Before the pandemic, the night shift that Juan and Hugo work at a 24-hour taco stand in Mexico City’s Del Valle neighborhood did a booming trade. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., they served office workers on their way home, locals having dinner and the late-night party crowd soaking up the alcohol.
Nowadays a trickle of evening diners stop by for a taco, but the crowds of last year are mostly gone. It’s a common scene across the city, where those who can are mostly working from home (and no longer reliant on street food for a cheap meal) and the number of tourists, who were increasingly coming to sample the city’s food, has fallen significantly. Many street vendors are still operating but struggling to make ends meet.
“Sales are down about 40 percent,” says Juan through his black facemask as he covers dishes with sleeves of plastic, readying them for the next taco. He explains that before the pandemic the owner was paying them a set salary, plus tips; now he gives them a percentage of the sales. They have seen their income drop by about half.
Juan’s wife is also a street vendor, selling coffee and sweet breads. As we’re chatting she arrives with their youngest child, a bright-eyed seven-year-old, in tow. But her income has also dropped precipitously.
Despite money worries, both Juan and Hugo say their biggest fear is the public transportation that they regularly take from their homes in the Estado de Mexico, both approximately two hours outside of the city center. In fact, when asked, it’s the one thing that Juan thinks the government could do better – allow fewer people on the buses and the metro, and require them to wear masks. But limiting the flow of the metro would have a negative impact on people all over the city who depend on it and its accessible price to get to work each day.
Moreover, as Juan’s income has gone down, his expenses are going up – he tells us that the bus drivers in his area, a union of private businessmen, have raised their prices from 10 pesos to 12 pesos.
“But we can’t just stay inside,” says Hugo. “If we don’t work how will we eat?”
When we stopped by a few months earlier, in mid-July, we arrived to bright orange dots spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of the stand – their social distancing measure – but by October they have faded away and not been repainted.
“People just stand wherever they want,” says Juan, “We started out offering tacos to go, but people would order and then just stand here and eat. They didn’t to take them to go, it’s not the same.” It’s true. People often say in Mexico City that street food is best eaten with a layer of grime – the city’s smog and grit add an extra flavor – and under the open sky.
“We started out offering tacos to go, but people would order and then just stand here and eat. They didn’t to take them to go, it’s not the same.”
Are they worried, working all day with the public and then going home to their families? Hugo nods his head empathetically yes as he chops pork on the grill at lightning speed.
“People are afraid,” says Juan, “A lot of people didn’t believe it was real. Then people started dying. We’re going to have to learn to live with this disease,” trailing off with a “lo que Dios diga” – “Whatever God decides,” a phrase you hear often in this majority-Catholic country.
A few kilometers to the east, another Hugo and his cousin Giovanni work Hugo’s father’s taco stand in the Narvarte neighborhood. The stand has been around for over 30 years and is an institution in the neighborhood. The guys are often asked to receive packages, hand off keys, or call a taxi for drunken partiers in the middle of the night.
When we visited them in June, Mexico City had just started to emerge again after the spring lockdown. People were tentatively eating at the handful of stands that line the sidewalk where Hugo and Giovanni work.
“People are more nervous about eating, if they look and see things are hygienic they feel better,” said Giovanni at the time, “but people are nervous.”
“The first thing they ask you is if you have antibacterial gel,” Hugo added.
At the start of the summer the stand was surviving with a good deal of take-out orders through UberEats and call-in orders, with one of them cooking and the other running deliveries. It was tough, but they had enough business to keep their small crew employed. When we visit them again in October, as Covid-19 cases are spiking again in Mexico City and the mayor is threatening another lockdown if the caseload doesn’t reverse, their outlook is gloomier.
“Last week was ok,” says Hugo, “But this week has been terrible.” His face is worn with the stress.
It’s a sentiment shared by Argelia, the owner of a tlacoyo stand just outside the Medellin Market. When we stop by on October 31, the beginning of the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico, she’s finishing up for the day and only has a few options left for hungry diners.
“Today there was a little more movement because of the holiday,” she says, “People were coming back, but now it’s getting worse again you know?”
Argelia has been traveling on public transportation between the city of Toluca and her stand each day for the past 40 years. “Right now with the buses not running their entire routes, it takes me about three hours,” she tells us. “Sometimes I’m just exhausted.”
Her stand does a bustling trade most days, with mid-morning being her sweet spot, when office workers and neighbors stop by for a snack. But the pandemic has meant a drastic drop in customers.
“There have been times when things dropped about 50 percent,” she says, “I was holding on, making enough to get by, but food would spoil because I couldn’t sell it fast enough. We’re still standing, thank God.” Despite the difficulty she never closed her stand during the pandemic.
The survival of street food is something one takes for granted in a place like Mexico, where everywhere you look people are eating out in the open. Juan, from the taco stand in Del Valle, says that street food is surviving because it’s a cheap way to feed yourself and your family. Although some of his regular clients who used to get three or four tacos are now only getting one or two. Everyone is cutting back, and even people whose budgets are less pinched are generally choosing to stay inside.
We asked Jorge, a friend of ours who is a local cook and avid street eater, how the pandemic has changed his eating habits. He says that he’s only been out to eat street food once since the pandemic started.
“Wait, no, like four times maybe,” he corrects himself laughing.
“It’s not about the street food really,” says his partner, Beto. “It’s just being out in general. We just aren’t going out.”
And yet every person we spoke to agrees that street eating is in the chilango blood, and while street food stands are suffering through this pandemic, all our favorite haunts are still alive and cooking.
“Everyone eats street food,” says Jorge, “from the poorest person to Carlos Slim.” Let’s hope it stays that way.
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