The Buzz of Commerce Along the Ruta del Comprador in Quito, Ecuador

Taylor C. Nelms, photos by Anna Wilking

For the last time he raised his eyes and looked at the markets. […] The general awakening had spread, from the first start of the market gardeners snoring in their cloaks, to the brisk rolling of the food-laden railway drays. And the whole city was opening its iron gates, the footways were humming, the pavilions roaring with life. Shouts and cries of all kinds rent the air; it was as though the strain, which Florent had heard gathering force in the gloom ever since four in the morning, had now attained its fullest volume. To the right and left, on all sides indeed, the sharp cries accompanying the auction sales sounded shrilly like flutes amidst the sonorous bass roar of the crowd. It was the fish, the butter, the poultry, and the meat being sold. The pealing of bells passed through the air, imparting a quiver to the buzzing of the opening markets.

—Emile Zola, The Fat and the Thin (Le Ventre de Paris)

Collectively, all these voices make a lot of noise: the auditory experience of the market is a disorienting hubbub of people talking, whispering, laughing, and shouting—a constant hum punctuated with louder voices.

—Mary Weismantel, Cholas and Pishtacos, pg. 109

Quito’s centro histórico (or historical center) has historically been the city’s commercial center as well—where those aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle have gone to find the the material furnishings for such a life—and it’s the wheelings and dealings of retail trade and street business that, in large measure, continue to give the centro its liveliness. Like Les Halles of Zola’s Paris, the centro is full of chatter, shouts and cries, humming and buzzing, a clamorous, reverberating bustle. Markets—from street markets to the trading floors of Wall Street—are often described as noisy, raucous, excessive places.[1] When seeking to understand the logic of market transactions, however, that excess is precisely what is often left out, still a remainder. Mary Weismantel suggests that we pay close, empirical attention to the “material facts,” the “sights, sounds, and smells of the marketplace” (pg. 100). And indeed, walking through the throngs that fill the centro’s streets and passageways, especially on Saturdays and for the newcomer in particular, can be an almost overwhelming sensory experience. This post is an ethnographic experiment, then, in attempting to convey some part of that experience, but with an eye—and ear—towards understanding the aural messages and signatures of the noise. If street commerce in Quito’s centro is an embodied, sensory experience, then it is also, I want to suggest, a semiotic one as well.[2]

Anna Wilking—a filmmaker, journalist, and, like me, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology—and I walked eight blocks along a well-traveled route through the centro’s commercial heart. Hopping off a bus in La Marín, a transportation hub between Quito’s northern and southern halves (and a key site for street vendors), we walked up the steep slope of Calle Chile, mostly blessedly free of car traffic, past the Plaza de la Independencia (or Plaza Grande) and La Iglesia de la Merced to the neighborhood called El Tejar. In early December, Quito’s municipal government named this path the Ruta del Comprador, or Shopper’s Route, and staffed it with a heavy police presence in an attempt to draw residents to the centro to do their Christmas shopping and to at least complement purchases made in one of Quito’s upscale shopping malls. I also happen to walk the entirety of the Ruta del Comprador on my way to a primary field site for my dissertation research, the Ipiales market at the corner of Chile and Imbabura Streets.

The Ruta del Comprador project in December hearkens back to previous attempts by the city government to regulate public space through targeted efforts to control street commerce. It echoes, in particular, the relocation in 2003 of thousands of street vendors, sometimes called “ambulantes,” to fixed locales in large, concrete structures called “centros comerciales de ahorro” (rough translation: budget malls), several of which are situated along the route Anna and I walked. Although municipal ordinances now prohibit the sale of goods in the street, and although the city intermittently attempts to remove merchants from particular areas—such as through the Ruta del Comprador initiative, which one city official described to me as an attempt to create a “column of security” to promote the “safety” and “cleanliness of our streets”—vendors continue to return to the centro’s streets to make their rounds and sell what they can under the disapproving, but usually inactive, gaze of the police. The merchants, on the other hand, tell me that they feel safest in the centro when they can hear their compañeros at work; it means none of them will be caught alone. (I feel the same.)

Efforts like the Ruta del Comprador are part of a long history of tension and conflict between municipal institutions and street vendors, a conflict expressed most clearly via the struggle to occupy space. In locating vendors in contained areas such as the centros comerciales de ahorro, city officials argue that they are attempting to bring order, safety, sanitation, and “trust” to the centro at the same time that they offer a “dignified” work environment for the merchants. A central complaint among such officials regarding street commerce—besides assumptions about crime and sanitation—concerns the noise. And as I suggested above, the streets of the centro are lively, exuberant, boisterous spaces. But such noise also contains communication—information at once “economic” and “social” about products for sale, prices, supply and demand, what’s needed and what’s desired, the advertisement of wares, the negotiation before the sale, the individualized calls of particular vendors. All this is part of the sociomaterial world of commerce and consumption in Quito. There is no doubt more to gleaned from the buzz of Quito’s commerce along the Ruta del Comprador.[3]

In this Google map, I have embedded images taken by Anna along the Ruta del Comprador, some of which correspond to timestamps in the recording above. Listen for the aural signatures of particular moments, places, people, and encounters, such as around the 16:50 mark, when I run into one of my interlocutors selling newspapers. Each recorrido or tour through the streets of the centro will produce a different soundscape, but many of the actors keep returning and many of the encounters echo one another. (There are many more encounters, goods for sale, and merchant voices than I can mark here. Add a comment if one in particular calls out to you.)

The sounds of vendors in the streets of the capital also speaks to the ongoing conflict between the city and the ambulantes. For the merchants, the streets of the centro are secured with sound, not police checkpoints. And as the Occupy movements return to the streets in cities across the United States and Europe, street vendors’ calls suggest another kind of occupation, filling a space with sound, occupying the streets with one’s voice.


[1] It’s not just Zola who describes markets this way. This is Henry Mayhew writing in his book London Labour and the London Poor: “[A]t each step the low hum grows gradually into the noisy shouting, until at last the different cries become distinct, and the hubbub, din, and confusion of a thousand voices bellowing at once again fill the air.”

[2] As is, for instance, sounds on the trading floor of major stock exchanges. If markets depend on information-sharing, then they equally depend on the voices that carry such information.

[3] For instance, the appearance of goods for pets for sale (such as clothing for dogs), as well as the pets themselves (usually small puppies, but on this trip, we also found fish for sale), suggests that Quito’s pet culture is changing. While dogs were once seen almost exclusively as security features, now they are increasingly being treated as members of one’s household.

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2 Responses to The Buzz of Commerce Along the Ruta del Comprador in Quito, Ecuador

  1. Pingback: The Sound Ethnography Project

  2. Maurice says:

    This is fantastic!

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