If you’ve ever ridden the Buenos Aires Subte, then it’s likely that you have come in contact with one of the underground’s many vendedores ambulantes, or traveling salespeople, who work it. Whether you’ve ignored the tissues they’ve left on your knee, said “no, gracias” or bought something, you know they exist, and if you ride the Subte, you interact with them every day. The Bubble spent a few days interviewing them to try and figure out what the trade is, who practices it, and how it works. We interviewed around a dozen vendedores ambulantes over 2 days, most of whom asked not to be photographed, but were happy to talk to us and allowed us to use their first names.
For starters, the profession is not as chaotic or free-form as it may seem at first glance; there are rules to the game and a community which enforces them. Each subway line is worked by 30 to 40 vendors who all know each other. They have regular meetings (vendors reported anywhere from three times a week to once a month), to discuss practices and any particular issues.
This familiarity is essential because one of the main functions of this community is to stop newcomers from encroaching on the business of those in the group; those who have established themselves as trustworthy vendors and attend the group meetings. If, for example, you were to start selling things on the D Line sponteneously, one of the existing vendors would ask you to leave, and if you didn’t, as one vendor put it, he would personally remove you “a piñas“ (with his fists).
The first reason the vendors so jealously protect their lines from outsiders is to safeguard their business by stopping others from selling on the trains, stealing both their customers and profits. But they insisted that was not the only reason for the practice. It was also to ensure only “humble, hardworking, good people” were selling on the trains, so as to avoid trouble with the government, local authorities, and passengers.
One vendor, who asked to remain anonymous, put it like this: “If someone I don’t know is selling on the train and [then] steals your phone, and you report it to the police, he is gonna disappear, and the rest of us are going to get kicked off the subway for good.” When asked if vendors ever stole from passengers, he replied: “If I take your phone and sell it in Once, maybe I make AR $3,000. But my business is dead, and I can make AR $3,000 working 9 AM – 9 PM in three days.” He admitted that AR $3,000 in three days was an exaggeration, but the point still stood.
Same rules apply to beggars. If a vendor sees a homeless person on the train, bothering passengers or making the ride unpleasant, they’ll ask him or her to leave, following up the request with force. It seemed as if many vendors thought of the trains as their workspace, and that they guarded their business from competition and aimed to keep us, the customer, happy and in the mood to spend money.
The community also serves as a resource to advocate for the subway vendors. While it is not a union, there is no employer to negotiate with and no dues, vendors told me that if there was trouble with security at the stations or policemen taking away merchandise (the practice of selling things on the subway is, after all, illegal), they would strike back with an organized protest or confrontation. It’s very easy for a security guard to apprehend a solitary vendor, but it becomes significantly more complicated when there’s five, or six, or 40.
The way the group was organized fascinated me. Are there leaders? Do they hold elections? Is it anarchical? Feudal? Do they all defer to the tallest member? Most vendors agreed, with a couple of exceptions, that seniority was the key factor in the hierarchy. Whoever had been in the community for the longest had the most say, and it went down the order from there. On the H Line, for example, vendors said that right now, the de facto leaders were two 40 to 50-year-old women who’d been selling on the line since they’d been in their twenties. All the vendors insisted they were 100% independent, and didn’t pay dues to anyone.
Vendors were aware that what they do is not societally viewed as a traditional job. Few children grow up telling adults that they want to be vendedores ambulantes. Many vendors I talked to were working toward something else but needed money to get there. One, Pablo, told me that he was training to become a metal worker with his father, but he had three kids and a wife to support, and there weren’t enough metal-working jobs. Another, Horacio, who was moving around the train with a nasty limp and a pair of crutches, told me he was trying to save up for an operation. Another told me that his mother had brought him to the subway when he was eleven, and because he’d dropped out of high school at 12, he couldn’t get any other job. He couldn’t go back to school because he had two kids to support.
Generally, while the vendors didn’t resent their work, they were doing it out of necessity, as some condition or situation prevented them from getting other, more stable, jobs. Almost all the vendors interviewed had a family they were supporting with the income. When one vendor told me he had five kids, I asked if the income was enough to support his family.“It’s difficult, very difficult”, he replied. “But you do what you can, they eat, and they have clothes, but we’re not rich.”
Other ones gave more optimistic reviews, saying that even though the job was tough and the crisis didn’t help, the overall situation in the country is tough for everyone right now, and all and all they were doing alright: enough money to support their families and “buy my kids birthday presents”, as one of them put it.
Vendors I talked to were working anywhere between seven and 12 hours a day, with profits varying widely. Most were bringing in AR $500 to AR $900 a day yet admitted that some days were brutal, AR $250 for 12 hours, and others were great, AR $1,000 in just five. Most were working Monday to Saturday, and it is by no means easy to be on your feet all day, constantly pushing items on people who seem uninterested.
On an average day (we’re working in approximations here and making some big assumptions), let’s say eight hours of work will get you AR $600 pesos. That’s around AR $75 an hour, which may not seem like much, but if we keep in mind that it’s untaxed, and compare it to the minimum wage in the country, currently at AR $62.50 per hour, it isn’t bags of money, but for many it seemed to be enough.
The vendors I spoke to made a profit by purchasing common, useful items (tissues, Post-Its, folders, candy) at stores in Avellaneda or Once every morning and then adding on a margin when selling them on the subway throughout the day. One vendor was buying basic children’s books for AR $25 and selling them for AR $50; another, Post-Its for AR $12 and selling them for AR $25; and yet another, folios for AR $8 and selling them for AR $30. If sales are bad one day, the next day they try something else, switching between products based on what is cheapest at the store, and what sells the most.
The vendor with the Post-Its told me about the AR $13-mark up on his products, and then, a bit tongue-in-cheek, told me to watch him sell them. He proceeded to tell passengers that in a store these things would be four or five times as expensive, and that the prices he was offering couldn’t be beat. To be fair, as we were passing through Recoleta at the time, the Post-Its would have been a bit more expensive at a local librería.
I found the days I spent on the subway, asking vendors questions, completely fascinating, as I tried to understand this profession that I had long been in contact with, but always ignored. More than anything, some vendors I talked to impressed upon me that they didn’t see themselves as beggars, and I started to view them like any other member of a capitalist society, providing a service, adding value to products. They can be bothersome, and on some days I find the highlighters left on my knee, or the man speaking loudly about his prices, invasive, but not necessarily more invasive than a man in a dress shirt approaching me as I walked down the street, telling me to try his restaurant.
To be able to buy tissues on the subway is convenient for somebody with terrible seasonal allergies caught without them, I’m more than willing to pay AR $15 extra to not be a sniveling wreck for the rest of my train ride. Just like the kiosko facilitates the purchasing of tissues, so you don’t have to order from a supplier, the vendedor ambulante facilitates by coming directly to you, eliminating the walk to the kiosko. The subway is their shop, you are their customer, and the name of the game is convenience, and bothering you just enough that you buy something.
Most of the vendors I talked to were kind to me, and while some were trying to get money, asking me at the end to buy things, others refused compensation when I offered, saying they’d been happy to talk to me, and that hopefully one day we’d see each other again.
Vendedores ambulantes are a part of Buenos Aires that isn’t going anywhere. Sure, they can be bothersome, invasive, but they can also be convenient (I have a deviated septum and cannot go more than 20 minutes without blowing my nose). They have systems through which they govern themselves, and ways they regulate their market, dealing with competitors and authorities. Their methods are not always peaceful, or entirely legal, and some may say that we are better off without them, but regardless, they are one of the many elements that color and shade the Buenos Aires experience, and my daily commute.