Era of Mexico City's 'Jefa' ends Labor: Guillermina Rico, a grandmother with little education, wielded vast power as the leader of Mexico City's army of street vendors. She died last week, leaving behind a fortune and colorful legacy.


MEXICO CITY -- When Guillermina Rico died last week, she left behind an estimated 4,000 godchildren, a fortune believed to include vast real estate holdings, and a form of municipal influence any elected leader would envy.

Rico was the leader -- some would say the master manipulator -- of Mexico City's largest street vendor organization. That may seem a modest accomplishment, but it made her one of the city's most important capitalists. She was a 62-year-old grandmother with a third-grade education who had entered business as a child by selling limes and tomatoes on the treeless streets of the city's Merced district.

A small woman known for wearing the traditional apron of Mexican working-class women and weeklong drinking binges every year after her birthday, Rico was called "La Jefa" -- "The Boss." Outside the city she was an unknown, but within it she was a major political force.

Her Civic Union of Merchants of Old Merced has some 7,000 vendor members selling everything from candy to clothes to televisions. At one point she was believed to control 80 percent of the vendors in the city's historic center, each of whom paid her a daily fee for the public street spaces on which she allowed them to sell.

Respect from presidents

Presidents doted on her. Newspapers speculated on what she was doing with all that money. Hearing of her death, thousands of her followers took to the streets. In a driving rain, they carried her silver casket through the streets chanting "Viva Guille." Senators sent flowers to her wake.

"She was a source of work for all of us," said Maria de la Luz !! Martinez. "Twenty years ago, I had two grandchildren who didn't have anyone to support them. I went to the lady with my problem and she helped us out."

Rico began as a rambunctious grass-roots leader of female vendors harassed by police. She wound up profiting from those she led, and was a classic product of Mexico's machine politics. She was a sort of urban chieftain who became an unquestioning pillar of support for the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- the PRI, which has ruled the country since 1928, making it the most successful political machine of the century.

According to an interview Rico gave anthropologist Antonio Rimada, she had been a young mother at the time authorities began harassing her and her vendor neighbors. They were women who, like her, were trying to earn enough to feed their families. She responded to the harassment by organizing two dozen women into a de facto union, and over time established herself.

"We weren't permitted to sell in the streets," says Maria de Jesus Ortiz, who met Rico 40 years ago and is now a leader of a union of street artists and snake charmers. "We'd go to jail for 72 hours and the police would take our merchandise and trample it. This is what she was fighting against."

During the 1970s, the PRI decided to bring her into the fold -- for a price.

The deal is always blunt, says Pilar Campos, a researcher co-authoring a book on the street vending economy: "Often the exchange the PRI offers is, 'We'll let you do your business' -- in this case selling parts of the public street, which isn't theirs to sell -- 'in exchange for your vote, your support and for not causing any more problems for the government.' "

Rico was the first street vendor with whom the party made that arrangement. Dozens of leaders, all with similar, though smaller, vendor organizations, have made the same deal since. But Rico's timing proved nearly perfect.

Mexico was slipping into the first of several economic crises. Street vending became the job of choice for hundreds of thousands of poor, under-educated Mexicans; their only alternatives were starvation wages in the legal economy or emigration to the United States.

Tapping vendors

Through people like Rico, the PRI was able to exploit this vulnerability. In order to sell on public streets, vendors say they had to pay Rico a fee -- between 20 and 300 pesos a day (from about $2.40 to $40), depending on the site -- and attend political rallies and at election time vote for the PRI.

"She might have accumulated a few little things," says Jesus Marez, 32, who has been a vendor in Rico's organization since he was a child. "But it was nothing compared to what she gave us."

Given the sums presumably involved, the news media has speculated that Rico's death will bring a battle for control of the streets. But Rico's oldest daughter. Silvia, seems in line to take Rico's place.

But her death may indeed foreshadow a change in the system she helped create. Many downtown sidewalks are so crammed with vendors that people find it sometimes quicker and safer to walk in the streets. Vendor leaders also have less prime space to offer.

And business associations -- whose members pay taxes and rent and obtain necessary permits -- are complaining about the unfair competition the vendors represent. Businesses argue that the vendors are responsible for layoffs at properly licensed stores.

Feeling of betrayal

So in the past 18 months, the city government has periodically sent police to roust vendors from time-honored locations and left them feeling betrayed.

The battles have been bloody. Rico herself admitted to local newspapers earlier this year that she had been steadily losing people. Another possible threat is the fact that next year for the first time Mexico City's mayor will be elected instead of appointed by the president. If an opposition party wins, as many people expect, it won't bound to honor deals that were made by the PRI.

And Mexico is also no longer the country it was when Rico began. Mexico is more plural, Mexicans less willing to fall into line: 'It's not so easy nowadays to co-opt, to buy off people," Campos says. "Plus, city residents are fed up with street vending."

What won't die with Rico, or not until the country's economy improves dramatically, is the street vending profession.

As Rico told anthropologist Rimada: "There is no work, so it's better to be a street vendor than a thief."

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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