Xiomara’s been doing this for 25 years: a day before the year ends, she puts on her blue jeans, her sneakers, and a spaghetti-strap top —“because it gets hot with so many people,” she says— and she heads off to La Hormiga market in El Cementerio, a working-class areas in the west side of Caracas.
Named for its municipal cemetery, one of the oldest in the country, El Cementerio is better known for the unending shootouts along its alleyways and for being home to ‘the largest boutique in Venezuela’; in the words of the huge sign that greets shoppers to La Hormiga, a dizzying maze of clothes stands and hawkers selling cold water and malta.
“It used to be, and I’m talking about last year, that at this price I’d buy five of them. And with nicer embroidery. Now you want to sell me just one?”
She knows her daughter’s panty size, “I mean, I gave birth to her the old fashioned way”, and she taught her that a proper Venezuelan has to carry out this golden tradition to greet the new year: yellow underwear. But today, well into sixties, she joins an unwinnable fight with one of the sellers over the price of the undergarments.
“It used to be, and I’m talking about last year, that at this price I’d buy five of them. And with nicer embroidery. Now you want to sell me just one?” she shoots, not minding that her raised voice is drawing curious stares from the people around her.
“Señora, don’t blame me for that. Go to Miraflores if you need somebody to blame,” fires back the young lady who’s been showing off her whole catalogue of yellow bombachitas at her disposal, to the profit of our southern friends.
Grudgingly, Xiomara takes out her debit card and buys two: one for herself, one for her daughter. The price? Bs.9,000 bolivars: a third of the monthly minimum wage of Bs.27,000. For two panties.
“It’s armed robbery! But if I head to downtown store like El Palacio del Blumer, or to a mall, they’re going to want 6,000 for one. I just hope my daughter takes care of it, because with her hips she keeps busting the elastics,” she says as she wraps up her tradition so it won’t make her purse bulge.
I still remember those Christmases when my grandmother would steel us —my mom and I— for the horror that was walking through the crowded market, with its narrow halls and its pickpockets ready to prey on the distracted.
Yes, even the tradition of hunting for bargains in El Cementerio’s been lost.
That’s what this is about. I still remember those Christmases when my grandmother would steel us —my mom and I— for the horror that was walking through the crowded market, with its narrow halls and its pickpockets ready to prey on the distracted. It was a necessary evil to find the estrenos, the new clothes for new year without having to leave your year-end bonus at a shopping center or on shops “with shop windows that are way too suspicious,” as she’d say with malice.
“We used to be distributors for all the shops at the Sambil, at CCCT, El Recreo, and a few in San Ignacio. All that stuff that you’d find in those places at rocketship prices you could get here, the same quality and brand, at more reasonable prices. But for the last five years, the stock we’re able to get is only enough for us. Barely. I’ll let the other guys worry about how they stock their racks,” tells me Pedro Tene. He was born in Ecuador, but he has the multicultural heart of a born trader. He’s been running his same clothing shops in La Hoyada and El Cementerio for 20 years.
Pedro is a big shot here. A kind of Godfather everybody greets and respects.
“If you want to buy some nice underpants go over there, or for some good trousers, good quality, try this shop here,” he shows me as he juggles his three cell phones. Even in Venezuela, even amid the crisis, December is high season for him.
“Sure, there are fewer people. It’s also less cheerful. People aren’t thinking about how they dress anymore. They just want to eat,” he says.
You can see that on a 30th of December in the more than fifty halls that make up the two parts of the market. Even though the space for walking is tight, it’s nothing like it once was, when I had to ask my mom to carry me on her shoulders so I wouldn’t drown in the sea of legs and bags striking my face. Even on the bulevar, lately renamed César Rengifo after the painter and poet, it was nearly impossible to get around. There was always another street hawker out trying to peddle your twelve grapes for your twelve wishes, or a suitcase so we could travel without trouble.
“You wouldn’t believe it now, but people used to camp out overnight here to be first in line to get at the clothes. And shopkeepers would stay all day to restock their shelves,” says my dad, who’s lived for fifteen years next to Telares Los Andes. Today, the panorama is transformed: the queues are to buy Pan de Jamón for New Year’s Eve at one of the two bakeries near the mercado, while a third long line snakes out of the Banco de Venezuela, full of people trying to get cash.
It’s on their way out of this last line that we find Beatriz, together with his nine year old kid. My wife reminds her cheerfully not to count her banknotes out on the streets, so she doesn’t get held up. With a mischievous smile, Beatriz tells us nobody’s going to want her stack, since they’re all 100 bolivar bills.
A shirt, an ice cream: half your month’s wages.
“My son wants a Captain America shirt, and the debit card reader at the only shop that has them broke down,” she says, “so I had to put up with the bank to get the cash.” She hurries while her kid tells her after the shirt he wants an ice cream.
How much? The shirt is Bs.12,000, and the ice cream another Bs.1,500. A shirt, an ice cream: half your monthly wages.
In the markets Zona A, in the 12th hallway, I ask about a set of six little baby hoods, newborn sized, that I’d bought two weeks ago for Bs.7,000. Today they’re Bs.15,000.
“The ones you got were from an old lot. These came in with the new price, and you should grab them while you can, because come January they’re probably going to come in at Bs.18,000,” says the shopowner.
Just some simple cotton bonnets to keep my baby, Rafael, from catching cold at night.
After seeing all this, I call my grandmother, who had the foresight to move to the U.S. 18 years ago, and I tell her everything I’ve seen. I’m surprised that, over the phone, I don’t hear gasps or outrage.
She lets me get through my whole tale before finally shooting back: “there’s nothing cheap in Venezuela. Think of the irony: they buried the bargains in El Cementerio. “
Sabiduría popular le dicen.