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A Day in the Life of a Chacharero

by Gina Cardenas

The alarm signaling my morning wake up call was unnecessary. I hadn't slept a wink all night in anticipation of what the day had in store. For the past few months I'd been working as a journalist, a profession which at times doesn't involve following the most exciting of assignments. Today's interview was definitely not on that list of boring missions. I was accompanying the famous Esteban Rodriguez in his jaunts through the "La Lagunilla" Sunday market in the heart of downtown Mexico City. This was going to be a real experience!
Esteban navigates his way through the narrow rows of treasures and antiques like a skillful salmon making a trek up a whitewater stream. There can be no doubt that this man has years of experience buying and selling. I struggle to keep pace with him while taking in the market's excitement. La Lagunilla is an ancient tianguis with roots dating back to the pre Columbian era. There are a multitude of vendors hawking wares from all different regions of the country.
Esteban's passion is in the thrill of finding rare books and old maps, among other good antiques. "The first thing I started buying were books," Esteban told me on the drive over to the market. "My first job was at the Mercado de Cartegena,' here in Mexico City. I was an assistant to a vendor of old and rare books."
Through his employment, Esteban began developing a keen sense for buying and selling. He knew he was hooked on the business when he decided to move to the Lagunilla area of Mexico City. His reasoning was that it would offer him a better opportunity to increase his knowledge of the business. His notion was correct.
Esteban has rubbed elbows with many prominent personalities in the world of art and antiques over the years. The well known Nacho "El Chacharas," Sergio Godinez and Faustino "El Chino" are only a few of those he has done business with.
As we trek through the market Esteban stops at different booths to study a painting, a santo, and other unusual objects which catch his well trained eye. The real fun begins when he haggles with a local vendor for possession of a fantastic straw mosaic portrait of Ernesto Alonso, A famous Mexican movie star.
"A lot of time, patience and experience is required to become skilled in determining what is worth 100 pesos and what is worth a million. Intuition is also key to becoming successful in this business," says Esteban. "A good piece will literly talk to you." He ended up walking away with the mosaic for a fraction of its real market value.
As we haul our treasures back to the car old men and women, and even children, shout out to us, enticing us to stop and have a closer look at what they have to offer. When I finally arrive back home, trunk full of newly acquired goodies, I completely understand what Esteban meant when he said that once the "chacharas bug" bites you, there is no escape.
For Esteban it is not the economic benefits of the business which give him the greatest sense of satisfaction, it is the excitement of the La Lagunilla market and the titillation of a great deal. The buying and selling, intense negotiating and light hearted joking among friends and fellow compadres is what motivates him most.
With 35 years of experience in the business, dealing in antiques and art is more than just a profession for Esteban, it is a philosophy of life. Esteban's shop in Mexico City can be found at 13th of September #79-B in the barrio of Escandon. Plan on arriving early for the "good stuff" because he does move it out fast, and bring cash. Contrary to what you may have heard from others, they don't take Master Card, Visa or American Express here.