Research Findings

Strangers, trust, and class cleavages in Mexico City

February 20, 2020

Who would you entrust your car to? Many of us who drive entrust our cars to parking valets, exchanging the keys for a small ticket handed to us by a company employee, often stationed behind a kiosk where prices are shown. We find comfort in knowing that if the car were to be stolen, we could always call the police to handle the matter. We might also entrust our cars to friends or family members. Since they are close to us, we expect them to take good care of the vehicle. 

These two scenarios roughly correspond to the two predominant explanations that the social science literature offers about what makes trust possible. In the first case, reliable institutions make trust possible; in the second, group dynamics—and particularly, the recognition of others as members of our same group (homophily)—do. 

Yet, in a recently published article, I explore the case of informal car-parkers in Mexico City—often dubbed “viene-vienes”—and their interactions with clients, which defies both of these explanations. Amid the busy streets of Mexico City, with its terrible traffic and limited parking, middle- and high-class Mexicans often entrust their cars—keys and all—to informal car parkers with no institutional affiliations. 

The following scenario is commonplace: a driver looking for parking is spotted by a car parker who approaches her and offers to take care of the car. The car parker might provide his first name (say, “Good afternoon! My name is Juan”). It is common practice then for the driver to exit her vehicle in one of the largest cities in the world, hand her keys to this person, and reasonably expect to retrieve her car later by waiting in the same spot where she left it. The car parker is a stranger about whom the driver knows close to nothing: at best, she might remember the first name of the car-parker, hardly the kind of information necessary to begin a police investigation if the car disappeared. 

Why do clients entrust their car, arguably one of their most valuable possessions, to a stranger in the street? As suggested, according to the insights of the literature, the exchange is unlikely for two reasons. First, insecurity is a structural problem in Mexico. There are no reliable institutions neither at the level of the city (such as an effective police force) or mid-level (such as a contractor) backing up the exchange. 

Speaking to the second explanation of the literature, informal car-parkers in Mexico City are part of the poor of the city, their occupation ranked at the very bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, while drivers are wealthy in comparison. Informal car parkers and their clients are socioeconomically far apart.

What if the exchanges were possible, not only despite these shortcomings but in virtue of them? Indeed, when class cleavages are very deep, the social roles occupied by each party become clear and easily readable, familiar enough to appear safe, all while sustaining a space for interaction across class divides in a profoundly unequal society.

The interactions between viene-vienes and their clients can be analyzed as an informal market: drivers need a service that car parkers provide. The service provided by viene-vienes is typically cheaper than the cost of using a private lot. Yet, a few questions linger: Why leave your car with a stranger even if it is slightly cheaper than using a parking lot or using public transit? And, from the perspective of viene-vienes, why not steal a car whose value is far superior to what viene-vienes might expect to make in years of hard work? 

Taking into consideration class dynamics in Mexico helps answer these questions. First, driving and not relying on public transportation or cabs signals wealth and status in Mexico, and for drivers the value of that status symbol far outweighs the benefits of cheaper transportation. (Think about the stereotypical behavior of millionaires in movies who step out of their luxurious cars and seemingly without preoccupations and without demanding a ticket flip the keys to a valet parker.) Viene-vienes also bring additional perks, making inhospitable streets easier to navigate: they may stop police officers from towing cars or teenagers from vandalizing them. 

On the side of the viene-vienes, besides the fact that poverty does not imply a tendency for criminal behavior, being a viene-viene is one of the very few jobs in Mexico that provides unskilled workers with a possibility for social mobility and that allows the poor of the city to be their own bosses. If a viene-viene secures a profitable street corner, they might be able to make enough money to guarantee that their children stay in school or, as one viene-viene explained to me, even attend college. Otherwise put, class dynamics modify the calculations of costs and benefits that clients and viene-vienes reap from the exchange.

The ecosystem of viene-vienes and their clients is also rife with coercive dynamics, in which the police partake. The police threaten to arrest vienes-vienes unless they pay a quota in cash or kind (such as washing their cars). Viene-vienes could threaten clients with scratches to their cars; and clients could threaten the livelihood of viene-vienes by calling the police on them. Although rarely explicitly articulated, viene-vienes and clients both know what kind of power and interests each has. Interestingly, however, there is no viene-viene “boss” who coordinates between viene-vienes in the city. A convoluted coercive stalemate of three parties thus helps sustain the practice.

Core to the possibility for the improbable trust on viene-vienes is the fact that they enact a recognizable role in the urban landscape of Mexico City that becomes legible and unambiguous because class cleavages are so deep. The depth of that cleavage makes possible the establishment of socially distant but personally close relationships between clients and car parkers that do not threaten power structures, even when they lay them bare. Over multiple encounters, clients might develop a relationship with a specific viene-viene. In Mexico, this is call amarchantamiento—a close relationship with a feudal underbelly that makes the inhospitable streets of the city easier to navigate and seemingly more friendly. 

The exchange between clients and viene-vienes flourishes in part because of the shortcomings of the city: traffic, the lack of a reliable police force, insecurity, and a dearth of parking spaces make the work of viene-vienes a welcome respite, or a “necessary evil” as some clients put it. Yet, parking meters have been installed in some areas of the city, slowly destroying the conditions of possibility for viene-vienes. Although the city is certainly more efficient because of them, it is unclear what kind of effects they might have on class dynamics and exchanges. After all, although viene-vienes are symptomatic of class inequalities they also attest to remaining shared spaces and interactions across classes. They lay bare the entire profile of the social structure and the dynamicswarts and all (to quote Chakrabarty), of Mexico City. 

Read more

Yuna Blajer de la Garza. “Leaving Your Car with Strangers: Informal Car Parkers and Improbable Trust in Mexico City.” Politics and Society 2019.

Image: Carl Campbell via Flickr 

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