A seller of fruit

Six days a week, and sometimes seven, she rises hours before the sun. She washes, gets dressed, and begins preparing her fruit, in the boarding house where she lives alone in a rented room. She peels the jicama and grapefruit, slices watermelons and mangos, cuts up pineapples and papayas. She packs the pieces into clear plastic cajitas showing off their bright, juicy wares. 

Once she's filled fifty containers or so, she sets them snugly into a wooden crate. Then everything she'll need for the day gets piled onto a heavy-duty hand truck: A basket, some cardboard and a scrap of tablecoth for her makeshift stand. Condiments and supplies. A stool to sit on, and a blanket to ward off the morning air. And her proud, shiny jewelboxes glistening with tempting, bite-sized chunks of red, yellow, white and orange.

At the break of dawn, she pushes her load a few blocks toward the centro historico of Oaxaca de Juarez, a state capital in southern Mexico. She occupies the same corner every day, lucky to have a spot in one of the more fortunate parts of the city, where government workers and tourists don't mind paying 20 pesos — about a dollar — for a carton of cut-up fruit.

Doña Elena Francisco is 76 years old.

And so she sits, most days with a smile. "Buenos días, maestro," she offers a passing teacher. "Qué le vaya bien," she tells customers. She doesn't tell them about her failing eyesight, the sharp pains in her legs, her bouts of depression. She doesn't mention that she's poor.

Mornings in Oaxaca are chilly, but the rising sun offers little relief. Doña Elena sits in the shadows, where her fruit can stay cool. Bees arrive, drawn by the sweet scent. A nearby cafe brings her a hot coffee, but a local restaurant that offered a free meal now and then recently closed. Doña Elena knows all the chisme — gossip — in the neighborhood. She says their rent went up, and a foreigner wants the space for a new bar. 

A little after noon, when most of her fruit's been sold, Doña Elena packs up the hand truck and pushes it back up the hill. It's already been an eight-hour day, and that's just the first shift.

She goes home, drops off her rig, washes the sticky, dried juice off her arms, and puts on clean clothes. Though she lives right next door to a large, traditional market, the price of fruit there is too high for her to earn a profit. So most afternoons, in the hottest part of the day, she walks a couple of blocks in her broken plastic sandals — the pain in her legs giving her a pronounced limp — and boards a bus for Central de Abastos, the massive wholesale market on the edge of downtown.

You can buy everything at Abastos (it's Spanish for "supplies"), and in fact she does. Peanuts and dried chiles. Paper napkins and plastic bags, plastic forks and clamshell cartons too. Honey, hot sauce, granola, chile powder. And an astonishing amount of fresh fruit.

Doña Elena makes her rounds, visiting her regular vendors. This one for jicama. That one for papaya. A couple different ones for different kinds of mango. Another for damaged watermelons at a discount. And it's not your average shopping trip: she can easily load up with 100 kilos — more than 200 pounds — of produce. To manage, she pays a cargador to maneuver her purchases through the sprawling, chaotic streets around the marketplace.

Her usual porter, Venustiano, has a ready smile and a matching demeanor. He's not all there, but he's an eager helper. Some days, Doña Elena sends him off on his own to purchase oranges. The affordable ones arrive by the truckload in a separate part of the market. Calculating the weight, getting the right price, counting change... it's a challenge for Venustiano, but he manages, mostly.

Her last stop is always a pineapple seller near the taxi stand. Shopping done, Doña Elena negotiates the best fare for the trip home, dismissing any taxista who wants to overcharge her. Venustiano loads the trunk of the cab with the day's haul; the driver will have to unload it.

And still she's not finished. Back home in the afternoon, Doña Elena spends time preserving slices of mango in vinegar, or frying peanuts and the long red chiles that she sells too. The fruit she'll prepare in the morning, so it's fresh. And wouldn't you know? She can't eat fruit herself. She says it bothers her stomach.

At 76, Doña Elena has no hope of slowing down. Like millions of Mexicans on the margins, she has no resources for retirement. There's no social security check. No family fall back on. Long ago, she left the man who drank and beat her badly. Her children grew up and moved away. A grandson sometimes visits during school breaks. She's illiterate and alone.

Tomorrow she'll be back on the corner, selling fruit. Do you want granola on that? Salsita? She'll add a squeeze of lime, a dash of chile or a drizzle of honey if you like. Six days a week, and sometimes seven. "Buenos días, joven," she calls out. "Qué le vaya bien."