THE TIANGUIS: A Mesoamerican Legacy

By Ronald A. Barnett

Monday in Chapala, Wednesday in Ajijic, Thursday in Jocotepec, the tianguis, or open street market, is a familiar weekly event at Lakeside. But did you ever wonder why these enterprising merchants and vendors get up so early and work so hard to set up their booths and displays for only a few hours one day of the week?

Business, of course. A social event, to be sure; a place to meet friends and neighbors and pass the time of day. But the tianguis is much more than that. Its roots go back to classical Aztec times and beyond to other peoples of ancient Mesoamerica.

The term Mesoamerica refers to a large cultural area extending from Tamaulipas, Mexico in the north to central Honduras and Costa Rica in the south. It is characterized by certain common cultural traditions and features, some of which go back as far as 2,000 B.C. One of the most important of these cultural traits was the “tianguis”, which in Nahuatl means “marketplace.” By extension this came to mean the buying and selling of goods on a fixed day of the week.

Early Spanish Colonial writers have left us vivid descriptions of these early markets. Bernal del Castillo, one of the Conquistadores, in describing the Great Market at Tlatelolco in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the ancient Aztecs, wrote: “But why do I waste so many words in recounting what they sell in that great market? I shall never finish if I tell it all in detail!” He did, however, go on at great length to describe such wares as paper, tobacco and pottery, as well as both familiar and exotic food items.

The local market system was one of the few native institutions actively encouraged and carefully preserved by the Spaniards. Open daily, the Tlatelolco market was fostered and protected at first by the Aztec state. No business was allowed to be carried on outside the market. Special officials checked on the quality of the goods, and three judges regularly in attendance settled disputes on the spot. Penalties for breaking the rules were severe. Thieves were immediately stoned to death.

It was a highly organized economic trade system with taxes on goods; basically a barter method, with a rudimentary money usage based on blankets, cacao beans and gold dust for exchange. The tianguis also served as a place of refuge. Every fifth day larger gatherings were held at Texcoco, Cholula, and many other cities and towns. A slave who broke loose in the market place and escaped automatically became free. Anyone who stood in the way was enslaved in turn.

The lure of the market place was strong. Fray Diego Duran wrote the following anecdote: One day Padre Duran met an Indian going to the market to sell firewood. He offered the Indian money and told him to go home and use the wood himself. The Indian agreed, but a little later the padre met the same Indian still on his way to the market. The priest scolded the Indian for his superstitious attachment to the market. The Indian replied that it was not superstition or even religion that impelled him to sell his wood in the market place. It was the costumbre (or custom) to do so. The Indian then politely offered the dumbfounded priest his money back. This is the origin of the modern tianguis.

Another priest, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, writing not long after the Spanish Conquest, described the merchants and vendors who operated the great Tlatelolco market. Among these were the sellers of maize grain, beans, chili and various herbal remedies. Today, the medicine seller still sits on his site on a reed mat.

Many of the goods sold or bartered at these early markets are still with us today: maize (white, black, yellow, red), poultry, fish, squash seeds, tuna cactus, and an abundance of other fruits and vegetables. But for an exotic change, why not try water-fly eggs, or the water-flies themselves?

And for that special roast dinner? Sahagun wrote that a bad meat seller sold dog meat, but Fray Duran said that dogs were sold by the thousands for food. Whatever your preference, all this and much more was available in those bygone days to the discerning shopper.

The weekly street markets in Ajijic, Chapala, Jocotepec and other Lakeside towns have changed greatly over the years. Gone are many of the traditional arts and crafts for which Mexico has long been famous. Gone too is the ancient barter system. And wrong-doers are no longer stoned to death.

Yet even without such constraints the merchants today are as honest in dealing with their customers as were their ancestors. And the past is not completely dead. Still lurking among the commercial, manufactured products are hand-made jewelry, traditional ceramic figures and regional kitchenware. An Indian family sells nopal cactus next to a shelf full of the latest electronic gadgetry. The cassette stands blast out rock music next to a display of Huichol religious art.

The tianguis exists today not because people are fearfully compelled to attend, nor because they are forced by their rulers to provide provisions for the village; rather it is, in part at least, the costumbre that has survived the centuries of political and social upheaval in Mexico. The external appearance of the tianguis may change, the vital spirit remains.

For more information about Lakeside visit: Lake Chapala Towns

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