An unsettling quiet has fallen over a stretch of the usually noisy Feria de San Telmo Sunday market. Artisans should be lining these cobbled streets selling intricate macrame jewellery and Argentinian leather purses to crowds of tourists from all over the world. Deafening percussion bands, accompanied by dancers, and street vendors selling empanadas and arepas should be making their way up the road.
The market is one of the largest handicrafts and antiques fairs in Buenos Aires, popular with tourists and locals alike, and runs the length of Defensa, the main thoroughfare in the barrio of San Telmo.
But now the kerbs at this end of the fair are empty. The city government is evicting sellers in the name of “ordering” the space. Some had worked here for as many as 12 years.
Since sellers received the news in January that the authority had passed the reorganisation plan, they have held regular protest marches along the blocks where they used to work.
A protest on Sunday 10 March ended in a violent crackdown by riot police and officers on quad bikes. They forcibly removed the protesters. Some of the protesting artisans had set up their stalls, and their merchandise and food was thrown on the ground. Eighteen people were detained.
“People were running like a stampede, like a bull run,” says Amaury Orue Guerra, a street musician. “They came in on [quad] bikes and started to grab anyone,” adds Martín Flores, who sells his photographs at the market.
Although the craftspeople have been selling regularly for many years and were some of the earliest sellers in the fair, their pitches had never been formally recognised.
The government proposed relocating them to the first six blocks of Defensa, but these blocks are already occupied by stalls, and the vendors don’t want to force out other sellers by moving into their spaces.
A group of 86 artisans have launched a legal challenge to recover their right to work. Since then, there have been hearings and meetings mediated by judge Romina Tesone with the aim of reaching a deal that pleases both parties. At the time of writing, no such compromise has been found.
According to Sita Diaz, who sells incense, around 300 sellers are affected by the conflict.
Mariana Miguez, a leatherworker who has been selling at the fair for 12 years, usually makes around half of her income there. She has had no phone since the conflict began because the lost earnings mean she cannot afford to pay the bills. What money she and her friends have goes on lawyers’ fees and the other costs of fighting the eviction. The communal meals her companions prepare on the street every Sunday mean everyone can eat at least once that day.
On 3 February, she was left with bruises after riot police pushed a shield into her ribs during scuffles at a protest. “These people don’t think we’re human beings,” she says. “They treat us like trees – ‘We don’t like that tree, we’ll cut it down.’”
The eviction of stallholders hits women especially hard. Many women who are primary caregivers for their children work at markets because it’s a flexible job that fits with child rearing. “This is my only income,” says Soledad Pratolongo, a single mother with a young son, who has sold handbags and purses on Defensa since 2009. “Not having work affects you psychologically.”
Vendors in a co-operative called El Adoquín were granted permits along one of the blocks affected, attracting criticism for accepting permits to work in other vendors’ pitches. They later agreed to give up the permits on that block as part of mediation hearings.
Juan Pablo Limodio, the city’s undersecretary for general administration and use of public space, says the artisans had been evicted from the stretch because the ministry of environment and public space wanted to formalise the space. “There in San Telmo, we had had a situation for some time that was irregular, that wasn’t legalised,” he said.
It is not clear yet what will happen there if the eviction goes ahead. Several stallholders say they have heard of plans to bring in food trucks. “We are analysing several alternative proposals, conversing with the surroundings to see what is best for those blocks,” says Limodio.
San Telmo’s artisans are far from the only street vendors to have faced crackdowns under this government. Sellers at a long-standing book fair in the city’s Rivadavia Park are facing eviction as the government tries to build a road through the park. The government has also stopped licensing hotdog vendors to sell food during football matches. A spokesperson for the ministry of environment and public space told the Argentine newspaper Clarín the move was intended to “regularise the sporting environment and guarantee safety”.
In mid-2018, the government attempted to introduce legislation that could punish those deemed to be making noise that disturbed the peace because of its “volume, repetitive nature, or persistence”. Buskers, percussionists and other street artists raised the alarm: the law as it stood could be used to clear them off the streets. The text was later modified to make an exception for street performances.
Roberto Lombardi, who teaches urban form at the National University of San Martín Institute of Architecture, says: “It’s a problem with how state policies visualise public space. Shifting hotdog sellers … has nothing to do with removing eating options from public places, but with substituting them with options like food trucks or stands, which would fit more with an aesthetics and presentation that align with the politics of the city government.”
“Neoliberalism seeks to privatise public space, and it’s been pretty fashionable in these latitudes recently,” says Mariana Segura, architectural consultant and director of the urbanism publication Hábitat Ciudadano.
For many sellers, the eviction has come at the worst possible moment. Argentina is deep in a recession that has pushed its president, Mauricio Macri, to turn to the IMF for a credit package. The peso lost half its value against the US dollar in 2018. That is a problem for sellers like Miguez because the price of her materials is linked to the dollar.Unemployment was at 9% in the third quarter of 2018, according to the country’s national statistics and census institute.
Figures from the Catholic University of Argentina’s Observatory on the Social Debt of Argentina show that 47.9% of workers were in the informal sector in 2017. “When the country’s economy is going through moments of crisis, fairs expand because they’re a source of work,” says Segura.
To the artisans, the solution is clear. “We want our blocks to be legalised,” says Pratolongo. “That’s what we’ve been asking for for years.”
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