The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Don Alacran’s X-mas Eve December 27, 2007

Filed under: Mondays,the people — ramonalvarado @ 7:46 pm
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Alacran (native scorpion) man. 

I had the day off and thought it would be a good idea to go busking before the whole navidad thing started. I went straight to the Velarde area an did a quick set there in stern defiance against the speakers, and then just went to my regular spot. There was a lot of people but everybody was just too busy. A couple of kids did stop and listen to me and then asked “so, whose songs do you know?” I routinely answered them: “Mine.” They weren’t that impressed.

When I finished I took my time walking on Juarez avenue looking for a good exchange rate but ended up in the same currency exchange place. The ladies there are nice and never make faces when I show up with all of those coins. Anyway, before that I stopped to talk for a little while with Don Alacran. I asked him about his business and he said it wasn’t going very well, that usually by this time of the month he had almost none of his figurines left but that this year had been terrible. As we talked about the cold weather he started to tell me about previous Christmas eves he had had. He told me how 5 years ago in a freezing and snowing Christmas eve a couple of nuns came to him and gave him ten dollars so that he could go home. He said he couldn’t even work on his figurines that day because of the cold, so he was just standing there waiting to sell something to bring dinner home. He then told me about last year’s Christmas too. A stranger came to him and told him to come with him. He then took Don Alacran to a supermarket and bought lots of food for him. He remembered how he couldn’t even carry all of that stuff and how the generous gentleman also offered a ride home but he couldn’t accept it because it would be too much. He was deeply moved.

As he was telling me this he was also saying how this Christmas eve he was just waiting long enough to sell something so that he could buy a kilo of tortillas and have some dinner. At this point I felt like asking him about his personal life, whether or not he had a family, but I thought it was too early for me to ask anything like that and instead I just asked where he lived. He told me. After spending something like ten minutes with him I decided to buy a beautiful little turtle from him. The turtles and the alacranes are a dollar, the amazing butterflies are $2.50.


There is at least one other guy that does the same kind of figurines but he seems less approachable even in the aesthetics of his craft. While Don Alacran makes beautiful butterflies this other guy makes menacing cobras and attack positioned dragons. They are also quite amazing and a lot bigger than Don Alacran’s but the colours and the subject matter aren’t as welcoming. Anyway, he was really happy that I bought the turtle from him and he told me that if business was better he would have given it for free, I told him not to worry,  that I wouldn’t have accepted it for free, that’s his job and his prices are less than fair. Don Alacran’s name is Amado by the way (Loved in Spanish). I hope he really is.


I then walked further downtown to get a public transportation bus to take me to the east side of town, cross the border back to the United States on that side and go to a family dinner. I kept Don Alacran in mind. Maybe we can do something for him, like sell and ship his figurines with the help of the Internet. Otherwise stop by and say hi to him, buy something from him if you happen to be on Juarez avenue. He’d be the one with the cowboy hat and a dozen or so little wire insects in front of him.

Day 15


Amount of money made (BC subtracted): $9.58

Time Played: 1h 50min

Little wire turtle: $1

Public transportation: .45c

Actual gain: $8.13

Currency exchange rate: 11.00 pesos/dollar

Knowing that Don Amado was only having tortillas that night: heartbraking, eye opening, priceless.


You know you’re in a big city when… December 18, 2007

Filed under: Mondays — ramonalvarado @ 2:16 am
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I have been lucky enough to be in a few big cities around the world. All of them completely different in their own little peculiarities: the architecture, the plazas, the vibe and other things make them apart, but as a busker enthusiast I have found something that just tells me whether I am in a big city or a small town. Of course it has to do with buskers or the lack thereof but it has to do with a particular kind of international buskers that can be recognized anywhere. I am talking about Andean Musicians. They usually have their pan pipes, or pan flutes, a drum or a drum machine and a guitar. They also usually have an amplifier with them and sell CD’s of the mainly instrumental music they are playing. I’ve seen them in every big city I’ve been to and they always make me smile. Today, you guessed it, I saw a group of Andean musicians busking at the same street as I was, only a few blocks north. It made me really happy to see this in Juarez. They had their whole kit including a PA system, a box with some CD’s and some pan flutes to sell and of course their unmistaken music. They looked very professional and they quickly gathered a big crowd. I hope this signals the beginning of a new trend because you know you’re in a big city, or at least an interesting one, when you see one of them Andean musicians busking at the center of it.

Day 12


Amount of money made (B.C. subtracted): $11.04

Time played: 2h

Exchange rate: 11.17 p/dollar

The busking thing hasn’t become, as you can clearly see, a pragmatic and efficient enterprise as a sole income source  for me, but it has gradually grown better from the two or three dollars I made the first days and it has been doing so because I have become better at busking, or so I like to think. It has only been a dozen of times but I feel so much more comfortable now. Now, we have to see it in a different context too, because people in NYC or LA or other cities might see a $10 day as a terrible day but one has to always contextualize busking.

Let’s see it from both sides of the border. First, the northern one: In El Paso the minimum wage is something like $5.75/h. There are many jobs in telemarketing that pay well beyond the minimum but all of the regular jobs at fast food places and retail pay the minimum wage. So if we say that I am earning, now that the busking is getting better, something like $5 or $7 dollars an hour, then we can say that it is not such a bad thing compared to having to be in a greasy, noisy and stressful kitchen burning my fingers with the french fries. I mean, I’m actually doing what many kids at those jobs would love to do. Don’t you think so?


So now let’s look at the southern side of the spectrum which is where I actually busk: In Juarez there are a lot of manufacturing and assembling jobs, and those are generally very close to the national minimum wage standard, although nobody could survive if they actually paid according to guidelines. So look at it like this: The official national daily minimum wage is a little bit under $5 dlls, that means $25 a week. OK, so that said it is impossible to even conceive of supporting a family with that income in a country such as Mexico, so the reality says that the average minimum wage in the whole of Mexico’s State insured population is about $19 dlls a day. I made that on Friday, but in two hours. So, do you see where I’m coming from when I say it isn’t that bad?