It’s hard to choose the most impressive part of the Central de Abasto, the 327-hectare market that stretches across a plot of land in densely populated Iztapalapa, Mexico City. But if I had to pick one, it would be the carrot section: a sea of orange, rows and rows of carrots stacked upon each other in small towers and priced between US $0.25 and US $0.50 cents a kilo (approx. 2.2 lbs.).
A 23-year-old working one of the carrot stands told me she’d estimate about a ton of carrots were delivered to the Central every three days or so, mostly from the state of Puebla—though it’s hard to know exactly, she said.
Indeed, the scale and complexity of the market is difficult to wrap your head around. According to the trust that operates the Central, it’s the largest wholesale market in the world (by other accounts, it’s “the largest produce market in the Western Hemisphere”). It has the capacity to support 120,000 tons of product, and on any given day, distributes 35 percent of domestically produced fruits and vegetables. The Central supports tens of thousands of workers and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors daily, who buy products from every Mexican state and countries including France, Turkey, Chile and Sudan, to name a few.
The Central de Abasto opened in 1982, and according to information from its operating trust, was designed as “a city within the great capital, which is always in movement and doesn’t rest.”
This creed—“always in movement and doesn’t rest”—has rung true even during a deadly pandemic. The Central has remained open throughout the health crisis, a reflection of its crucial role in Mexico’s economy, as well as a grimmer reality: Many of the workers in the Central had to weigh the risk of getting sick with the risk of not putting food on the table, and ultimately, the latter was more immediate. “Coronavirus is a necessary risk, and the reward for taking it is merely survival,” Azam Ahmed wrote in a September 2020 New York Times piece on the Central and Iztapalapa—in his words, the “epicenter of the epicenter” of contagion in Mexico.
While the Central never closed completely, its “new normal” has played out in different acts. In the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the virus was just beginning to rattle the city, many stands closed. The steady flow of customers that had always defined the market became less steady. Officials ran sanitization campaigns, set up testing centers, and spread publicity on preventative measures.
Today, as Mexico battles a third wave of the virus, loss fills the passageways of the Central, where it mixes with an inertia that can find no other way but forward. Some vendors and customers wear masks; many do not. The market is less full than it used to be, said vendors, who are selling significantly less product than they did before March 2020. Still, most of the Central is crowded enough that social distancing is untenable.
My partner and I started going regularly to the Central in May, shortly after getting vaccinated. He’d wanted to start going months prior, but after reading the “epicenter of the epicenter” article, I was hesitant. The first time, we went with his aunt, a regular, who showed us which stands to pick for chicken, lime, and garbanzo. Since then, every two weeks we wake up early, make a list, and wander through the Central de Abasto’s colorful passageways. I find its vibrancy energizing and am fascinated by the endless rows of products—bright pink pitaya, enormous jackfruits, kilos upon kilos of huitlacoche and turmeric.
At the Central, vibrancy and life intermingle with necessity and loss, in a way that is either hard to reconcile or natural, depending on who you ask.
The vendor who sells my partner and I flowers every 15 days, who preferred I didn’t use his name in this column, has worked in the Central de Abasto for 40 years, since he moved from Oaxaca at 10 years old. This year has been the hardest.
His flower stall has remained open throughout the pandemic, though most of what they’ve been selling are ornate white flower arrangements for funerals. The arrangements are complex, shaped as wreaths or hearts, with red roses accenting white flowers and bright green foliage. He constantly interacts with grieving family members preparing for funerals, and during the months with the highest death toll in the city, “We’d just barely make a wreath, and ‘give me that one, how much for that one?’” he remembers.
When I ask him if he knows anyone who’s died from Covid-19, he points to the stall in front of us, which sells plants and flowers. A man from there, he says. He points a few stalls to his right, where two others died. He gestures across the way, where a heavy metal curtain is pulled down across the entrance of a stall that’s closed because its owner is sick.
As we talk, I’m reminded of how the destruction wrought by the past 18 months is sewn into the fabric of the places we depend on most. This destruction is only sometimes visible to those of us who pass through these places only momentarily, just to pick up what we need.
What is the real cost of the kilo of avocado, bouquet of flowers, and carton of eggs that we buy? What is the cost of selling those things, and what would be the cost of not selling them?
Like the Central, the answers to those questions are never static.