Street Repairs | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Street Repairs

In Mexico, men are cheaper than machines; labor costs less than objects.

Once, my combination radio and CD player stopped working. In San Francisco, I would have been charged $30 or more to have a repair shop diagnose the problem, with repair charges on top of that if it was repairable. Probably cheaper and certainly easier just to throw it away and buy a new one. It's the American Way.

When I proposed this course of action to Rosario, our ama de llaves (housekeeper) she was scandalized. Why would one ever throw something away? Maybe it will work again. Surely the técnico will know what to do.

Chastened, I consulted Juarde, the gringo phone book. Not a single radio and TV repairman was listed. Of course not. Why would any gringo have any interest in such people. We have all learned that broken things get thrown away, not repaired.

Then I remembered seeing a sign over a downtown store front advertising electronics repairs. Where was it? On Mesones? Insurgentes? I took my radio and walked through a couple of blocks until I found it. I gave the radio to the proprietor. He told me to come back in an hour. When I returned, he handed me the repaired radio and charged me 100 pesos—about $9—less than 10% of the new cost of the radio.

Gotta remember: Machines—expensive. Labor—cheap.

Nowhere is this principle more evident than in construction. Houses, roads and bridges are all built and repaired by hand.


Repaving Privada Pila Seca.

Here a crew is renewing the sidewalks and cobblestone surface of a short street. The curbstones have been set, but the sidewalk paving stones await placement after which the cobblestones, previously removed and placed in a pile (visible in the background) will be replaced on the newly hand-graded street surface. A hammer, chisel and a shovel are the only tools available to the workmen. Old paint buckets. Maybe a pickaxe. The new paving will last maybe three or four years, after which the guys will be back to tear up the street and fix it again. Macadam paving would last 15 years or more, but ... Materials—expensive. Labor—cheap.

The workmen don't even have a cement mixer, much less a truck full of ready-mix. Not even a wheelbarrow. They mix their mortar right on the ground, in the same way that their Mayan and Aztec forebears did. All over town you see piles of sand and cement, with water pooled in the dished-out centers. It's mixed by scooping with a shovel, and then put, with that same shovel, into five-gallon buckets and carried to where it's needed.


Mixing mortar.

Carlos Slim, the world's third-richest man, is a Mexican. He owns much of TelMex and other high-tech communications operations. He can afford to own things. The guys repaving the street make six or eight dollars a day. That barely buys food. And you thought the growing gap between rich and poor in the States was bad!