Dance of the Fireflies
The story of an antiquarian
by Leslie Fausto
The rates of pollution in Mexico City are mind-blowing.
According to statistics released in 1997, 13,012 metric ton s
of solid waste was generated daily in the Federal District (D.F.) alone, nearly 3 pounds of garbage per person per day. These figures pertain only to the D.F.' leaving out another eleven million people living in the urban leviathan referred to here as Mexico.
Though recycling is not established as it is in other parts of North America, it does exist in Mexico. It is better referred to as scavenging. Hundreds of people make a living by rooting through the rubbish in D.F. dumps, pulling everything of value from cardboard and glass that can be sold to recyclers to discarded precious metals, coins, paintings and more. These
sharp folks have been able to not only tum the city's massive
rubbish problem into a booming business, but also help to save a part of our culture and art from permanent destruction.
They sell the glass and paper products to recycling companies
and the curios to antiques dealers (in Mexico known as
"coyotes") or at the different local tianguies, the city's
ambulatory flea markets. One of these "coyotes" is Ruben
Gomez Omelas, aman who is well known amongst the local junkers and scavengers.
"Twenty-five years ago the 'trash' business was basically an untapped gold mine. The economic situation was different back then. People in general were better off financial1y and thought nothing of throwing away their old furniture, accessories, and personal apparel- including jewelry, art and God knows what else," notes Omelas. "They wanted what was new and fashionable, and often had no idea that their
'old junk' was in fact valuable antiques."
One of those early scavengers was Ruben's father. The senior Omelas would search the city streets and dumps for discarded treasures, hauling a wooden cart that rode on metal wheel rims instead of tires to transport the days' finding. Ruben remembers accompanying him on many of these excursions as a boy.
"Antiques caught my attention even back then," adds Ruben. "But my father wanted me to
continue studying and to pursue a professional career. My big break came almost right after 1 was laid off from my job at the university."
That "big break" came in the form of a phone call from a friend of his father. The man had just inherited a house full of stuff and he wanted to sello Ruben notes that he wasn't interested at first, but the seller was insistent that he at least look at the items. Without knowing much about the business, he decided to take a chance on the 101. He laid out the majority ofhis compensation package from the university, one million pesos, and walked away with the collection.
"1 was carrying the stuff into my house when Don Jose Castillo showed up. His nickname is El Pinto among the other antiques dealers. He asked me if I had stolen the things, to which I replied 'no.' Then he asked me how much I wanted for the paintings. I figured I had a million into everything, so told him to give me ten million for the arto He paid me without even dickering over the price. Imagine my surprise a few months later to find Don Jose driving a brand new car and buying a house with the profits he had made from those painting! In my ignorance, I had sold sixty mint condition colonial paintings, some of them 12 feet tall, for a song." The lesson led the budding entrepreneur to take the antiques schtick a little more seriously. Now, nearly 13 years later, Omelas is a respected dealer of vintage Mexican silver.
Ruben claims that finds like his first deal don't happen as often as they used to. He adds that many in the ')unkers" business have been forced to sell used clothing or electronics because of competition and the shortage of vintage items. In order to purchase a good piece at a price which will stillleave a margin for profit, the "coyotes" are on constant prowl at the different local tianguis. The Fireflies
Early Monday morning, the "fireflies" flutter about the market in Ciudad Nezahualcoytl; Tuesday they take flight for Ixtapalapa's tianguis of Santa Cruz; Wednesday it is El Salado, better known as "The Jail" for its proximity to a female corrections center; Thursday they flit off to the small market place in Las Torres; Friday they return to Ixtapalapa, only this time to a different crowd; Saturday's destination is the affluent Bordo de Xochiaque, again in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl; Sunday they spread their wings with their lights set on the tianguis of San Felipe de Jesus.
The fireflies are the coyotes- the "flash-light boys," as they are sometimes known in the United States. In their zeal to be the first person to find whatever treasures might be hidden amongst the junk piles at any given tianguis, they scour their daily destination with lanterns and flashlights as early as three in the morning "helping" dealers unload. From a distance it looks like a swarm of fireflies. Each lamp signifies the hope of finding a good piece hidden among the piles of common items, perhaps an 18th century retablo or a bracelet signed by William Spratling.
Ruben Ornelas has been scouring these markets for over 12 years now. He knows the stories, legends and people who make the markets tick. Ornelas plans on writing a book about the antiques and the many stories which have changed hands over the years. "The book," he says, "will immortalize the history of the chacharero. Their stories are as important as the items which pass through their hands, full of local color and experience."