The Big/Little Entrepreneurs of San Miguel: María Isabel, Grains and Spices

By Carolina de la Cajiga

For several years, I’ve wondered how many hours and days a week the small merchants of San Miguel de Allende work. It doesn’t matter if I go early in the morning or late afternoon; the vendors are there ready to serve their clientele. Many work seven days a week. Their determination to get ahead is outstanding. To learn how they do this, I’ll interview and write about them here in Atención. Hopefully, these articles will help us, the clients, to meet and engage with the vendors beyond the merchandise and money exchange and appreciate and value their efforts.

I spoke with María Isabel Muñoz Zamora, who has her stall at the Ignacio Ramírez market in the heart of San Miguel. She mentioned that she arrives at 7am, seven days a week, to sweep, mop, organize merchandise, and be ready when the market opens to the public. Hearing the number of hours and days she works in her business in addition to her work as a housewife and mother, the first thing I asked was, do you ever rest?

Like most businesses in the market, María Isabel’s puesto doesn’t have a name. It’s in the first corridor, the one closest to the loading and unloading area, toward the back, next to the butcher shops. Her specialty is selling grains, cereals, seeds, and spices, as well as dried fruits and a wide variety of dried chiles, animal feed, and more. 

When she finished high school, she decided it was time to earn a living. María Isabel acknowledges her father gave her the best inheritance any parent could give a daughter (or son)—he supported her so she could acquire a business. She’s been running it for the past 34 years. In the beginning, it was a fruit and vegetable stand. Her business sense led her to change direction and move to different products to have a better chance of getting ahead.

Ever since she was a child, she and her brothers helped their father who had a butcher shop. All are still merchants. One brother kept the butcher shop while the other now owns a stationery store.

When I shop at María Isabel’s, she greets me with a smile, and, if other clients come by, she makes contact with them with a little wink or a friendly gesture. Their conversations tell me they have known each other for a long time. This is a business that grows through referral, by word of mouth. She doesn’t advertise nor is she on social media. Her cordial demeanor sustains the relationship with her clientele. In order to survive, besides being a competent entrepreneur, she has to manage money, be smart yet gentle, and have a lot of mental and physical stamina. I’ve never seen her appear to be tired, bored, or upset. I wonder where she gets the energy to do this daily? 

A few months ago, when her neighbor across the aisle retired, she saw the opportunity to expand her business. Sometimes one of her children helps her. The family’s union and cooperation are essential for an enterprise like this to survive. When she closes at five in the evening, she hurries to her house, which fortunately is close enough to walk to. She cooks, cleans, and does all the work that a home and a family require. There are days when she also has to shop to restock her products. There is no time to rest. Maria Isabel has never taken a vacation. However, she continues to enjoy her work and is proud of her accomplishments. Recently, she began considering leaving her business to her children, but only if she’s able to continue doing something useful—perhaps in a more relaxed environment, she concedes with a smile. She can’t see herself with her arms crossed, doing nothing. Not at all! 

If you’re looking for delicious salted or spicy peanuts, cinnamon, hominy to make pozole, dry corn leaves for making tamales, or fresh Jamaica flowers, then you must visit María Isabel.

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