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This is an audio/visual story exploring the sounds of Mexico City’s streets.

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The Sounds of CDMX

How informal street vendors define the sonic landscape of Mexico’s capital

Cities are places where commerce, entertainment, and human drama unfold in the public sphere — on streets and sidewalks, in parks and plazas. The noises of life playing out in public create an urban soundscape unique to each city.
In Mexico City, many notes in the city’s soundscape come from itinerant merchants — a largely informal labor force that traverses the city’s streets and alleys selling goods, buying things, and offering services. Each type of merchant calls out to potential customers with a unique, identifying noise or cry.
Here, we explore this sonic code of Mexico City (also known as Ciudad de México, or CDMX), composed of the calls issued from these merchants and workers that drift through the city’s neighborhoods — pushing rickety wheeled carts, riding modified bicycles and tricycles, and lugging heavy baskets on their heads and shoulders. Each of their sounds give another layer of meaning to the din of this beautiful metropolis.

Read on to learn about the relationship between the city & its street vendors,

or to explore the sounds of the city on your own.

A Part of Daily Life

With records of their presence dating back to the days of the Aztecs, mobile vendors have long been a part of life and commerce in the city. Especially as CDMX began to sprawl more widely in the mid-1900s, entrepreneurial vendors found increased opportunities to reach customers by cart, truck, bike, and foot.

Today, an estimated 800,000 “vendedores ambulantes” (roughly translated as wandering merchants or peddlers) currently make their living on the streets and sidewalks of Mexico City, and have come to occupy an important place in the economic system and culture of the city. This integral status, however, is threatened by changes in the global supply chain, shifting consumer habits, and the rise of app-enabled shopping and delivery services. While their collective future remains uncertain, for many city dwellers, these mobile merchants remain a vital part of daily life.

In today’s Mexico City, residents inside their homes — relaxing at their desk with a cup of coffee or working in the kitchen cooking over the stove — will hear the calls from:
The knife sharpener (afilador), who plays a pan flute as they cycle around the city. Their bike is outfitted with an ingenious contraption that uses the rotation of the bike’s wheels to spin a whet stone for sharpening.
The garbage collector (recolector de basura), who walks up and down the street, ringing a small bell on a wooden handle like an old-time town crier. The bell tolls for thee: anyone with bags of garbage piled up at home.
The tamale vendor (tamalero), who plays a well-known recording that may trigger a pavlovian response from many residents. Their tamales are served warm (calientitos) from large, steaming drums in the front of their tricycle cart.

A Largely Informal Economy

Despite the large number of itinerant merchants in CDMX, the legality of their work is unclear. Many of them operate informally (without express legal permission or protection) — a phenomenon common anywhere that people face inhospitable economic and legal conditions.

There has long been conversation about regulating them — an effort that could bring more tax revenue to the city as well as more control over traffic flow and food safety. But city officials have opted instead for a kind of management through legal ambiguity, an approach that allows the government to crack down on these merchants or let them be, depending on what is politically expedient.

Operating in a legal gray area does mean that workers can often avoid paying taxes, rent on a space, or licensure fees. But there are a host of other important financial realities to consider. For example, Jony Albino, who works as an organ grinder with his wife and his sister, does not own his instrument. The family rents the organ for 200 pesos (~$10 USD) a day — roughly the price of a sit down meal for the three of them. On a good day they can earn more than double that. Other days they may only cover the cost of the rental.

The informal economy can also leave workers vulnerable to harassment, fines, and extortion. Enforcement of regulations (or the ability to operate at all) is often decided by the caprices of individuals at a given moment: a police officer who can apply statutes more or less indiscriminately, a competing vendor who feels that their territory is being encroached upon, or a government functionary with their own agenda.

This wide range of experiences — from the struggles to the successes — can all be heard on the streets of CDMX.


The sounds can delight, annoy, and inspire. The call of one junk collector, featuring the voice of his daughter María Del Mar, has become a symbol of the city. Most residents can recite the recording (which invites you to sell everything from mattresses to microwaves) from memory. It has been remixed for many, many, many, many songs) and transformed into a battle cry for feminist activists.
Scenes of informal workers being harassed and their belongings seized are common. In 2020, Lady Tacos de Canasta (a local celebrity profiled in the “Taco Chronicles” series on Netflix) suffered this exact fate while selling tacos on the street. Video of the incident shows Lady Tacos standing over her spilled tacos yelling, “I’m not out here stealing, I’m just trying to earn a living!”
However, in more touristed areas, vendors and local authorities sometimes have a tacit agreement: police will advance slowly, allowing lookouts (or “hawks'') to warn vendors with whistles, walkie-talkies, or cries of “vámonos”. Vendors lift their blankets and pack their wares away quickly, earning them the nickname “bullfighters.” Vendors disperse and police save face without arresting anyone.
The soundscape of the city is not fixed. It changes as the city does. As services become outdated — needs and preferences evolve, residents are displaced by new waves of gentrification and development, regulations shift — sounds inevitably disappear. For example, as physical mail is used less, the sound of the postal worker’s whistle is quietly becoming a distant memory.
Similarly, the music of organ grinders (once an iconic sound of CDMX) may soon fade from the streets, despite its promotion by local government. Organ music simply isn’t as appealing to younger generations. But if the past is any predictor, new sounds may well arrive to take the place of sounds that are disappearing.
In this way, the soundtrack of a city changes generation by generation. Old sounds fade and new sounds arrive as the city and its current inhabitants generate a unique sonic landscape. Each voice, each timbre, and each noise coalesces into an auditory record of life in that particular time and place.

Editing by Rob Smith

With thanks to:

Alejandra Arevalo, sensitivity reader.

Mario Barbosa, professor and researcher at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Cuajimalpa.

Irene Farah, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley Department of Regional and City Planning.

Madeleine Wattenbarger, freelance journalist.

Carlos Alba Vega, professor investigator and coordinator of the Permanent Seminar on Work and Inequality at El Colegio de México.

And an enormous thank you to all the workers and merchants who shared their experiences and their sounds with us.

Research from "El Trabajo En Las Calles" from 2022 (Carlos Alba Vega y Mauricio Rodríguez) was used in this article.