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Drive-By Shopping in Mexico

In a bad economy, vendors take to the streets - with garlic, flags, bathmats

IF the red, white, and green Mexican flag is suddenly an item of preference among Mexico City's legions of street vendors, this must be September.

That's the conclusion we've come to in our family as we sit stuck in traffic at a particularly onerous intersection near our home in the south of the Mexican capital.

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As we watch a far-off green light turn red, then green, then red again, we are hostages to the parade of vendors who file toward us hawking maps, windshield sunblocks, car floor mats, replacement windshield-wiper blades, newspapers, gum and candies, cut flowers, mixing bowls, stuffed animals, dolls, puzzles, and wreaths of ''best quality'' garlic.

After a year of residence here, we've noticed that a number of the items for sale are seasonal. For example, the wiper blades will soon disappear as the long rainy season draws to a close.

Then there are the items that come and go, like the stainless-steel mixing bowls or the particularly tacky bathroom-mat sets a while back: You could almost picture the hijacked merchandise truck (a growing problem here) being quickly cleaned out of bowls and bathmats one night for quick sale in our neighborhood the next day.

Now, after an 11-month absence, we once again have the flags. This is because September is the high mark of Mexican nationalist fervor, with independence day falling on Sept. 16. Some vendors wave parade-sized versions as they walk by, others carry an envelope-sized variety with a gold cord on one end, designed to hang from the rear-view mirror. Then there are the doll-sized flags, two of which wave from sticks attached to a small suction cup - perfect for display on a car window or perhaps a refrigerator.

We've also noticed the rise in the number of vendors since the peso was devalued in December and hundreds of thousands of Mexicans began losing their jobs. A year ago, a Chiclets girl, a windshield cleaner, and maybe a newspaper vendor were the only regulars we faced at our local drive-through black market. Now, in crisis-swamped Mexico, the newly jobless in unprecedented numbers have turned to selling what they can to put food on the table.

This street version of the underground economy has become a particularly acute problem in the city's historic center. Sidewalk vendors are called ambulantes here for their ability to pick up shop and move elsewhere if sales aren't good. With traditional merchants complaining that the growing numbers of ambulantes were stealing what little business they had, and with studies showing the number of ambulantes about to surpass the number of regular, tax-paying shops, the police stepped in.

Officers in riot gear moved through streets where the vendors had over recent months become wall-to-wall. Those ambulantes who chose to stay put were clobbered; their merchandise lost, some of their stands bulldozed.

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''First I lose my regular job through the fault of the government, and then when I try to keep my family going [by] doing this, the government comes after me again,'' says a man who calls himself Paco. He had been selling women's hosiery out of a cardboard box a few streets from the city's Constitution Square. ''The Mexican government has always been against the poor,'' he adds, gathering up his wares, ''but now it's as though they want us to starve.''

I consider telling Paco that he might move his ''shop'' to our intersection in the south of town. Vendors there never seem hassled.

But then I reconsider. I have no particular interest in seeing nylons added to the rush-hour offerings. And gauging the mood Paco's in, I doubt he's up for selling the Mexican flag.

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