Inside Mexico’s Anti-Capitalist Marketplaces

How some Mexicans are using barter and alternative currencies to build an economy beyond profit.

Ava Tomasula y Garcia August 16, 2018

Two women exchange goods at the Mojtakuntani, or Purépecha indigenous bartering fair, in Jarácuaro, Michoacán, one of many similar fairs across the country. (Photo by Joaquina Flores)

Two corn cakes for a loaf of bread. A liter of oats for an avo­ca­do and a bag of beans. An hour with a tra­di­tion­al heal­er for an hour of plumb­ing work. Ten mix­i­uh­cas — the market’s cur­ren­cy of choice — for a jar of pick­led car­rots. Not a sin­gle peso in sight.

“The monedas are meant to circulate, not accumulate,” Flores says.

Ven­dors and buy­ers have gath­ered today in one of the city’s small urban gar­dens for this month’s Feria Mul­ti­trueke, an alter­na­tive econ­o­my and bar­ter­ing mar­ket. Hip­sters push­ing organ­ic quelite seeds mix with elders stand­ing over steam­ing vats of hot choco­late and tamales. Women in aprons dole out tacos while their kids dart between stands. Shirts woven by a Maza­hua indige­nous women’s coop­er­a­tive are dis­played next to copies of the trans­lat­ed Com­plete Works of Rosa Lux­em­burg.

The air is alive with voic­es laugh­ing, bar­ter­ing and mak­ing sales. But these ven­dors aren’t ordi­nary ven­dors, and their buy­ers aren’t just cus­tomers, either. We are all pro­sum­i­dores here,” says Joaquina Flo­res, a mem­ber of the mix­i­uh­ca net­work. Pro­sum­i­dor is a com­bi­na­tion of the Span­ish words for pro­duc­er and con­sumer, high­light­ing the rec­i­p­ro­cal nature of the mar­ket. It’s sol­i­dar­i­ty,” Flo­res says. This is about meet­ing needs, not gen­er­at­ing wealth.”

The mix­i­uh­ca is one of many Mex­i­can mon­edas comu­ni­tarias, com­mu­nal or local cur­ren­cies fos­tered since the 1990s, draw­ing on indige­nous bar­ter­ing prac­tices. Pesos gen­er­ate vio­lence, they fund wars, drug and human traf­fick­ing, GMO crops, inter­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, inequal­i­ty,” says one pro­sum­i­dor. Com­mu­ni­ty mon­ey doesn’t.”

In an exchange involv­ing mix­i­uh­cas, the buy­er pays for a prod­uct or ser­vice using the mix­i­uh­ca and/​or barter. As a com­mit­ment to the currency’s val­ue, both buy­er and sell­er sign the back of the mix­i­uh­cas they use (which are about the size of an index card).

In this way, the cur­ren­cy gains cred­i­bil­i­ty as it cir­cu­lates, each sig­na­ture act­ing as a deposit” of con­fi­dence and val­ue. Some mon­edas work like debt, oth­ers as com­pen­sa­tion — it’s a form of cred­it, free of inter­est, based on trust. In addi­tion to the month­ly mar­kets, mix­i­uh­ca users con­sult a reg­istry of pro­sum­i­dores for ser­vices, and can also use the cur­ren­cy at a vari­ety of busi­ness­es that accept them.

Each pro­sum­i­dor is giv­en the same amount of mix­i­uh­cas upon enter­ing the com­mu­ni­ty. Peri­od­ic checks ensure that every­one main­tains about the same amount: If some­one is lack­ing, the com­mu­ni­ty tries to buy from them; if some­one has too many, there is pres­sure for them to spend. Once a year, all pro­sum­i­dores have to turn in their mix­i­uh­cas, which are then redis­trib­uted even­ly. The mon­edas are meant to cir­cu­late, not accu­mu­late,” Flo­res says.

Part of what makes Mex­i­can com­mu­nal cur­ren­cies pos­si­ble is the country’s larg­er eco­nom­ic con­text. The infor­mal econ­o­my makes up over a quar­ter of Mexico’s GDP and employs over half its work­force. DIY ven­dors sell gum in the metro, a snack stand sits on every cor­ner, shoes sprawl out on tarps and tla­coyos siz­zle on side­walk griddles. 

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment says the infor­mal mar­ket is an obsta­cle to growth” and expand­ed social ser­vices, since infor­mal busi­ness­es pay no tax­es. But after endur­ing cen­turies of colo­nial vio­lence, count­less shocks from the neolib­er­al mar­ket and cor­po­rate-state-spon­sored ter­ror­ism, many Mex­i­cans doubt the infor­mal econ­o­my is the prob­lem. In fact, com­mu­ni­ty self-suf­fi­cien­cy has long seemed the best bet for sur­vival, from pre-col­o­niza­tion bar­ter­ing prac­tices to today’s tan­das (neigh­bor­hood sav­ings systems).

Alter­na­tive cur­ren­cies have faced their share of per­se­cu­tion: The country’s first mon­e­da, the bojá of Hidal­go state, was repressed; in cash-scarce Ver­acruz, the state has tried to crush the alter­na­tive tumin cur­ren­cy since its begin­nings in 2010. (The tumin has pre­vailed, and today counts over 1,400 users.)

At this month’s Feria Mul­ti­trueke, peo­ple are hope­ful. Clau­dia Caballero, a co-founder of the mix­i­uh­ca net­work, is pro­mot­ing a new project: the Eco­mun, an alter­na­tive nation­al cur­ren­cy that will expand the sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my by link­ing all com­mu­ni­ty cur­ren­cies in Mex­i­co into an inte­grat­ed mar­ket. This will enable, say, mezquite users in Gua­na­ju­a­to to sell to mix­i­uh­ca users in Mex­i­co City, and will hope­ful­ly move them to the next step: alter­na­tive, com­mu­ni­ty con­trolled bank­ing” able to pro­vide autonomous financ­ing out­side the prof­it-dri­ven peso system. 

Flo­res smiles. It will be nei­ther micro nor macro, cre­ate nei­ther iso­la­tion nor ram­pant growth, but com­pan­ion­ship and togetherness.”

Ava Toma­su­la y Gar­cia spent the last year work­ing for an envi­ron­men­tal human rights orga­ni­za­tion in Mex­i­co City. She grew up in Chica­go and north­ern Indiana.
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