The thing I find most striking about Mexico City’s Mercado de Jamaica is how, as you walk through its passageways, you can watch loss and celebration bleed into each other. A vendor specializing in funeral arrangements butts up against a stand focused on ornate, floral expressions of love—a 2-foot by 2-foot tulip arrangement, or a heart-shaped box full of 40 rose heads and a box of Ferrero Rocher.
Flowers are appropriate for both occasions, it turns out, because they are reminders of life. Its fullness and its fleetingness.
The Mercado de Jamaica opened on Sept. 23, 1957. It was one of 38 markets that opened that year, thanks to an effort by then-president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines to modernize the Mexico City’s markets, and as a result, the city itself. The market’s roots are said to trace back to the Aztec city of México-Tenochtitlán, where its location served as an important point of trade and the home of chinampas, or floating gardens.
Today, the market is home to more than 1,000 locales dedicated primarily to selling flowers from states like Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Morelos, Estado de México and Michoacán. But the market isn’t just flowers: You can also find house plants; fruits, vegetables and other groceries; household items and furniture; and especially around the Christmas holidays, enormous, colorful piñatas.
Arcadio Cedillo has spent more than 50 years in the market’s colorful passageways, where today he sells sunflower and rose arrangements. He greets potential customers with a warm ¿Qué va a llevar? and explains the prices of his arrangements: 100 pesos (US $5) for a small basket with three or four sunflowers, something that you could use to decorate tables at a party; 600 pesos (US $30) for a basket the size of a school desk, stuffed with roses beautifully arranged bright sunflowers. It’s an early Sunday afternoon, one of the busiest days in the market, and customers stop by his stand, ask questions, brush their fingers up against the flower petals—but rarely buy anything.
“Before, Sundays, it was full here… now there’s nothing, there’s no business. I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Cedillo says with the conviction of someone who has watched the market’s ebbs and flows since around 1970, but has never seen it get as bad as it has in the Covid-19 pandemic. “We used to sell well, we used to sell…now, just look: Since the morning I’ve sold two, three of these little arrangements.”
He points to the larger arrangements, placed on a shelf so they’re about eye-level with his customers. “It’s a risk… if it sells, great. And if it doesn’t sell, everything goes to the trash,” he says.
The risk is even greater now, because the price of flowers is high. Heavy hail and other storms this year damaged crops in the nearby State of Mexico, where Cedillo’s producers grow, and other flower-producing states around the country.
Climate change is a major threat to floral vendors and producers around the world. For one, there are the extreme weather events like the storms Cedillo mentions, but also heavy rain, droughts, and general unpredictability. What’s more, warming is already throwing off growing cycles—researchers in the U.K. recently found that climate change was causing plants to flower a month earlier, on average, than they were supposed to. And it’s not just a matter of picking flowers earlier. Such shifts in blooming can lead to what scientists call “ecological mismatch,” or a misalignment between species (for example, flowers, bees, and birds) that dramatically threatens agricultural productivity.
The families who sell in Mercado de Jamaica are highly adaptable: They figure out how to make things work when a shipment is delayed, when customers want something different, and these days, when a global pandemic threatens their collective livelihood.
But in the face of climate change, arguably the market’s biggest threat yet, it’s hard to see a real contingency plan.
If you continue down the way from Cedillo’s flower shop, past a row of fragrant elotes in large pots from which women offer free samples, you’ll come upon Florería Ely, a small shop specializing in flowers for funerals—elaborate white arrangements, often wreath- or cross-shaped, accented with red roses, greenery and religious figurines. On that Sunday afternoon, Efraín de la Cruz is manning the stand, which has been in his family for three generations.
De la Cruz hasn’t seen much of a change in sales since March 2020. Unlike the demand for other flowers, the demand for funeral arrangements has increased during the pandemic. While demand is up, there’s also more supply—many of the florists who once focused on arrangements for weddings or fiestas de quince años have since shifted their businesses to focus on the white floral arrangements traditionally used for grieving. Grieving, after all, is one thing there’s been a lot of.
De la Cruz’s job involves accompanying his customers in that grief. Customers will sometimes tell him about the loved ones they’ve lost, occasionally in tears. His job in those moments is to listen, to empathize. It’s hard at first, but “you get used to it,” he says.
The hardest time, De la Cruz remembers, was early in the pandemic. He got sick in the first few months, and in May 2020, the whole market closed for 18 days. The mass of thousands of people who would normally flock to the market to buy flowers for Mother’s Day would have presented a significant health risk, local authorities determined. So, in 2020, on what would have been the busiest day of the year, the market was empty.
Aside from Mother’s Day, the busiest time in the market, explains de la Cruz, is Día de Muertos. Valentine’s Day is popular too, but slightly less so.
Still, by late January, the market is already preparing for Feb. 14. Rows of producers from Morelos sell roses in all colors—orange, red, yellow, a mix of pink and white, and even spray-painted sky blue. The vendors in Jamaica sell to individuals, but also to a network of smaller markets, flower stands and florists from around the city and its surroundings, who in turn sell to consumers at a mark-up. Trucks drive through the passageways of the market, which is open 24/7.
Across from the rose sellers, you can find Florecita Contreras in her family’s stand. She’s there from 7am to 8pm, seven days a week. “My dad used to say, ‘work a lot, sleep a little,’” she laughs.
Contreras is at home among her flowers, and she loves her job. “I was born here, I grew up here,” she says. These days, her regular clients continue to be regular—but they’re buying less. Flowers are a luxury, and today, luxuries are more carefully deliberated. She thinks business is 40 percent of what it was before.
Still, there is hope to be found in days like Valentine’s Day, when the market fills up a bit more, and with clients like a woman who returned to buy more Acapulco lilies, impressed by how long her previous bunch had lasted.
For Contreras, the question of why people buy flowers is a simple one with an answer that remains unchanged. “The flower is abundance in the house,” she says. “It’s life.”