The Freest Trade: The Baratillo Marketplace in 19th-Century Mexico City

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:50 AM
Room 203 (Colorado Convention Center)
Andrew Konove, University of Texas at San Antonio
Between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, the Baratillo was Mexico City’s principal marketplace for second-hand products and its most infamous emporium for stolen, counterfeit, and remanufactured goods.  While the Baratillo drew criticism from many quarters of Mexican society over the centuries, in the late-colonial period, some of the market’s most determined opponents were the members of the capital’s artisan guilds—the tailors, hat makers, and other skilled craftsmen whose businesses the Baratillo directly threatened.  Spanish authorities in colonial Mexico minutely regulated local industry, giving each guild a legal monopoly over its trade that was backed by the authority of the municipal government—the ayuntamiento.  After independence, however, Mexico’s guilds lost those monopolies as officials stripped away corporate privileges in order to promote freer trade.  With those changes, both artisans’ complaints about the Baratillo and government efforts to regulate its trade in informal and illicit goods effectively ceased.  Indeed, on more than one occasion, prominent liberals in nineteenth-century Mexico City praised the market for embodying the virtues of free trade—rhetoric that vendors in the Baratillo eagerly employed themselves.  As the Mexican state grew stronger in the last third of the century, officials continued to show little interest in regulating the transactions that took place in the Baratillo.  Even under the Porfiriato (1876-1910), when officials implemented new regulations governing other areas of urban commerce, such as pawn-broking, they largely left the Baratillo’s commerce alone.  The Baratillo’s history, then, offers a counterpoint to studies that show Latin American governments working to formalize patterns of economic exchange in the nineteenth century.  It also sheds light on how petty merchants employed the language and legal instruments of republican government to perpetuate illicit and informal commercial transactions.