Disambiguating Legalities: Street vending, law, and boundary-work in Mexico


  • Tiana Bakić Hayden


illegality, street vending, informal commerce, Mexico, markets


In Mexico City, over 500,000 people are estimated to earn a living working as street vendors. In recent years Mexican street commerce has been increasingly criminalized in the context of “revanchist” neoliberal urban politics which have aimed to “reclaim” and gentrify urban spaces, mirroring a global trend (Leal Martinez 2016, Swanson 2007, Janoschka et al. 2013). Yet the law structures the social lives of street vendors not only in its repressive, revanchist capacity, but through more subtle and quotidian forms of legal disregulation (Goldstein 2015). My goal in this paper, accordingly, is to make sense of the role of legality in shaping the forms of symbolic and affective labor in which street vendors engage beyond those areas which are explicitly targeted by neoliberal urban development schemes. To that end, I propose a framework of “ambiguous legalities” as a way to understand the relationship between law and the everyday production of street vending. Paying attention to ambiguous legalities means looking at the ways not only that legal uncertainties are created and maintained, but on the way in which they influence forms of everyday comportment and the invisible labor of symbolic boundary-work (Lamont 1992). Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Mexico City’s central wholesale market, I illustrate the ways in which ambiguous legality is produced through the legal technology of the vending permit, and describe how street vendors and other social actors attempt to make moral-legal claims through a process I refer to as “disambiguation.” Finally, I discuss how popular discourses about state illegitimacy and corruption contribute to legal ambiguities, and the challenges that they pose to street vendors in their efforts to combat popular perceptions of criminality and illegality.





Hayden, T. B. (2018). Disambiguating Legalities: Street vending, law, and boundary-work in Mexico. Ethnoscripts, 19(2). Abgerufen von https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/ethnoscripts/article/view/1174