MEXICO CITY—On a recent afternoon, Daniel Soto, a 36-year-old chef and entrepreneur, scrutinized the pedestrians passing in front of his brilliant orange food truck a few blocks away from the white, ultramodern, glass-paneled Reforma 222 mixed-use shopping center, at the border between Mexico City’s downtown financial district and the city’s trendy Roma Norte neighborhood. As Mexico evolves its two disparate halves, its globally connected, educated elite and its marginalized, informal workforce continue to exist side by side in the country’s capital. Soto looked up the sidewalk at a man in a suit walking past an abandoned, graffiti-covered 18th century mansion. Even as Mexico’s economy continues to transform, many entrepreneurs still prefer to work in the informal sector. Soto, watching a customer settle down onto a plastic stool in front of his truck, explained that the upside of informality is “you charge for the food, not the space.”
Modern Mexico is home to both an advanced industrialized economy and swaths of under-developed rural mountain ranges where residents survive on subsistence agriculture and government income transfer programs. Mexico has a growing high-tech manufacturing and service export sector, but it is also home to sizable informal economy, a secondary workforce of street food vendors, window washers, shoe shiners, and domestic helpers. In Mexico City, these two paradoxical aspects of the country’s economy often coexist within the same city block. For instance, in the heart of the country’s capital, inside the Reforma 222 shopping center, shoppers can dine on up-market reinterpretations of traditional Mexican dishes such as carnitas pork tacos and tortilla soup at restaurants such as El Bajio and La Distileria. Professionals who work in the offices in the tower’s upper floors can descend to mingle with the Chilangos (Mexico City residents) browsing for Apple products, CDs, home goods, and athletic equipment in the brightly lit stores in the building’s first three floors. At lunchtime, a pair of hungry diners could easily spend $100 on a couple of gourmet dishes and a few drinks at one of the formal restaurants inside the shopping center. By contrast, less than a block away, a neighborhood taco stand sells tripe, sausage, and slow fried beef brisket tacos—a hungry diner can get five meat-laden tortillas for less than $2.