By Fredric Dannen
My partner Marcela Brondo and I run a business in Mercado Sano, the two-story collective market on Ancha de San Antonio. The market, which officially opened in September 2016, currently houses 18 different businesses – three organic grocery stores, six restaurants, and nine assorted vendors. Our own establishment is a bit of an outlier – Boleto City, a ticket agency, mostly for live events in San Miguel. Not surprisingly, our office is temporarily closed.
But the Mercado is our home, and its survival is of no small importance to us. The market had shut its doors early last year as the seriousness of the pandemic became known, and had gradually reopened, amid rumors that the administration was having difficulty enforcing the use of face coverings, which the Centers for Disease Control has been recommending since last spring for all public gatherings. The difficulty was real, but has since been dealt with, although the rumor apparently still lingers.
On a recent afternoon, Marcela and I met with two of the collective market’s top administrators, Ana Lilia Sánchez Márquez and David de la Torre, to get a sense of how the Mercado is coping with the ongoing coronavirus health crisis. Their answers were encouraging.
First, it’s important to understand that from its inception, Mercado Sano has been a cooperative, composed of multiple owners, with no monolithic management structure. As a co-op, the Mercado has had a relaxed culture, and when the COVID crisis hit, the atmosphere of tolerance collided with the expediency of the moment.
Even before government certification became compulsory for San Miguel businesses, the Mercado administration “made it strict for everyone in the market to have,” de la Torre says. “Not only did all the shops get individual certification, but every employee had to take a five-hour online course.” Meanwhile, all Mercado businesses were required to pay an additional monthly fee to cover the cost of enhanced sanitizing, including a disinfecting regimen used in hospitals.
There was pushback, however, principally from a handful of U.S. expats who had bought into the partisan rhetoric opposing the use of face masks. “That was the main problem,” de la Torre says, adding that at times “I felt like a kindergarten teacher.” Some customers were eventually prohibited from entering the market. Two noncomplying businesses in the Mercado were given ultimatums, and finally ejected by the administration.
“We are continuously working to improve the market,” Sánchez Márquez says, adding that the Mercado was “created to support the local economy, providing a means for Mexican growers to sell their organic produce directly to the public.” Now, she says, “health and safety are also a vital part of our mission.”