Chapter 5: The Symbiosis of Individual and Society: an Anthropological Observation Regarding Tianguis in Mexico City

Li Yin

*Li Yin is currently a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Tsinghua University, Beijing. She is also a member of the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University. From 2016 to 2018, she was a visiting researcher at Colegio de Mexico. Her research focuses on Mexican society, and her general interests include cultural economics, informality, social capital, and public space.


When one visits today’s Mexico City, its most striking landscape is composed of open-air markets along its streets. In the local language, the open-air market is called tianguis, which is derived from the Nahua word tiantiztli (also spelled as tianquiztli, meaning “market”), and its history can be traced back to pre-Columbian period. With the emergence of the nation-state and the establishment and development of the capitalist system, the tianguis, deeply rooted in traditional Mexican culture, has been defined in official discourse as a relatively backward economic model that needs to be improved due to its informality. The economic life that the tianguis bring to urban residents has also suffered from rejection or neglect in the process of capitalist modernisation, but it continues to exist based on the cultural system. This article contends that the study of the tianguis in Mexico City may begin in the field of economics, but ought to end in a discussion of Mexican social realities and cultural roots.

While observing a tianguis in Mexico City, the author found a contradictory reality: though vendors’ ownership of property inside the market was unclear, the market has not fallen into disorder. Instead it operated with a high degree of organisation. Through participatory observation and an ethnographic depiction of one day in the life of a vegetable vendor and his family in a tianguis, this article finds out that the existence of tianguis as endogenous economies provides an important basis for understanding their rational operation in the absence of clear property rights systems.

First of all, tianguis, filled with fragrance, colour, and laughter, have created social communities. The economic practices conducted in the markets, based on relationship networks and a shared cultural system, interact and entangle with social and cultural capital to serve people’s daily needs. Thus, tianguis provide a cultural environment that is difficult for modern marts, far from civic life, to replace. As the market participants and practitioners have not considered the economic or rational purposes as the priority from the start, nor the pursuit of the protection or privatisation of the property as the priority, the logic of such action implies that individuals belongs to group and group serves for individuals. All members of the market create a small society where solidarity, mutuality and symbiosis are shared through their daily economic, social and cultural practices.

Secondly, the organisational model of tianguis is fair and transparent to each individual involved. Everyone engaged in a tianguis is expected to obey the rules of the organisation, to respect each other’s roles and identities, and to bear their own obligations and responsibilities. With their collective powers and relationships, as well as through the shared rights and responsibilities of their participants, tianguis are able to successfully manage malicious external interference and avoid potential internal conflicts. As a result, the market economies of tianguis maintain a long-lasting balance in the dynamic practice of “giving” and “accepting”. In fact, tianguis have already exceeded their economic functions; the cultural order of symbiosis implied in their markets leads us to rethink the deep relationship between the public and the private, society and individual.

Last but not least, the concept of “composite property rights” may be applied to the phenomenon of unclear property rights in tianguis, as vendors do not emphasize the rights they have as individuals, but pay more attention to their responsibilities and obligations as members of the collective. They transfer their rights to agents or representatives and respect and obey the contracts reached by their communities, thus contributing to a bottom-up dynamic to realize collective autonomy and relationship reciprocity. When one considers himself or herself as a member of the collective, the boundaries between each other will be less clear. The tragedy of the commons does not occur. The distinction and division between public domain and private domain, emphasized by modern urban civilization, loses their attractiveness inside these open-air markets. A cultural logic of “symbiosis” is being practiced at many unremarkable corners revealing the most authentic look of a society.

To sum up, open-air markets in Mexico City should be understood as complex markets in which life needs, general exchanges, capital, power, relationships, values, and ethics are intertwined. The shared identity of market participants (vendors) is reflected in the fact that the market is a public space for social interaction as well as a private space for daily life. The logic behind the overlap of public and private domains is based on the indivisibility and reciprocity of the culture community. The lack of clarity regarding the ownership of property rights and other rights in the market results from the practice of empowerment, demonstrating the dynamic integration and symbiotic order of individual and society. Therefore, the tianguis model has neither been nationalized and transformed into public property benefiting a few political interest groups, nor been privatized and turned into an enterprise or organisation monopolized by capitalists.Instead, it has always been active as an endogenous economy developed from the inside out in the city’s streets, embodying the concept of “symbiosis” based on the autonomy and reciprocity of the cultural community, and also gives us an alternative to the so-called fair, free, and transparent capitalist market economy.