Condesa is to Mexico City what the Mission District is to San Francisco: a vibrant neighborhood popping with hot restaurants, boutiques, and bars. It’s at the heart of Mexico City’s hipster dining scene, and is home to restaurants like acclaimed chef Gabriela Cámara’s hit seafood destination, Contramar.
The ongoing gentrification in Condesa and the nearby Roma neighborhood started back in the early 2000s and, as the demographics have changed, street vendors have struggled to maintain their place in the social and economic structure of the community. Just last summer, the government issued an order to shut down at least 200 food stands in the area close to the nearby subway stations. Nonetheless, street-food vending is an essential part of Mexico’s culture, and in Condesa, it’s not uncommon to see stands on the corners of the main avenues.
But walking around Condesa feels different now. On September 19, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City, causing major damage to at least 223 buildings in the Condesa, Hipódromo Condesa, and Roma Norte neighborhoods, according to official city government reports. This is a busy commercial area, and the economic impact of the quake has been assessed by local geography and statistics institute INEGI totaling at least 487.8 million pesos (roughly $26.74 million USD).
Two weeks later, Avenida Amsterdam — one of the neighborhood’s most popular streets, filled with coffee shops, restaurants, and bars — still has several areas blocked to pedestrians and residents with yellow security tape. Here, a window is broken; on the other side of the street, a building has collapsed; and a few feet ahead, the facade of an apartment looks like it could come down any minute. The scene repeats itself in every block. Army personnel walk the streets and are stationed at every other corner; some of them are drinking coffee, chatting, or looking at their cell phones. Others direct traffic and access to the sites where cleaning efforts are still taking place.
Today, two out of three restaurants located close to collapsed buildings are open, although they’re almost empty. The Condesa community is shaken, but it is attempting to return to normality. People of all walks of life come together in this neighborhood, and the street vendors are very much a part of the everyday scene. They, too, are trying to pick up the pieces after the quake.
Doña Delfy has been selling tacos de canasta for over five years, setting up her Tacos Delfy stand right on the corner of Michoacán and Amsterdam. She typically shared the corner with an esquite maker and a pirated-DVD stand, just outside a busy supermarket. She remembers doing an earthquake drill only hours before the earthquake hit. “The people inside the grocery store didn’t want to take part in it,” she recalls. “It took the staff of the grocery store a while to bring all the customers outside. Then, the earthquake came and everybody started screaming. They were desperate to come out.”
Her stand consists of a basket and an umbrella that she moves around with a wheeled cart. That Tuesday afternoon, she was the only street vendor working that corner. As the ground trembled, Delfy saw a cloud of dust fill the area; an apartment building on the corner of Avenida Amsterdam and Calle Laredo collapsed in a matter of seconds, just a block away from her stand.
Delfy was scared, and saw people rushing out of the nearby offices, restaurants, and apartments. “Some had just taken a shower,” she says. “I saw one lady still wearing PJs, running in the street. She was covered in dust, her hair and clothes.” Delfy left her stand behind and hurried by foot to her son’s school. She wanted to make sure he was okay. Then she came back to Condesa, cleared her space, and went to meet her family. “We are all fine but pretty shaken.”
Delfy came back to Avenida Amsterdam with her basket of tacos by the following Tuesday. “I’m still selling, but everybody around here is sad.”
On another corner, a block away from Delfy, on Nuevo León and Michoacán, Doña Imelda from Tacos El Campeón tells a similar story. “It was lunchtime and we were preparing tacos as usual,” she remembers. “We had maybe 10 people at the stand at that moment and when it started shaking, the traffic lights and trees moving, everybody ran and left.”
Imelda and her team stayed with their stand. “We turned off the stove because the streets smelled like gas, so we only had what we had previously prepared,” she says. “Yet some people still came asking for tacos because all the restaurants were closed by then and people were out in the street. We served them, but the tacos were cold. That day we left around 5 p.m., an hour earlier than usual.”
Every morning except Sundays, Imelda and her crew of four travel from Cuajimalpa, a rural town within the greater Mexico City area at least an hour and a half drive away from Condesa. “Everything is okay there,” she says, relieved. “There’s no major damage over there.”
When Friday came, three days after the quake and at the end of one of the darkest weeks Mexico City has experienced, the Tacos El Campeón team was working by 8 a.m. “The boys came to check if the gas smell was still around and we decided to come in on Friday,” Imelda says. “That day we finished early too, around 4 p.m.; there were few people on the streets.”
Imelda and her crew have been selling steak and chorizo tacos for over nine years now; they are a vital part of the Condesa community. Ten days after the quake, come lunchtime, there’s a line of nearly 20 hungry customers waiting their turn to get tacos. For the team at El Campeón, it looks like a regular Friday afternoon. A stack of mashed potatoes is already warm and ready to top each taco, while the steak-filled grill sizzles with flavor.
“Our mood is still shaken,” says Imelda as she chops limes. “People are still afraid; afraid of another earthquake or that more buildings will come down. We still live in fear of this happening again, but people are coming back to work, trying to come back to normality.”
Street vendors in downtown Mexico City, a dense area filled with office spaces, banks, and shops, had a different experience. Minutes after the earthquake struck, the streets were crowded with tellers and office workers side by side with cars and buses. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and chilangos — how locals refer to themselves — were, as cell phone service allowed, finding out through social media the magnitude of the earthquake. Even hours after the event, people didn’t want to come back inside. Many were still trying to get home; others were helping direct traffic.
In this area, only four miles from Condesa, city life, for the most part, continued as usual; there weren’t any building collapses. Roberto Espinal was out selling pambazos and quesadillas near the Juarez metro station downtown, set up, as he is most days, with his grill, two tables, and stools. “That Tuesday we kept working; we were scared, but we needed to keep going,” he says. “All the restaurants closed, but we stayed right here. The next day, we came in like every day and our regular clients were coming in for food but ordering to go.”
With his wife, Gloria Ramirez, Espinal has been selling blue-corn delights for over 18 years, bringing their stews and ingredients from Estado de México. “We need to work,” he says. “This is our livelihood. Sales were down for a couple of days, but now people are coming back to their offices and we need to be here,” he explains with his usual smile, then moves on to serve the next table.
Little by little, Mexico City resumes its frenetic pace, after several weeks of commotion and sadness. Street vendors like Delfy, Imelda, and Roberto are a vital part of that. Street food is an unshakeable part of Mexico City’s identity, and these vendors are a living example of hard work and resilience in a dark hour. Their presence in the streets helps keep the city going in its nonstop way.
And while there is still much destruction, especially in Condesa, there is also hope for the days ahead. “I saw a lot of volunteers those days [after the earthquake],” Imelda says. “Mostly young people. And they came to us for food.” Tacos El Campeón was on its usual corner, ready with warm tacos.
Natalia de la Rosa is a Mexico City-based food and travel writer. Jake Lindeman is a Mexico City-based photographer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan