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Recording [00:02:20] Se compran, colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, lavadoras, microondas, o algo de fierro viejo que vendan.
Ted Siefer [00:02:41] What you’re hearing is a recording that trucks in Mexico City play on a relentless loop.
Roman Mars [00:02:47] Reporter Ted Siefer.
Ted Siefer [00:02:49] The crews inside these trucks are looking to buy old household items and appliances. Basically, they’re scrap metal haulers. And the recording is their pitch to prospective sellers.
Recording [00:02:59] Se compran, colchones…
Ted Siefer [00:03:03] “We buy mattresses, bed frames, refrigerators…”
Roman Mars [00:03:06] The list of appliances continues with stoves, washing machines, and microwaves–and then crescendos gloriously with this line.
Recording [00:03:14] O algo de fierro viejo que vendan.
Ted Siefer [00:03:17] Which basically means “or any old metal thing you’re selling.” This last bit has become the recordings namesake, Fierro Viejo–literally “old iron.”
Roman Mars [00:03:30] The recording started popping up in neighborhoods surrounding the capital city in the early 2000s. But suddenly the sound caught the attention of the internet and a growing number of amateur and not so amateur deejays and musicians.
Ted Siefer [00:04:06] One of Mexico’s major newspapers referred to Fierro Viejo as the most popular sound in all of Mexico. Its status as a national icon may have been cemented at the World Cup last year when a Mexican fan blasted it out of a massive speaker he had strapped to his back. So how and why did Fierro Viejo rise from the streets of Mexico City to become this huge sensation? The answer, it turns out, starts with a nine-year-old girl.
Roman Mars [00:04:41] A nine-year-old girl who helped solve a pressing challenge in a city that is busy, loud, and brimming with street vendors.
Ted Siefer [00:04:49] Fierro Viejo is just one voice amid the cacophony of street selling in Mexico City. More than 50%–that’s five zero–of residents work in the informal economy. In a metro area of 22 million, that’s a lot of vendors who go out every day, selling tamales, pressing fresh juice, collecting old appliances for scrap.
Roman Mars [00:05:10] The main driver of this massive part of the economy is necessity. There simply aren’t enough jobs in Mexico’s formal economy to go around. That makes street vending both a crowded space and a competitive one. You can hear the intensity of that competition playing out at the public markets or “tianguis,” as the locals call them. There’s a name for the calls vendors use to grab customers’ attention in the middle of all this commotion. They’re called pregones, and there’s an art to them–one that’s been refined over the centuries.
Liliana Jamaica [00:06:05] These kinds of sounds or these kinds of pregones that can be called that, they have a history, they are rooted in the past.
Ted Siefer [00:06:06] That’s Liliana Jamaica Silva. She’s an anthropologist at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. She says the term “pregon” has a long history in Mexico and can be traced back to the period of Spanish colonial rule.
Roman Mars [00:06:20] In those days, pregones referred to the proclamations a designated town crier would make about new laws or notices of execution–that kind of thing.
Ted Siefer [00:06:29] This purpose has, of course, fallen by the wayside. But the tradition of pregones has been carried on by street vendors who have long been important figures in Mexican culture.
Liliana Jamaica [00:06:38] And so we can find in movies, especially in Mexican cinema, some of these pregones, right? For example, there is a film…
Ted Siefer [00:06:48] Jamaica told me that street vendors and their pregones were often depicted during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. In a 1951 film, you can hear the famed Mexican comic known as Tín Tàn singing the praises of his freshly baked bread while riding his bike through the city.
Roman Mars [00:07:23] Today, you can still hear some bread sellers using that little horn which people associate with the Panadero. The street vendors you hear in Mexico City do not generally burst into song, but there remains an element of performance in their pregones.
Ted Siefer [00:07:43] Vendors use distinctive intonations, cadences, and often clever turns of phrase to, in effect, create their own sonic niches. This is especially important for itinerant vendors–the ones who sell their products in carts, trucks, or on foot. After all, they not only have to contend with the ambient noise of the city, but distracted customers who are busy doing other things. This recording is played by vendors who ride around selling tamales oaxaquenos–tamales in the style of the Oaxaca region.
Roman Mars [00:08:16] Many mobile vendors, like the bread sellers, enhance their pregones with sounds like bells. And sometimes the sound is so loud and so distinctive that no words are needed, like that of the sweet potato seller.
Ted Siefer [00:08:31] The cart he pushes, by the way, is an ingenious contraption. A little wood fire steams the potatoes and powers that piercing whistle.
Roman Mars [00:08:40] Then there’s the roving cooking gas seller who opts for simplicity with his pregon.
Ted Siefer [00:08:51] Before Fierro Viejo the recording caught on, many scrap metal collectors shouted their pregones, just like that gas seller. And some, though not many, still do.
Liliana Jamaica [00:09:11] It used to be the pregonero who would repeat his call. But now it’s either a cassette or it’s a disc. In other words, ways have been transformed, but meaning and use are not what are transformed.
Ted Siefer [00:09:22] Jamaica explained that while things like cassettes and CDs have changed the means by which vendors deliver their pregones, their basic function has not changed. And Fierro Viejo may be the clearest and loudest expression of that trend.
Roman Mars [00:09:37] While the Fierro Viejo recording fits squarely into Mexico’s rich tradition of pregones, it’s also a stark departure from it. And that has everything to do with the voice that delivers it.
Ted Siefer [00:09:53] So high pitched, it occupies its own sonic register, each syllable delivered forcefully and almost wearily. The incongruity of it is arresting.
Liliana Jamaica [00:10:03] I don’t know what the sound of the girl causes them, that all the dogs start to howl.
Ted Siefer [00:10:09] For her part, Jamaica isn’t sure what it is about the voice, but it does make all the dogs in her neighborhood howl. To get the story behind this iconic recording, I took a drive away from the swankier neighborhoods in central Mexico City to a place called Ecatepec, a sprawling, dusty area of blocky buildings on the city’s northern outskirts. That’s where I met Marco Antonio Terron and his family. Marco has had many jobs in his nearly 60 years. Top chef at a Japanese restaurant, bed frame cellar… But the family business and his greatest love is entertainment.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:10:49] My daughter is a clown. I’m a clown. Her stage name is Chimbombita. Mine is Chimbombin.
Roman Mars [00:10:59] However, making a living as a clown is not easy.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:11:03] Like everything, there’s times when the clown business went down. The number of contracts went down. So, talking with a cousin of mine, he says, “Well, why don’t you work with your brother who’s already working in scrap metal?”
Ted Siefer [00:11:24] After a short time on his brother’s scrap metal crew, Marco decided to venture out on his own. But he didn’t have a truck, so he built a pushcart. And that’s what he would use to load and move heavy appliances. He would push the cart under the hot sun, beckoning sellers by shouting through an improvised cardboard megaphone.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:11:50] And you can imagine on foot, you arrive exhausted. And after so much screaming, my throat feels the same with the sun, the heat, the dust. I got a sore throat. Bad feet. Super tired. I would take the bus to my house. And there, I would sit on the steps because my feet couldn’t take it anymore.
Ted Siefer [00:12:09] One day Marco had an idea. He would make a recording of his pitch–something other vendors sometimes did. That way, he wouldn’t have to strain his vocal cords all day. But Marco being Marco–he wanted to do the recording his own way. And since he felt his own voice was too low and gravelly, he turned to his nine-year-old daughter for help.
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:12:42] So I’m the original voice of the pregon, “se compran colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, lavadoras, microondas o algo de fierro viejo que vendan.”
Ted Siefer [00:12:52] Meet Marimar Terron Martinez, a.k.a. the voice of Fierro Viejo. It wasn’t exactly a stretch for Marimar, who is now 28 years old, to help out her father. She had already elbowed her way into his clown act.
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:13:14] I was eight years old when I started. I said to him, “You know what, Dad? I want to be a clown.” And he was like, “Nope, not yet.” And I was like, “Yes, please. I want to be.” And he would say, “You’re too small.” And I was like, “No, please, Dad.” Until I convinced him, and he said, “Okay, fine. But now let me be.”
Marco Antonio Terron [00:13:41] Yeah, she would come with me, and people die laughing because I fall down and she falls down and we’re dancing and my pants are falling off and I’m trying to pick them up and we’re still dancing and I drop her and she falls on me. People thought it was hilarious.
Ted Siefer [00:14:00] However, recording the pregon was no time for funny business. Marco is a bit of a perfectionist.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:14:09] Every word was rehearsed. And since she’d forget what she had to say, I would put drawings of a mattress on it, a drawing of a washing machine. So, for her, it was easier to read.
Roman Mars [00:14:21] Marco and Marimar did take after take after take after take, trying to get the sound right.
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:14:34] The recording began at 12:00 at night, and we finished at about 4:00 a.m. And that’s because we wanted there to be no noise. But, you know, there’s always a dog that barks or some boyfriend who was looking for his girlfriend at 4:00 a.m. So, it took us several hours and I was very tired. And you could hear it. All of the sudden, I was like, “se compran… colchones…” And my dad would yell at me, “Marimar! ‘Se compran colchones tambores!'” And he was like, “No, no, no. You’re already falling asleep.” And I was like, “I’m tired.” And he was like, “I know, but let’s try to make sure that the recording goes well.”
Roman Mars [00:15:22] This may help explain the somewhat exasperated quality of the voice in Fierro Viejo. As much as Marimar wants your old refrigerator, she also just wants to go to bed.
Ted Siefer [00:15:33] Eventually the cassette was finished, and Marco began playing it on his rounds. Other scrap metal crews heard it and liked it, so Marco sold it to them for a pittance–five pesos, the equivalent of about a quarter.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:15:54] I believe that good faith always has rewards. You do one thing for your partner, like give them the cassette for five pesos, which is what it costs. But you take it, no problem. They are like crops you plant that will harvest later.
Ted Siefer [00:16:07] And so steadily the sound began to spread across the city through the megaphones and loudspeakers of a growing number of beat-up pickup trucks.
Roman Mars [00:16:37] Scrap metal collecting is just one small corner of Mexico’s massive informal economy. People have long carved out ways to make money. Whether or not the government approves of the activities.
Ted Siefer [00:16:48] In fact, street vending is technically banned on the subway and in parts of the historic center. Yet these settings are prime turf for vendors. So why did the authorities allow so many people to work on the streets? The short answer is they don’t really have a choice.
Carlos Alba [00:17:02] The State does not have the capacity to create the conditions for economic growth and jobs, but it has the responsibility to serve these people socially…
Ted Siefer [00:17:17] That’s Carlos Alba Vega, a professor at the College of Mexico who has written books on the informal economy. Carlos says the Mexican state does not have the capacity to create the conditions for economic growth and jobs, but it does have the responsibility to serve those who work in the informal economy. The State says, in effect, to street vendors, “Well, I can’t help you solve many problems. You don’t have Social Security. If you get sick, you’re on your own. But what I can do is cover my eyes so that you do what you need to do, and I tolerate you.”
Carlos Alba [00:17:57] So, tolerance as a form of social redistribution.
Roman Mars [00:18:05] Because there are laws on the books against many aspects of informal commerce, enforcement often comes down to political expediency. This leaves a huge gray area governed by unspoken codes and occasional bribes.
Carlos Alba [00:18:20] There is a regulation, but that regulation is not a formal regulation. It is an informal regulation. There are unwritten rules that people who live and work in these places know and respect, and if they don’t respect it, it costs them dearly, right?
Ted Siefer [00:18:35] Alba told me that there is regulation of the informal economy, but it’s an informal regulation. There are unwritten rules that vendors know and respect. And if they don’t respect them, there can be severe consequences, including violence.
Roman Mars [00:18:48] As parts of Mexico City become more gentrified, there are signs that the tolerance Alba refers to may be wearing thin. A recently enacted policy requires street food vendors in certain neighborhoods to display standardized signs with a city seal. This did away with a long, rich tradition of colorful hand-painted stalls.
Ted Siefer [00:19:08] The city also recently passed rules concerning noise pollution. While primarily aimed at construction sites and industrial businesses, it also applies to vehicles. And trucks blasting Fierro Viejo would very likely exceed the 68-decibel limit. None of the scrap metal crews I spoke with said they had received any tickets or fines. But one guy did say that they were more likely to be hassled in certain areas. He said they sometimes have problems in wealthier neighborhoods because people are bothered by the noise.
Roman Mars [00:19:47] And Fierro Viejo does have a way of injecting itself into one’s daily life in Mexico City.
Ted Siefer [00:19:53] This is something Mike Fortu was well aware of when he was studying music production about ten years ago. He would often hear Fierro Viejo coming through the windows.
Mike Fortu [00:20:03] It’s so iconic, so loud, you can’t even complain. Like, I live here in an apartment. I hear it three times a day. And, like, you can’t be mad at it. You know, it’s part of the city.
Ted Siefer [00:20:16] One day Fortu was struck by something in the recording–the rhythm.
Mike Fortu [00:20:22] It has a lot of musical elements in it. And just the timbre–the timbre of this little girl. I put this 128 bpm, electronic music intro and stuff, and it absolutely matched. Like, I didn’t edit it much. And she just crushed the lines and the lyrics.
Ted Siefer [00:20:43] Soon, Fierro Viejo, the dance remix was born.
Roman Mars [00:21:03] Fortu may have been one of the first producers to sample Fierro Viejo, but he certainly was not the last. You can find tracks on Spotify and YouTube that riff on the pregon in various ways.
Ted Siefer [00:21:14] Probably the best produced song featuring Fierro Viejo dropped earlier this year. It’s a collaboration between three producers and rappers who go by El HueyCoyote, Fano, and Skiper. The video is excellent. The three rappers vamp it up like they’re rolling in a tricked-out Lambo. But they’re actually in an utterly ragged old pickup, piled high with old mattresses and junk. El HueyCoyote told me it’s sort of a homage. It’s a celebration of doing what you have to do to make a living with a certain degree of style and ingenuity. In this sense, songs that sample Fierro Viejo are about more than a winking irony. They’re about an identity. Here’s Mike Fortu again.
Mike Fortu [00:22:00] Yes. Like, if you play that, it’s almost like an anthem. You know, you play it–as you said–in the World Cup, and people are going to turn to find the wolfpack of the Mexicans. We can be scattered around the world, and if you give us something to unite for and something to party, we’re gonna rock the night.
Ted Siefer [00:22:21] My interpreter, Jose Luis Viesca–a lifelong Mexico City resident, artist and writer–had an interesting perspective on why Fierro Viejo has resonated the way it has.
Jose Viesca [00:22:31] It speaks volumes. And I think we’re very proud of our creativity and how we always solve things like this with three clips and one piece of chewing gum. But at the same time, I think it’s something to be expected from Mexicans–that you will have somebody that takes a loudspeaker in their backpack, you know, to make noise, in order to attract attention, in order to precisely do something maybe surreal.
Roman Mars [00:22:58] “Surreal” might be a good way to describe how it felt for Marimar when Fierro Viejo first started to spread across the city. She was self-conscious about her voice, and even she found it a bit intrusive.
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:23:22] You’re taking a shower, you’re in a meeting, you’re talking on the phone, you’re arguing with your husband, or you’re having a romantic moment with your husband, and the recording plays. So, you hear the recording a lot all day long. A hell of a lot.
Roman Mars [00:23:43] Despite her initial misgivings, Marimar has embraced the fame that comes with Fierro Viejo’s popularity. She’s performed Fierro Viejo live, and she’s sat for interviews with prominent TV journalists. She’s even active on social media under the names “La Voz Del Fierro Viejo” and “Niña del Hierro”–literally “Girl of Iron.”
Ted Siefer [00:24:02] And social media has helped Marimar, and Fierro Viejo gain an international fan base. Versions of the pregon have been posted in other languages on TikTok and Instagram, like this one in French.
Roman Mars [00:24:22] Marimar has also used her fame to call attention to more serious matters, like Mexico’s high rates of violence against women and femicide.
Ted Siefer [00:24:29] Last year for International Women’s Day, trucks rode through the streets of Mexico City, blaring what sounded like Fierro Viejo, but with a very different set of messages. International Women’s Day was one of the few times Marimar agreed to lend the tune and her magnificent pipes to alternate versions of Fierro Viejo. In this clip, the pregon is played from speakers in the Zocalo, the massive historic plaza in the heart of Mexico City. The words say in part:
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:25:04] We invite you to the struggle that demands respect, equality and justice for us and the new generations.
Ted Siefer [00:25:25] Marco and Marimar hosted me earlier this year in the front yard of their home, a small house with a cement floor that they share with Marimar’s three kids. Despite the fame Fierro Viejo has brought them, the family still hustles to make ends meet. Marco, for his part, believes they haven’t always gotten their due. He considers Fierro Viejo an artistic creation, and he says he’s registered it and retained a lawyer.
Marco Antonio Terron [00:25:56] The idea is that those who can pay should pay; songs, comedies, movies, short films–if they want to use it, they should pay because they can afford it. But for the carreteros–the people who buy scrap metal–it’s very difficult. Very difficult.
Ted Siefer [00:26:17] Marco doesn’t collect scrap metal as much as he used to, but he’s still very much involved in the industry. Knowing how challenging the work can be, he started a union for collectors. Members get help repairing their trucks, dealing with the authorities, and unlimited access to the recording of Fierro Viejo.
Roman Mars [00:26:36] There is at least one constant in the lives of Marco and Marimar since the days he was pushing a cart and hollering out of a cardboard tube. They still perform as clowns. Only now Fierro Viejo has become central to their act.
Marimar Terron Martinez [00:27:05] The truth is it surprises me when we go to events and do that number. “You have to tell me a sound from Mexico City.” And the children start, “The one with the water! The one with the gas! The Fierro Viejo!” And then they start, “Se compran colchones…” And it’s something really cool. It’s something that I love to do.
Ted Siefer [00:27:33] Making a living collecting household castoffs for scrap isn’t easy. By crafting what is basically an extremely effective advertisement, the Terrons eased the toil not only for themselves but for legions of collectors in Mexico. But it wasn’t just what those scrap metal trucks were collecting. It’s what they ended up offering–the unbridled, unbowed shout of a nine-year-old girl that for some reason, echoed across Mexico and then the world.
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Ted Siefer [00:32:43] Hey. So, you may have noticed the recordings of some of those calls, specifically those in the public markets, were really well done.
Roman Mars [00:32:51] I did notice that. I mean, many of them were just really clean and crisp. They were fantastic. Like that one. You can even hear his intake of breath. It’s that clean.
Ted Siefer [00:33:08] I know. So, I can’t take credit for that recording or for some of the other ones that we heard of the market vendors. They were made by a French sound engineer and sound artist named Felix Blume. He first came to Mexico City in 2009, and he was staying in the historic center of the city.
Felix Blume [00:33:25] So it’s super quiet during the night. It’s really silent–probably one of the most silent places of the city. But during the day, you have hundreds and hundreds of people–street sellers–screaming and announcing what they are selling and people going through. And it was amazing for me to be there and to listen to all those sounds.
Ted Siefer [00:33:44] So, Felix–sound artist that he is–wanted to record the vendors. So, he got to know some of them and started recording their pregones one on one, away from the noise of the public markets. And these recordings would become the basis for an exhibition that ran a few years ago called “Coro Informal,” which means “Informal Chorus.” It was held at a place called the “Fonoteca,” a sound library and cultural center in Mexico City. Basically, when visitors walked in, they’d see all these little wooden boxes. And when people opened them, out came a pregon. And then they could also see its musical score, along with an illustration of the vendor.
Roman Mars [00:34:31] Wow. That is so amazing. What a great exhibit. And also, just, like, selfishly, it was so useful for our story to have all these clean, beautiful recordings that he made.
Ted Siefer [00:34:40] Totally. But Felix was not content just to be a documentarian. He decided that he would try his hand at street vending as well. So, he makes a CD called “Disco Pirata,” which means “Pirate CD.” That’s Felix in the intro to the CD saying it’s 3 hours long with over 100 sounds of the city.
Roman Mars [00:35:12] Whoa. Okay.
Ted Siefer [00:35:13] It’s pretty ambitious. Basically, Felix styled the disc after the pirate CDs that you can find being hawked in public markets and subway cars that might offer, say, the top 100 cumbia or reggaeton hits of the current day. As you can imagine, Felix’s disc did not just feature jams like Fierro Viejo but deep cuts, like The Balloon Vendor and The Knife Sharpener. Felix then boarded subway cars and tried to sell the CD in the style of the locals.
Roman Mars [00:36:03] Well, he certainly was committed to the bit. I mean, it’s pretty gutsy to, you know, sell your pregones CD with a French accent, you know, in a crowded subway car. Did he end up selling a bunch of these?
Ted Siefer [00:36:15] Well, from a commercial perspective, it wasn’t so successful. He said he only sold a few discs.
Felix Blume [00:36:23] So it wasn’t so easy to scream. And then I met some people selling discs at this time, and they said, “Well, you should do it like this. You should go on this line. The green line is better for you because it’s, like, university and they like this kind of stuff.” And they even tried to sell it for me. I said, “Well, I can give you a free copy and you can try and sell it.”
Roman Mars [00:36:43] So the other vendors were giving him pointers for how to shout and sell some things at the same time. That’s really amazing. It sounds like Felix was really inspired by the sounds of Mexico City. I mean, did you get a sense from him what he was really going for in his art when he was archiving these and presenting them?
Ted Siefer [00:37:00] Yeah, we chatted about that. One of his goals was definitely documentary, right? He wanted to record the vendor calls because they are such an easily overlooked and ephemeral part of the city’s identity.
Felix Blume [00:37:14] I think that the act of recording in general–it’s like building a memory of a place. It’s building a memory from a moment or from people leaving these territories. Probably those sounds will disappear. At some point they will change at least.
Ted Siefer [00:37:29] So I personally experienced what Felix is talking about here–how the sounds of the city change and evolve over time. For example, this is Felix’s recording of a tamale vendor. And here’s the pregon–by the same guy, mind you–that I heard when I was in the city. So, I mean I personally like the current one. The lyrics, so to speak, are more complex. It’s got a nice flow. These are the kind of things that you start to notice when you spend a lot of time–maybe too much time–listening to pregones.
Roman Mars [00:38:10] It is.
Ted Siefer [00:38:11] Anyway, it was important for Felix to try and capture and preserve these sounds, but he had another goal with his sound projects. And that has to do with the notion of public space.
Felix Blume [00:38:27] The public space is a space for all. It is a place to be able to be listened. And this all happens in the public space. And I think that’s the important thing of listening to this public space–to listen to what people want to say, to what people are saying. And maybe not enough people are listening to them.
Roman Mars [00:38:42] That’s so true. And I’m so glad that more people are listening. I’m so happy with this story and that I get to hear these pregones for myself. So, I really appreciate it, Ted. Thank you.
Ted Siefer [00:38:52] Absolutely. It was my pleasure, Roman. It was a really fun story to work on.
Roman Mars [00:39:00] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ted Siefer and edited by Jayson De Leon. Fact checking by Sona Avakian. Voiceover work by Iohann Rashi Vega and Laura Ubaté. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Kelly Prime, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Jose Luis Viesca, Aaron Reiss, Jorge Mendoza, Erick Serna Luna, Felix Blume–and to Marco & Marimar Terron. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
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