The merchants of La Vega: part of Chile’s living history

Hundreds of thousands of Santiago residents shop daily at the city’s largest food market, helping it thrive 100 years after its official founding. Speaking with the salespeople who give it life reveals time-tested traditions of hard work, communication and family.

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For the fruit and vegetable vendors who keep La Vega running, the quest for the best produce begins early each morning while much of Santiago is still asleep.

Under moonlight, farmers and vendors from around the country drive truckloads of fresh fruit and vegetables to the periphery of this massive fruit and vegetable market. Here, shop owners, or locatarios as they are known, gather to pick the best products to sell in their stalls.

Shop owners at La Vega like Patricio Herrera, Luis Humberto Arancibia and Arturo Guerrero arrive between 4 and 5 a.m. to get the best of the day’s produce. In the cut-throat, free market environment of La Vega, “if you arrive late, you get only what’s leftover,” says Mr. Arancibia.

Days begin early and end around 6 p.m., when shops begin to close. Most locatarios take no time off. “I work every day, Monday to Monday, 365 days a year,” Arancibia says.

“La Vega,” Mr. Herrera agrees, “is not an easy place to work.”

La Vega provides not only fresh goods at low prices, but also a sensory journey into Chile’s past. Mr. Herrera started working with his parents at the market when he was 11. “In the past 25 years things have changed little,” he says, leaning against his ideally-located corner stall and watching his son Patricio and assistant Pedro shine apples, weigh bags of fruit and load customers’ carts.

Each morning Herrera buys some 20 kilos of bananas, which he will sell in the same day. About three times a week he buys fruit that will take longer to ripen like apples and oranges to sell over the course of 3-5 days. On these bigger buying days, he will purchase 20 kilos of Granny Smiths and 300 kilos of oranges – roughly the weight of a small horse. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the 60,000 square meter market each day, some for daily shopping, others to buy in bulk for the coming weeks. “Here, there’s something familial, where people pass and we speak…it’s something more personalized,” Herrera says.

Families have kept La Vega running for generations. Like Mr. Herrera, Mr. Guerrero began working here with his father when he was still a child. “I was born in La Vega,” he says. Fernando Alvarado, a butcher here for more than 20 years, is the third generation in his family to work in La Vega. “All the butchers are like that,” he says, gesturing to the other meat stands nearby.

Not every locatario started in a family business. Mr. Arancibia began his time at La Vega nearly 40 years ago pushing a wheelbarrow through the aisles. From there he became an employee at a fruit stall, eventually rising through the ranks to purchase his own. Mr. Arancibia may not have begun in a family business, but now says of his fellow locatarios “we are like family.”

Shoppers can find just about anything along La Vega’s narrow aisles, from hearts and livers and whole pigs’ heads, to potatoes, frozen vegetables and dog food. Roughly half of the market is devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables. Because of enormous climatic variations from north to south, many fruits and vegetables can grow here year round. According to Mr. Guerrero, about 98% of the produce on sale at La Vega comes from within Chile. Only tropical fruits like bananas, pineapples, mangoes and coconuts are imported.

La Vega’s main gate opens onto Antonia Lopez de Bello, a major thoroughfare running through the neighborhoods of Patronato and Bellavista. Along this road street vendors peddle hardware, insoles, watch straps and kitchen appliances.

Behind the entrance to the market proper an open space funnels shoppers into several dark and narrow passages lined with drums of pickles, olives, sauces, spices and grains. These give way to carefully arranged tubs of dried fruits and nuts, cheeses and cured meats. The butchers come next, displaying every imaginable cut of meat in their glass cases.

The dim recesses of La Vega’s front section open to the fruit and vegetable market. Here, the crisp smells of fresh apples and cilantro lift away the heavier scents of meat and vinegar. In these locales you will find piles of avocados, oranges and kiwis, gigantic bunches of celery, eggplants, artichokes, beetroots and carrots. In all, La Vega holds over 500 official locales. Others simply set out their goods to sell in whatever open space is left.

Local history says that La Vega came together naturally over many years. Mr. Guerrero, designated the market’s representative, seems to have La Vega’s entire history at his fingertips and is eager to share it. Passers by call him ‘The Minister.’

While the market has been in its current location for 100 years, he says, it actually dates back nearly twice that long. It first formed in the city center on the Plaza de Armas before moving to several different locations, eventually settling here in what was once a northern suburb.

“La Vega is not an architectural structure,” Guerrero says, “it is a creation by many individuals for necessity, so sometimes it escapes any rationality. Markets nowadays compete [for customers] by using marketing, but La Vega has never had to resort to this,” he adds. “ It subsists on its own creation and that is its magic.”

This post is also available in Spanish