In Informal Politics, a book of timely importance to Mexican politics, John Cross argues that it is unwise not to take seriously the political role of Mexico City street vendors. While scholars across disciplines have developed an extensive literature that discusses how to characterize the informal economy—its causes, implications for workers, and role in national economic development—Cross focuses our attention on Mexico City street vendors as political agents and their central role in shaping more powerful actors such as the Mexican state.

To elaborate on this relationship, Cross raises questions as to how vendors, as individuals and as organized groups, shape the Mexican political economy. Due to their precarious legal status, vendors form organizations to defend their interests. These organizations mobilize resources—such as popular support, money from licensing, and votes—that are instrumental to the Mexican state. Cross disaggregates the term “the state,” examining the behavior of specific agencies and the individuals who manage them. For example, the political maneuvering necessary to the career success of Mexican government officials implies a dependence upon the power bases mobilized by vendor organizations. This is particularly the case, Cross shows, in a country where the salaries and job security of government employees are precarious at best. In addition, Cross argues that participants in the informal sector play an important role in mediating between the state and the formal sector.

Cross’s work is also a commentary on how social scientists would characterize Mexican politics. The brokering role that certain vendor representatives play in their relationships with government representatives, although a basis for their authoritarian rule, has empowered vendors in their dealings with government officials. Nevertheless, Cross does not overdo the argument of empowerment. He notes that vendors have thus far been incapable of uniting sufficiently to call for new laws that would more firmly protect their interests; they are thus left to pursue strategies, such as resisting the effective implementation of government regulations, that produce less permanent solutions. Within the specific context of limited economic and political choice, Cross suggests the benefits of authoritarian organization and cautions that not to recognize this potential is to eliminate yet another choice for people such as the street vendors of Mexico City.

Cross supports these insights with a variety of sources, namely a thorough and concise review of the literature on the informal economy in Latin America, explanation of political models (especially resource mobilization theory), and interviews. Cross uses open-ended oral interviews of vendors and state workers not only to operationalize theoretical arguments, but to contextualize official documentation. Thus, in both theory and methodology, Cross challenges the view that marginalizes vendors as political actors and as sources of knowledge. In general, Cross’s vague references to the time period of his analysis might frustrate historians; it is not until chapters 5 and 6 that time becomes a clear referent. Nevertheless, his attention to vendors as political actors during the 14 years of the “Regent of Iron,” Ernesto P. Uruchurtu (1952-66), is nicely joined to a discussion of intraparty struggles within the Partido Revolucionario Institucional for the presidency.

The 200,000 Mexican citizens who, Cross argues, are able to make a living as vendors on the streets of Mexico City serve as an engine of further economic growth, survive without the benefit of corporate welfare, and carry significant political power unique to their location in the economy. In arguing that economic factors alone cannot explain the persistence and indeed vitality of the informal sector, Cross persuasively shows how a model of resource mobilization can further our understanding of Mexico City politics and the centrality of vendors therein. In so doing, Cross brings to light coincidences and conflicts of interest relevant to Mexican politics today, be they between political parties, the federal and city government, or formal and informal business.