It was his smile that caught my attention. When he beamed, his whole face scrunched up. It was genuine, which was even more surprising because he was being fobbed off.
He was a street vendor. Dangling from his hand was a bunch of clay keyrings that clacked together. He moved from one potential buyer to another, reciting a well-rehearsed, minute-long spiel.
His head bobbed up and down as he spoke and his smile never disappeared. Not even as, one after another, the patrons declined a purchase. He gathered his wares, bid his customers “Buenos días”, and moved on.
He dressed in a chequered shirt tucked into beige suit pants. You could see the rough, handmade hemline where he’d had to sew them up. Despite the effort, he still looked small in his outfit.
I saw this hawker three times over a few days. His smile never wavered, but I never saw him complete a sale. The third time, I saw him in passing. He’d been shooed off and I felt for him, even though he appeared unfazed.
I was halfway down the road in search of lunch before I decided to see that smile of his again, for a different reason. I returned to search the square to buy one of his knick-knacks, but he was gone.
When I woke up the next morning, my last in Guadalajara, I knew exactly what my day’s plans were. I was going to find my clay keyring peddler and I was gonna make his goddamned day.
It was the Saturday before Semana Santa, the holy week leading up to Easter Sunday. That meant crowds and a holiday atmosphere throughout GDL. A good day for street vendors.
So I decided to revisit the locations of my previous sightings to track down my man and see a little of Guadalajara at the same time.
A bit about Guadalajara
With a population of about 4.5 million, Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico. But when you’re walking around, it doesn’t exactly strike you as a bustling metropolis.
Downtown Guadalajara lacks any skyscrapers. Instead, it is comprised of a grid of roads lined with lower-lying buildings.
As inconsequential as Guadalajara may seem to a foreigner, plenty of classic Mexican icons have their origins in this region. Wide-brimmed sombreros, mariachi music, rodeos, and tequila are few.
This city isn’t beautiful straight off the bat. But delve into its heart and you’ll find something authentic that will help you appreciate its subtlety.
In search of a street vendor: A tour of Guadalajara
Chai Café in the Jardín del Carmen
I hadn’t even been in Guadalajara 24 hours when Señor Keyrings first approached me with an “Hola, amiga”.
I was guzzling green tea and sucking up the wifi at a café called Chai, in the small plaza, Jardín del Carmen, on the periphery of downtown Guadalajara. Jetlagged and homesick, I’d waved him away with an apologetic smile. In return, I’d received a smile that lined his face and creased his eyes. He wished me a good day and glided to the next table.
On my last day in the city, I returned to the plaza. Chai Café was busier this time, thanks to its weekend breakfast buffet between 9am-2pm. Comfy couches, tables and chairs spilled out into a corner of the plaza and families constantly arose to refill their plates.
The wait staff, dressed in identical light blue shirts, placed a birthday cake on a table and gathered to sing and clap.
A young boy, maybe 10 years old, clutched a handful of pens topped with garish Disney characters. He tried to sell them to the patrons while is mother sat on a bench in the shade and surveyed his progress.
The place was bustling, but my vendor was nowhere to be seen.
Opposite the Jardín del Carmen, a little arts and crafts market lined the sides of a laneway. This market was run by the C.A.C.A.O group, an organisation for local artists and designers. Vendors spread their wares over tables; jewellery, knitwork, baked goods, and street food lined the strip.
I bought a biónico – a fruit platter with a coating of condensed milk and granola – and returned to the Jardín del Carmen to eat it, in case Señor Keyrings showed up.
The plaza itself was a quiet, leafy square. Loiterers sat on the benches and chairs scattered throughout the square, gazing at the centrepiece sandstone fountain. They watched passers-by or tourists stopping for selfies with the fountain or Carmen church as their backdrop
I stayed a while, whipping my head around this way and that for fear of missing my vendor, but he was nowhere to be seen
Guadalajara Cathedral & the heart of GDL
Of course, there were plenty of other places in Guadalajara where I could find my hombre. The most logical sight was the heart of downtown Guadalajara.
This marked by Guadalajara Cathedral, a neo-gothic construction that looks, well… like many other cathedrals.
And since my vendor was more likely to earn money making a sale than praying for one, I hovered in the cathedral’s surrounding plazas and streets.
First, Plaza de Armas, the cultural centre of Guadalajara. This has been a meeting place for locals since the 1800s and on Thursday and Sunday evenings (at 6.30pm), the state band performs concerts here.
It was a beautiful plaza, but not one well frequented by street vendors, so I stayed on the move.
At the front of the Guadalajara Cathedral, Plaza Guadalajara was a heaven for street vendors. There were tourists snapping photos and families out for the day. They sought shade along the benches under trees stamped across the plaza. It was the perfect bait for peddlers.
Clowns ambled through the plaza, twisting balloons into various shapes. Photographers and tour guides thumbed their service cards, waiting for the perfect patron.
Several shoe shiners were hard at work polishing up the leather boots of the plaza’s visitors. They had that acrid smell of shoe polish and toughened hands adept with a brush, and they beamed as they looked up at the patrons mid-conversation.
I relaxed for a moment in the shade of a tree and cast about for a man clacking clay animals together.
Instead, a gentleman with a beaten old cane approached me. He began his spiel in Spanish, but after I explained I couldn’t understand it all, he held up a $50 peso note. I pulled out $30 pesos and he opened a box of melted chocolate bars for me to take my pick.
Thus injected with new energy, I headed onwards. On the edge of a plaza, a street performer dressed in a brilliant blue wizard’s coat with a silver mask and long white beard stood frozen on the spot.
I snuck a $10 peso coin into his hat and he came to life, rattling a silver box and opening it towards me. Inside were dozens of bundled strips of paper. I pulled one out and read it as I moved on.
La Obsesion, it read. The Obsession.
Although at this moment, there is something that obsesses and preoccupies you, don’t give up. Take advantage of the circumstance and transform the difficulty into an incentive to move forward … Luck belongs to those with courage.
As I walked through the narrow, pedestrian streets around the city, I passed another street performer. He was dress in a khaki sailor’s suit and waved a spare hat in his hand to collect the coins.
His other hand cranked the handle of a harmonipan, which spilled tinny music out into the intersection. I raised a camera for a photo and he grinned at me. When I was done, I flipped some coins into his hat and continued.
Colonia Americana and Parque Expiatorio
The last place I sighted Señor Keyrings was well outside the central district in the adjacent neighbourhood of Colonia Americana.
Here, the streets were shadier, with smaller, more upscale boutiques. To reach my destination, I had to pass through Parque Revolución.
By day, this park had an unsavoury tinge, accented by the acrid smell of piss and weed. Homeless men made beds of the benches lining the paths.
But towards dusk, the youth took over the scene. The park came alive with music to accompany their activities. Dance groups rehearsed their moves and sword fighting groups practised their points and thrusts.
My destination was a little further along, at the Parque Expiatorio. In the peak of the day, locals sprawled their wares out on colourful blankets under what paltry shade the sparse trees offered. There were art paintings, colourful soft toys, bright, embroidered clothes, and beaded jewellery.
The square was otherwise quiet, and I could see at a glance that Señor Keyrings would not be there.
The Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento loomed over the scene. This huge church had striking reliefs on the façade and beautiful stained-glass window inside.
I sought relief from the burning sun there and wondered where on earth Señor Keyrings was at the minute. Little did he know that some naïve, stubborn gringa was searching the city for him to buy several keyrings for all her family back home.
And I wasn’t going to give up. The area around Parque Expiatorio is chock full of quality cafés. After a salad bowl at Café Gato, a suave, hipster affair with call buttons on the tables and cushioned seats you could stay in forever, I returned to the plaza.
The last of the sun’s rays slanted in sideways and cast a warm glow that seemed to relax the square’s occupants. As the church clock chimed the hour, visitors looked at the tower, where 12 miniature statues of the apostles rotated in and out of the tower to music.
By dusk, the plaza transformed. Gone were the ground-dwelling peddlers; they were replaced with street food carts and, on the side, a tiny ferris wheel of four carriages.
Loud Latin music blared from one corner of the square, where people congregated to watch locals play giant dominoes – a regular weekend feature.
Men strolled the plaza selling roses, but this solo chica was not their target audience. I stayed there a full hour, taking everything in and keeping an eye out for a squishy-faced smile.
In a country of people watchers, it was easy to get away with loitering. But Señor Keyrings didn’t show.
My heart felt heavy knowing I’d missed him. And yet I had discovered he wasn’t alone in this city. Every day, thousands of street vendors graced the bustling streets of inner-city Guadalajara.
Each was as invested in their success as any other peddler. And while it’s common – and indeed natural – to try to steer clear of those out for your money, there’s something to be gained from acknowledging them.
Here in Guadalajara at least, they help to make this city what it is, with its village vibe and humbling friendliness
If you loved this story, I’ve had plenty of other less impossible missions and adventures in Mexico! Check out these stories on the ARoamerTherapy blog today. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, if ANYBODY spots my guy, my keyring vendor, please hola at me.
Hell, buy me a keyring and ask permission for a photo and I will gladly repay your efforts!