Dec 7, 2016

Beyond Sand, Mexican Beach Vendors

People were created to be loved.
Things are created to be used.
The reason why the world is in chaos is
because things are being loved and
people are being used.

Collective Evolution

Some think they are sails, others hands but they are birds.
El Encuentro (The Encounter), Summer 2007. 
Sculpture representing the eagle of the US and the eagle of MX.
 Built for inauguration of the Governor’s Plaza.  Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attended!
Artists: Febe Alday, Ines Valdez, Esteban Moreno, Dario Ruiz, Gissel Rascon, Alan Villa

Anyone who has been on a beach in Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, has seen and heard them; they are the itinerant beach vendors.  They also sell on malecóns (seafronts) like the one pictured above.  

·       Other than having encountered them briefly however, how much do you know about them? 
·       Do they make enough money to survive? 
·       Are they happy with that type of work? 
·       How does their sales-system work? 
·       What do they sell? 
·       Should we buy from them?

Other views of the Governor's Plaza inaugurated in 2007
Other than speaking with a few of them and watching them while enjoying a walk on the beach or watching a sunset, I spent two days reading about them.  Thankfully there are a few detailed studies that have been conducted by people who also wanted to know and who speak Spanish a lot better than I do.

The simple, but common, wheelbarrow
In a nutshell from what I read and what we have witnessed firsthand over 4 years or so:

About 60% of ‘informally self-employed’ beach vendors have become so by choice.  More men choose it; more women are forced into it (mostly when becoming single mothers).  Since they appear to be at the bottom of the food-chain, I would have assumed that this type of work was imposed on them so I was surprised to read that a slight majority have taken this on by choice.

Only about 10-12% of them have no education.  For much of them, their kids will be much better educated than they are, a goal of theirs.  Many only speak their native tongue but some speak many languages. 
Approximately 70-73% are happy with this type of work.  They are not actively looking for other type of employment.  When asked what they would like to learn however, many respond they would like to learn more English, feeling that would lead to more sales.  Of course given time and money for education they would like to become teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, etc.
They like the work because it is informal, they have more autonomy, there is generally no reporting to anyone, there is no factory-like discipline and more flexibility overall.  This works especially well with what are called ‘circular migrants’, the ones that are home on the ranch when needed (at planting or harvest for example) and sell when they are not required.  It also works well for women with small kids who do not have family support to take care of the children.  The children will often accompany the women (and some men). 
Very colorful weavings and some embroidery
There are roughly as many men as women being beach vendors.  They earn about the same. 

In the interviews (a few hundreds of them) beach vendors had been working that trade anywhere from a few weeks to over 50 years!
The main difference in how much money vendors make is not based on gender, education, whether they belong to a union, have a license to sell, or how much time they have been working the beach but on how much family or friend capital they have.  This means, the more connections they have in that field, the better they do.  You almost need to be sponsored by a group (friends, relatives) to be on certain beaches.  75% of beach vendors have an inner circle of five or more friends/relatives. Many beach vendors follow a family legacy into the career, since families share knowledge, skills, connections/networks, that make such work easier and successful.
Beach vendors can and will occasionally have a bad day, meaning no income, but the average vendors make between 100 and 1100 pesos a day.  (At current rate = $5.50 - $60.50, but used to be around $90/day).  The devaluation of the peso and the downturn of the tourist economy are starting to affect these vendors quite negatively.
Your name woven as a bracelet
  • The ones who make the least amount of money are usually the food vendors especially if they compete with restaurants nearby.  They are in the 100-300 pesos/day category. 
  • Following that are the ones who purchase cheap items (usually made in China/Indonesia) in bulk and resell them on the beach.  They earn more in the category of 200-500 pesos. 
  • The next category takes that to the next level by adding pieces to already made items – for example add beads to a cheap hat or embroider an already made simple shirt.  They earn more in the category of 500-700 pesos however, even though they sell these items for more money, the result is that they do not get reimbursed for the time spent embellishing these items, it is as if their time doesn’t count. 
  • The final category which earns the most, in general, is the one that sells truly authentic hand-made unique items.  For that however, they must have the seed capital to buy these already more expensive items to resell.  They make upward of the 1100 pesos/day. 
To compare, minimum wage is 70 pesos/day and a construction worker makes approximately 300 pesos/day but would also benefit from health insurance and paid vacation time.  The beach vendors have no benefits and most work 7days/week.  As another comparison, where our boat is located the guards earn 560 pesos/day, the welders earn 800 pesos/day. 

There is a caveat in the beach vendor’s income reported; it may be lower than actual because these people may have feared their earnings would be reported to the government for taxes owed.  Having watched how hard these people work, for how long, and how often they are rudely rejected, I believe these numbers are fairly accurate.  Example: they get 20 pesos for each pair of sunglasses sold.  To make even 300 pesos one would have to sell 15 pairs in a day!

Beach toys
Some work for themselves, some for others, some as groups.  The ones who have enough capital buy items they can resell.  Some with little capital are hired by someone to sell their stuff – a little like pyramid scheme, the higher up the food chain the more money you make.  These poor souls are the ones who make the least amount of money and are not treated that well (probably the 27-30% of unhappy ones or 40% of ones not there by choice).  It is usually a stepping stone to something else down the road however; few stay in that stage for a long time.  You will usually see them being driven up to the beach in a pretty fancy vehicle.  They are dropped off there for the day and report each night to the same vehicle.  Finally, for the category with friends/relatives capital, since they can pool their money, knowledge, connections, and time they usually make a better profit overall. 

The perceived negatives were harassment by the authorities and long days in the sun without time to eat or rest.  If you belong to a union, they usually handle the harassment cases and renewal of licenses if needed.  License prices were from 450 to 1200 pesos.  The majority are not licensed.

Where this type of sales work best is where people visit for a very short while and have no time to visit shopping malls, only the beach.  These are usually places where large cruise-ships stay for a day or two in each port or people in hotels that are in the country for just an extended weekend.  They want the sun, the beach, the water, not drive to stores. 
For many cities, street vending is seen as a manifestation of poverty and underdevelopment therefore it is viewed as progress when they disappear.  Many beachfront businesses now rope off areas that beach vendors cannot go into making it more difficult for them to make a decent living. 
The advent of all-inclusive resorts is also becoming a big problem for beach vendors, street vendors and local restaurant owners and merchants.  People staying at these resorts don’t go out to where the locals are and buy only what the resort carries which doesn’t always represent local art.
The main problem encountered for beach vendors is the same encountered by any service industry people the world over.  They cannot afford to live where they work and end up in slums called ‘colonias populares’ at the outskirts of these resorts, gated communities, hotels, etc.  Many can be considered apartheid-like.
Many are heavily loaded with items. 
Walking the beach back and forth all day long.
So, should you buy from them?

Food and more food.  Churros, mango, pineapple, watermelon…
Personally, I would not buy food from them unless you are used to the local food.  Much of that food has sat in vehicles or under umbrellas near dogs, kids, and sand in the heat and may not meet any health standard. 

Should you buy food or at least cold drinks (closed bottles/cans aka safe) please don’t bargain these people down, they make nearly nothing off any of these items.  They saved you the walk to the nearest store or restaurant.  Enjoy that cold drink on the beach without having to move.
For the rest, you can barter a little, they expect it but please don’t be ruthless.  The 25-50 cents you saved is sometimes 25% of what they make in a day.  What is that 25-50 cents to you?
For truly handmade items try to gauge how much time it took them to make it and offer what would cover that amount of time.  I have seen people wanting to pay less than $10 for things that have taken people weeks to make, and they are proud and brag about it too.  Shame on you!
Offer a little less than what you want to pay.  They know the game as well as you do.  You are not fooling them.
If you do not want to buy anything don’t engage them with eye contact or by talking to them.  They will speak with you if you engage them.  It is much easier to simply shake your head no; the majority will leave you alone.  The ones who don’t leave you alone are usually not licensed and do not legally sell on the beaches, they generally steal items for resale and have very few of them that they keep away from prying eyes inside their pockets or in a towel or small bag.  Often they need quick money for their next drug fix.  They give legitimate beach vendors a bad name.  In five years of being in Mexico we have never been harassed by any of them.  I would not buy from the sneaky ones.
Taking a break, sharing stories
What do they sell? 

Just about everything and some of these items are seasonal.  It is sunny so expect towels, hats, sunglasses, suntan lotion, cold drinks, beach toys, seashells, and ‘Cuban’ cigars.  It is cold so expect blankets and long sleeve shirts.  Christmas is soon coming expect poinsettias and decorations.  Hair braiding, henna tattoos and massages are becoming very popular too.  Again, how much time has it taken one of these ladies to braid your hair with added beads or nice threads, please pay accordingly. Usually generosity pays off because they’ll refer you to a neat restaurant or a nice place to visit, etc.  Help you connect with a tour guide, etc. 
Another type of beach vendor are the folks trying to get you to go fishing or on a sunset or bird-watching cruise.  They get paid by each customer they bring in and usually don’t have a say in the price structure.
My two cents in this is that since we have a boat and don’t have room to store anything (and I don’t abide by consumerism), I would rather give them money and not take any item if they are nice and seem to need a sale.  They get money and are happy.  Should they report to someone who will count what they have sold and pay them a per-item-sold pittance, they’ll be able to keep that 20 or so pesos (or a $1US) for themselves, it will not go to their boss.
Sources:  Jack David Eller and Tamar Diana Wilson (2012)
As tide goes up, time to move
Please don’t see them as threatening.  They are usually very friendly and can take a kind no without push back.  Enjoy your vacation and time on the beach. 

To add a little more perspective (2016 numbers):
Wage average:  $173.76/day
Wage average:  $15.35/day
Yearly worked average: 
1,790 hrs or 34.4hrs/wk
Yearly worked average: 
2,246hrs or 43.2hrs/wk
Price of groceries in US: $100
Price of same groceries in MX: $66
Rent in the US: $736
Rent in MX: $200
Population below poverty line: 15.1%
Population below poverty line:  52.3%
Sources: Forbes, OECD, Index Mundi

Mexicans work an average of 9 hours more per week than their American counterpart.  Americans make about 11.3 times more than the average Mexican but for that same Mexican, rent is 3.7 times cheaper and food is 34% cheaper.  When we were here in 2011, the average Mexican was making about $489/month.  Due to the devaluation of the peso, that figure is now closer to $399/month.  The median household however, makes about $843/month with 3.8 person living in each household. 


  1. Thanks for the information. We have been lucky enough to learn a little about street vendor licensing policies in some Mexican cities and some about average wages in Mexico -- but never about the beach vendor economy. Like you, we don't have the space for tourist tchochke so I doubt we'll change our buying habits - but my views about these workers has been enlightened.

  2. I was just at the beach in Cancun and entertained a vendor selling necklaces. Bought a couple of necklaces, only to my wife's remark that she doesn't like them, when I remarked that I didn't consult her opinion and that my motivations lie in helping these guys out and gifting these items should anyone care. She immediately returned to her reading, some of which I am sure are Christian. We are both Christian, I am Indian and she is American, but it often makes me angry how little of Christianity has really gotten across, the westerners. Which is what prompted me to look this up. Thanks for the info, it helps me have a view that's closer to reality rather than pre conceived notions.

  3. Take2:
    I am at the beach in Cancun and had just entertained a vendor selling necklaces and bought a couple of necklaces for 500 pesos to my wife's chagrin and comment that she didn't think anyone at home would wear these etc., before returning to her Christian readings. It makes me angry how little Christianity has gotten across to westerners, anyway, this is what prompted me to look this information up. I am Indian and my wife American, so some things bother me more than it does, her. Thanks for the blog, I have a better idea now.. we are both Christians though.


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