It was the golden hour in Juchitán de Zaragoza — a city of 100,000 people in the Istmo de Tehuantepec region of southern Oaxaca — and the ruins glowed like amber. The narrow streets of the Septima Sección, a traditionally indigenous neighborhood of bakers and fishmongers in the city’s south, had, for weeks now, been turned inside out, its streets hung with a canopy of tarps, crowded with cots and broken Acapulco chairs and the occasional television sets, attached by long orange extension cords to electricity sources hidden behind empty, cracked façades.
For those who still had their jobs, like Dalia Vasquez Sanchez, who sells smoked mullet in the municipal market, the day had just ended. For most, there had been no work since the night of Thursday, September 7, when an 8.2-magnitude quake — the strongest to hit Mexico in a century — struck off the coast in the neighboring state of Chiapas, damaging schools, hospitals, markets, churches, infrastructure and, according to the federal government, 110,000 homes in Chiapas and Oaxaca. That night, the municipal market collapsed entirely, eliminating the primary source of income for most families in the Septima.
“There used to be so many of us there selling fish,” Vasquez said that evening as she returned to the half-collapsed house where she’d grown up and where her mother still lives. “But now, well… you’ve seen the market, right?”
I had seen the market. Before the night of the Oaxaca earthquake — not to be confused with the earthquake that shook Mexico City just two weeks later — the Mercado Municipal had been Juchitan’s raucous, pounding heart. Set on the city’s central plaza, it occupied half of the same 150-year-old structure that housed the city’s government offices and was at least as central to Juchitan’s daily workings as its neighbor. In the afternoons, government workers came through for hearty lunches of roast chicken and fried fish and housewives came to do their daily shopping.
In the evenings, as the food stalls closed up, families and courting couples would mill about its whitewashed archways where stalls set up at dusk to sell bupu, a drink of warm white atole topped with a thick cool foam of bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon frothed tall with flor de mayo, a traditional drink for the Zapoteca indigenous people here in Juchitan.
Nearly 2,000 vendors gathered in, under, and around the market each day to sell stewed iguana, dry-shrimp tamales, croquettes of cheese, chile, and potato (called garnachas), and plastic bags of tortoise eggs, gathered illicitly from the nearby Pacific coast. Stalls spilled into the surrounding streets piled high with smoked fish, encircled by barrels of salted prawns, and stacked with bags of totopos, the crisp tortillas baked on the hot interior walls of a clay oven called a comezcal and eaten at every meal in the Istmo.
Upstairs, in the market’s newer addition, vendors sold costume jewelry and elaborately embroidered dresses for the velas, the traditional parties that take place here throughout the year and reach their peak in spring, when the city drinks, dances, and feasts for nearly a month on end. It was those parties that had drawn me to Juchitan the first time around, in May. Now, the shell of the new market slouches behind the blank space where the old market once stood, like an abandoned rust belt warehouse behind an empty parking lot.
In Juchitan, the municipality that suffered the worst damages in the quake, every major religious structure was damaged. One of the two cupolas on the basilica, where the city’s Patron Saint resides, tumbled off its tower to land upside down on a parked car in the courtyard. The 17th-century presbytery exploded off the back of the structure.
According to the office of the municipal president, nearly 15,000 of the city’s 20,000 homes were damaged. The death toll in Juchitan came to 37 people, though, as many people told me in the course of my time there, had the earthquake hit during the day, it would have been many times higher. Think about the schools that fell, people said, and imagine how many would have died in the mercado.
Dalia’s daughter, Maricela, has been selling with her mother and grandmother, Alberta, for the last 12 years, starting when she was 10 years old (Alberta, now 64, started selling fish in the market at 18). Within three days of the market’s collapse, she and her mother and about 500 other vendors had found a new place to work, setting up makeshift stalls in the central plaza, just meters from where the market once stood. A canopy of tarps came up beneath the canopy of trees; puestos narrowed the pedestrian paths like plaque in an artery. Most of the food vendors have returned, Maricela says, but the clothing vendors haven’t. “The clothing is too expensive,” she said, “and there aren’t any parties anymore.”
Not everyone is happy about the new arrangement. “The Municipal president” — Gloria Sánchez — “she said she wanted to move us out to another place, outside el centro, but who’s going to go all the way out there to buy?” Maricela says. “So we had a meeting with all the vendors and decided we wouldn’t move. We stayed there camped all night and that was the last we heard of it.”
When I spoke to Presidenta Sánchez a few weeks later, she told me that the question of the market’s relocation has more to do with where it will be rebuilt. “People have different opinions. Some want it to stay where it is, and others think we need to take advantage of this opportunity to move it out of the center and decongest the area,” she says. “For now, I know how important it is for people to have a place to continue with their businesses, even though the Plaza isn’t an appropriate place to sell food.” She denies, however, that the municipal authority ever made an attempt to evict the vendors from their current location.
“They call it informal commerce and they’re trying to dislocate that, but there’s been a market in that spot since the pre-Hispanic period,” says Carlos Sánchez Martinez, the director of a community radio station, Radio Totopo, with close ties to the Zapatista movement. “The centro is very important for indigenous people, so I don’t see it as being possible to just move that culture away to some other place. It might be ‘informal,’ but for us it’s the best way to do business — the most humane.”
But “development” is hardly the only threat to the market and its merchants. Four years of drought has meant a scarcity of fish in the nearby Laguna de Santa Cruz, known locally as the Mar Muerto, or Dead Sea. Fishmongers like Dalia and Maricela purchase their fish at dawn each morning from the wholesale market that takes over several blocks of the neighborhood. Mullet and tuna that once came by the truckload from the fishing towns of the Istmo now comes largely from the Gulf Coast, 130 miles to the north in the state of Veracruz. As fish travel greater and greater distances to get there, prices go up. “Now people want cheap things,” says Dalia’s mother, Alberta Sánchez Sánchez. “They say there’s no work and no one has any money — and after this, well, it’s even worse.” Dalia says their sales have dropped by 50 percent in the weeks following the earthquake.
Many of their neighbors haven’t worked in weeks, too afraid to leave their ruined homes unattended. Others haven’t worked in years. “It’s been two years that there’s been no shrimp here,” says Roberto Santiago Gimenez, 72, sitting, quiet and resigned, by the hollow shell of what used to be his family’s home, across the street from where Dalia’s mother and daughter set their fish out to dry. “Every person has his work — he can’t do anything else. If you have your work you can’t just do other work.” His younger brother, Gerardo, has spent the last several years in construction. “When there’s no work, people start robbing each other,” he says. “We used to live more in peace — not like now.” Rumors of delinquency — some, Sánchez Martinez claims, spread deliberately by the government, others, frankly, well-founded — have only escalated since the earthquake.
But most people here reserve their ire for the municipal president, Gloria Sanchez, who’s been decisively framed as the antagonist in the unfolding drama of disaster relief. Some rumors about corruption circulating in the Septima — that Sanchez has filled her house with stolen dispensa in order to distribute it closer to the 2018 elections, for instance — border on the hysterical and are, as much as anything, a reflection of the general distrust of the government common across all of Mexico.
Other claims speak to a deep sense of abandonment within the Septima. Many here say that the presidenta hasn’t so much as set foot in the district since the earthquake, though Sanchez says she’s gone personally to every neighborhood in the city to distribute aid door-to-door, and has sent representatives into every alley in every district. Those who were present at the Market “junta,” as Maricela called it, say she sent a representative from the finance department to announce their impending eviction rather than coming herself. Sánchez says that no such event took place.
For her part, Sanchez feels attacked from all sides, undermined by the state and federal governments (both are run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the greatest political power in the country; Sanchez governs for the opposition) and overwhelmed by the demands of her own people. “It’s no one’s fault, but over time people insist that the authority deal with all their demands immediately.” Given the scale of the disaster, that just isn’t possible.
In the beginning of October, exactly a month after the earthquake, the city was still awash in rubble as engineers continued their inspections to evaluate damage. Reconstruction hadn’t even begun at the hospital. Architects from the National Institute of Anthropology and History had only just begun strategizing the main church’s restoration, a process, said the lead architect, that would take 18 months. Across the street, a gaping hole took the place of what, in May, had been Juchitan’s largest primary school.
Presidenta Sánchez says the municipal government still doesn’t know what position it will take on the potential relocation of the market, much less how long it will take to set reconstruction plans in motion. With so much destroyed, there are too many higher priorities. For the moment, the makeshift market, however imperfect, is the only place in Juchitan where things have begun to feel normal. In the Plaza, vendors still hawk their goods and thumb their noses at authority. It’s a glimpse of Juchitan as it once was and may never be again.
“We’ll stay here in the Plaza until we have somewhere else to go,” Dalia told me on the day we met. I asked how long she thought that might be. She shook her head and laughed, as though at a funny joke she’s heard one too many times. “Only god knows.”
The smile faded as she wrapped a pair of smoked fish in pink paper and slipped them into a plastic bag, exchanging them for 40 pesos, about $2. “We’re still fighting every day,” she told me, then flashed a wry, defiant smile. “First we win,” she said. “They’ll win later.”
Michael Snyder is a freelance journalist and Associate Editor for Roads & Kingdoms based in Mexico City. Nadia del Pozo and Felipe Luna are independent photographers currently based in between Mexico and Spain.
Editor: Erin DeJesus