The early morning sunlight filters through the trees as Pedro unloads a crate of oranges from the truck. He hands it to Julián, who places it inside the grocery store, dodging rush hour pedestrians. Sandra, the store owner, arranges the tomatoes, while her daughter Claudia sets up the front stall to display a vast array of colorful produce: figs, bananas, grapefruit, artichokes, potatoes, avocadoes, pears, melons. “Thanks guys, see you later!” says Sandra, smiling and straightening her apron. So begins another busy day in Buenos Aires at Verdulería Sandra.
This is one of the city’s many vegetable and fruit stalls, often run by Peruvian and Bolivian migrants who came to Argentina over the past 15 years in search of opportunity. Sandra herself moved to Argentina in 1997 from a small town in Peru with her young daughter, 3 years old at the time, to help with her Aunt’s grocery business located in Recoleta, one of Buenos Aires’ affluent districts. Once she felt confident and had saved some of her income, Sandra moved to a small apartment with her daughter and bought her Aunt’s shop to run it herself.
“In the beginning, for the first three years or so, it was really hard. I barely sold anything! I was still paying off the store, and clients didn’t know me well so they hardly bought from me. As time went on, they began to know me and trust me more, and I started having a more solid clientele, even though more grocery stores sprang up in the area,” Sandra recounted.
Things began to improve not only through her relationships with clients, Sandra continued, but also the landlord who leased her the storefront, and her providers at the Central Market in the suburban neighborhood of Tapiales, not far from Ezeiza international airport.
“Everything, all my produce is from the Central Market,” said Sandra. Mondays and Wednesdays are fresh produce days – Sandra, her husband Pedro, and her employee Julián, share a taxi to the market at 2 am on those days, a one-way 150 peso investment twice a week. The return journey is 350 pesos for the truck rental and driver, plus 50 pesos for the toll, Sandra adds.
El Mercado Central, Buenos Aires from The Miracle of Feeding Cities on Vimeo.
On those days when produce arrives from the provinces, the market bustles with activity, new prices are only just being set, it is a race to secure a good deal. Sometimes, Sandra explains, “you get a great price and someone shouts ‘tomatoes up 20 cents!’ and that’s it, your seller backtracks and you have to pay up.” Other times you’re lucky and you seal the deal before that happens, she laughs. “It’s a tossup.”
Relationships between buyers and sellers are key. “I’ve built up a good relationship with the sellers – I always go to the same ones, they know me, they expect me. The tell me ahead of time when they’re working, or to go to if they’re not. If they’re out of produce and I need something specific, that’s really tough – I have to go to a different seller and they charge me more or give me worse quality, and I have to throw half of it away. But what can I do? I have to offer a variety, and I have to have some of everything, otherwise clients will ask me for parsley and what do they do if I don’t have any? They’ll find a different store.”
The only time Sandra is completely helpless, along with her fellow grocers, is when the truck union is on strike. “When that happens, everything stops. Not only is the central market empty [because the trucks don’t come with cargo from the provinces], but the trash is not collected either, which attracts flies – in any case, I have to throw out wilted and perished produce I can’t sell, but it’s not collected.”
Business is tough these days, Sandra says. Soaring inflation and constant price increases have caused clients to buy less as they are on ever tighter budgets, Sandra explains, choosing smaller and smaller quantities of each item they used to buy more of. “Before it was ‘a kilo of potatoes’ or ‘a kilo of carrots’ – now it’s two potatoes, an onion… maybe one or two bananas,” she shrugs. “I just keep going and do the best I can – I’ve got bills to pay.”
Divine protection helps. A small army of patron saints and good luck charms line the walls; elephants, a laughing Buddha with an overflowing bag of gold, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint Cajetan, and most importantly, Saint Jerome, watch over everyday activities at the store. “At least I’m in retail, I don’t know what I would do if I had to follow the price controls,” Sandra said, referring to the Argentine government’s controls imposed on a wide basket of goods in the wholesale industry. “I have everything in order and up to date, the fire extinguisher, pest control, my food handling license – the Ministry of Labor, the Bromatology department [of the Ministry of Health, verifying food safety and hygiene], and the tax agency could drop in at any moment” to carry out inspections.
Asked if she will go back to her home country in the future, Sandra shrugged and said, “I don’t really know. This is a tough life, you never know what’s going to happen. My daughter’s life is here – her friends, her studies. But someday I might go back to Peru and do something else.” With a glint in her eye, Sandra adds, “For now though, I’m here and I keep going.”