Mendiola on Konove, 'Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City'

Andrew Konove
Sandra Mendiola

Andrew Konove. Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. xiii + 283 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-29367-0; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-29368-7.

Reviewed by Sandra Mendiola (University of North Texas) Published on H-LatAm (August, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

Andrew Konove traces the long history of one market in Mexico City: the Baratillo. We learn about its evolution from the end of the seventeenth century to 1902. What allegedly made the market famous, at least among its detractors, was its sinister reputation: a place where illicit, counterfeit, extralegal, second-hand, and stolen goods circulated. According to Konove, for two hundred years, the Baratillo was the city’s “most notorious thieves’ market” (p. 2).

Konove starts this history in 1692, when the Baratillo vendors sold in Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor, an important area of the city then and now. In that year, a major riot erupted, prompting Habsburg authorities to attempt to remove the Baratillo, though they were unsuccessful. This episode marks the beginning of a series of removal attempts by government officials that were sometimes halted or slowed down by the wealthy. Konove argues that the Baratillo case demonstrates that those in power were often not successful in removing vendors from prime areas. Authorities and urban reformers were ambivalent about the Baratillo vendors who in turn relied on them for the survival of the market. In most cases, the elite, especially members of the city government (Ayuntamiento), benefited from the rents they collected from the market; in return, they allowed vendors to continue their trade. Providers of merchandise (for instance, those of the Consulado) also had economic interests in the market and supported its vendors. Joining a number of scholars who have studied vendors and markets in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, Konove portrays market vendors as political actors who relied on a variety of strategies and institutions, including seeking support from allies across classes.

It was not until 1790 that the baratilleros (sellers of the Baratillo) were relocated to the Plaza del Factor by the Count of Revillagigedo II, a Bourbon viceroy. Yet he faced resistance by members of the city government. Vendors engaged in economic activities in this plaza until 1842, when Antonio López de Santa Anna was president. In this period, vendors wrote letters and petitions to authorities, and at least one letter, which was published in the liberal newspaper El Siglo Diez y Nueve, indicated that vendors sought public support and had access to prominent opinion makers. Indeed, they found allies from some newspaper editors. Unfortunately for the vendors, the Baratillo moved to the Plaza del Jardín, where most sellers stayed until they were finally relocated to the barrio of Tepito in 1902.

Konove built his study on a wide range of primary sources (letters, petitions, newspapers, and amparos), as well as some unique fictional accounts, such as the Ordenanzas del Baratillo from the early eighteenth century. His findings complement the scholarship of other historians, including works by Christina Jiménez, Ingrid Bleynat, Judith Martí, and Susie Porter, who have studied market vendors and their complex relationships with authorities in Morelia, Guadalajara, and Mexico City during other periods.[1] His analysis and conclusions largely echo these scholars. He notes, for example, that the Baratillo hosted vendors from various classes; that it served the needs of a wide range of inhabitants; and that relationships between vendors and government officials, urban reformers, and the elite were not always conflictual. Unfortunately, we must dig deep in the endnotes to find any sustained dialogue with these authors and to identify the many similarities between the Baratillo and the markets studied by others.

Konove is at his best when he talks about the actors involved in these economic activities. His discussion of the evangelistas, for example, is especially insightful. These men assisted sellers when they petitioned authorities to stay in certain locations. On several occasions, evangelistas’ work was anonymous. Apparently, they could be sellers themselves and thus had much to gain from representing marketers. 

While Konove has expanded our understanding of the evangelistas, his interpretations elsewhere are problematic. His analysis of the shadow economy and the black market is rather imprecise. We learn little about the changing definitions of these categories over time. According to Konove, the shadow economy comprised transactions of stolen, extralegal, illegal, counterfeit, and contraband objects. But it is not clear what products fell into these classifications over the centuries. Given that authorities reclassified certain products over the years and that laws changed, what, then, must we consider illegal? More examples about products during particular times as well as changes of market regulations (reglamentos de mercados) are needed to really understand the characteristics of the black market during the centuries that he covers.

Finally, this book has the unintended consequence of reinforcing discriminatory ideas about the poor. By emphasizing the language of the market’s critics, Konove perpetuates the idea that certain markets are no-go areas, places infested with nefarious sellers. A more accurate account would examine expressions of criminality in a more multidimensional sense, fully highlighting how the most privileged economic actors, the wealthy merchants, were responsible for numerous disreputable activities. He offers only a few examples: an indigenous teenager stealing sheets and selling them in the market, and an indio ladino and a Spaniard stealing several things from a woman’s house and then being caught by the police as “they attempted to sell some of the clothes to a trader in the Baratillo for ten pesos” (p. 67). These were relatively minor offenses when compared to the larger contraband or illicit activities practiced by the better off. Despite this, Konove’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on markets in Mexico. His prose is clear and the chapters are nicely organized.


[1]. Christina Jiménez, “From the Lettered City to the Sellers’ City: Vendor Politics and Public Space in Urban Mexico, 1880-1926,” in The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life, ed. Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 214-46; Christina Jiménez, “Performing Their Right to the City: Political Uses of Public Space in a Mexican City, 1880-1910s,” Urban History 33, no. 3 (2006): 435-56; Christina Jiménez, “Popular Organizing for Public Services: Residents Modernize Morelia, Mexico, 1880-1920,” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 4 (2004): 495-56; Judith Martí, “Breadwinners and Decision-Makers: Nineteenth-Century Women Vendors,” in The Other Fifty Percent: Multicultural Perspectives on Gender Relations, ed. Mari Womack and Judith Martí (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1993), 218-24; Judith Martí, “Nineteenth-Century View of Women’s Participation in Mexico’s Markets,” in Women Traders in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Mediating Identities, Marketing Wares, ed. Linda Seligmann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 27-44; Judith Martí, “Subsistence and the State: The Case of Porifirian Mexico,” in The Economic Anthropology of the State, ed. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994), 316-23; Susie Porter, Working Women in Mexico City: Public Discourses and Material Conditions, 1879-1931 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Ingrid Bleynat, “Trading with Power: Mexico City’s Public Markets, 1867-1958” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2013).

Citation: Sandra Mendiola. Review of Konove, Andrew, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.