Guadalupe José Medina Tima starts work around 10:30 in the morning, when he arrives with his shoeshine box at a park in Cholula, a small city in the Mexican state of Puebla. On the box is painted the name “Andy,” for his daughter Andrea. Until recently, Medina Tima also worked as a waiter on the weekends, but he lost that job last year when the restaurant closed because of the pandemic. Shining shoes is now his only source of income. “When I worked as a waiter, I earned about 500 pesos ($25) a day” at the restaurant, he said. A shoe-shine costs 25 pesos ($1.25), and Medina Tima told me he used to earn about 500 pesos a day shining shoes before the pandemic arrived. “Now I earn maybe 300 ($15),” he continued. “There are no tourists, so there is no money. It is very difficult.” He’d like to earn 500 pesos a day to support his wife and two young children, but he “can manage” with 300. “But I cannot buy anything extra.”
The Mexican government’s response to the pandemic has been inconsistent and sometimes dangerously negligent. When COVID-19 first took hold last March, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (referred to by everyone in Mexico as “AMLO”), denied the importance of mask-wearing, encouraged people to continue hugging, and insisted that the two amulets he carries with him everywhere would keep him from getting sick. (He tested positive for the virus on January 24.) AMLO is not unique in this regard. Luís Miguel Barbosa, the governor of Puebla, said that poor people were immune to the virus. While no one can be sure what effect such statements had on the public’s response to the pandemic, Mexico has the third-highest death toll from COVID-19, surpassing India in January.
The Mexican government has used a “stoplight” system to indicate risk levels, ranging from green (low risk, normal activities, all businesses open) to red (maximum risk, nonessential businesses closed, the rest operating at 20 percent capacity). In early February, thirteen of Mexico’s thirty-two states were at red, two were at yellow, and the rest were at orange—the second highest level. On December 29, authorities in Puebla ordered all nonessential businesses to close and allowed only take-out at restaurants because of “the exponential growth of infections and people hospitalized” in the state. The closure was initially slated to continue for two weeks, but was later extended to a month. To date, there’s been no financial aid to the affected businesses or their employees, most of whom barely eke out a living.
Cholula is a lovely city—its Aztec pyramid, Tlachihualtépetl, is the largest by volume in the world—and its streets are lined with stores, restaurants, and stalls offering traditional food and handmade clothing and objects. These small businesses all depend on tourists to survive. At the beginning of the pandemic, tourism slowly dropped off; now it has all but disappeared. There are no more than a handful of tourists on the streets of Cholula.
A restaurant named La Lunita occupies a corner across from the pyramid. “On weekends, we would have one hundred fifty to two hundred people,” said Antonio Porras Cuevas, the owner and great-grandson of the restaurant’s founder. “Now, none. Maybe ten, fifteen who buy food to take out. Our income is down 90 percent.” Before the pandemic, the restaurant had fourteen employees. Today it has only four. “Maybe the others work in construction,” he said, “but the reality is that there is nothing right now.”