends. I have some clients who I have gone to concerts with, and we run into each other around town.”
The most intense day he’s ever experienced at the market, in all senses of the word, was September 19, 2017, when the city felt the effects of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in nearby Puebla state.
“We were here working and even though it was a weekday, there were a lot of people here,” Jonathan says. “One moment we’re all good and then all of a sudden there’s this major event and we have [to] save everything and keep it safe. We barely lost anything. The places down the hall that sell vases, clay pots, etc., they lost a lot of their goods. We were very lucky.”
“It was one of the craziest experiences I have ever had,” he adds. “It changes your perspective totally.”
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of spring, we’re running a series entitled “Meet the Vendors,” where our correspondents introduce us to some of their favorite market vendors and their spring products.