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No tengo cambio: Paying with coins in Mexico

Stan Gotlieb

This clown is plying his trade in the Oaxaca Zócalo.

He probably needs change. Photography by Diana Ricci


There is a deep, dark, secret hole where all the change goes, and nobody knows where it is. If you don't believe me, go buy a two peso - twenty centavo item. Pay for it with a five peso coin. Listen to the clerk say " No tiene cambio"? (You don't have change?). Dig into your pocket, discover that you do indeed have a 20-centavo coin, and two one-peso coins. Take back your five peso coin, hand over the change, and leave.

Walk a few steps down the street, remember you need something else, and return. There have been no other customers. The same clerk is standing at the counter. Pick an item that costs two pesos- eighty centavos. Hand the clerk a five-peso coin. The clerk will invariably say " No tengo cambio" (I have no change). What, you will ask yourself, happened to the change you just handed over? If you ask the clerk this question, he may shrug and spread his hands (" quien sabe": who can say).

A constantly occurring low intensity war is being fought on the streets, across counters, and at the tables of restaurants, without surcease, day after mind-numbing day. There are no neutral parties, and no prisoners are taken. Shopping can be as complex as a leveraged buyout, when the hapless buyer, planning on several stops, realizes that there are only a couple of small-denomination coins in his or her treasury.

For me, the problem starts at my bank. The ATM machine spits out only 200 peso bills (worth about 22.50 at current writing). Unless I am paying my rent, or my phone bill, each and every one that I use will require change. To give you some perspective, a head of lettuce in the market costs about 3 pesos.

Friday Market is especially difficult. Every Friday, a traveling circus of fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, poultry, clothing, doodad, gimcrack, and audio cassette sellers descends on Cosati Park, not far from our house. For most of them, it is one stop on a week-long tour of market days in the Oaxaca area. We have been doing the bulk of our perishables purchases at this market for years. We have our favorite vendors, to whom we go back every week. They know us, and remember our preferences. They are solicitous, honest, helpful and good humored. They never seem to have change.

We start saving change on Wednesday, in preparation for Friday's marketing. This is difficult to do, because in order to do so, we must fight to keep the change we have, and struggle to get more from others. In the process, we have learned where to go to get change: the news stands, and the buses.

Bus fares are either 1.5 or 2 pesos. Most people who get on buses count out their change beforehand, a habit that they have developed to keep from getting short changed. We, on the other hand, always hand over a bill, and we have never been shorted. Since buses are awash in coins, they welcome the bills.

Likewise with news stands. The only difference worth noting is that the news stand we use has short changed us, so we always count the change. The news stand is a good place to break a 200 peso bill, to purchase a 5 peso paper. Often, the clerk will give change in 10 and 20 peso bills: even better.

Restaurants, particularly the ones around the Zócalo, are another good source of change. Once you have consumed your meal, you can stick them with a big bill, and what can they do about it? It's kind of a dirty trick to play on small restaurants, however. On occasion, we have forced a waiter to comb the nearby businesses to break a 100 peso bill, the change for which was not available in the till.

Change is more available in the afternoon than in the morning. This confirms the most common speculations of the gringo shopping force: that the clerks are supplied with very little if any change with which to open the doors. The theory, is that Mexican owners do not trust their employees with much change, for fear that they will take the money and run. I don't like this theory, which seems to me to be racist, and puts down the workers.

I think that the shoestring profits upon which most establishments depend in order to stay open require the owner to deposit every red centavo, every night, leaving no reserve for change. The clerks are loathe to have to run up and down the street looking to break bills - let alone coins. Unsure what the next customer will drop on the counter, they hang on to every bit of change they can wheedle and bluff from the trade.

It is possible to get rolls of coins from the nearest Banamex bank branch, but in order to do that, you would have to have money to buy them in the first place. Meanwhile, c'mon down. We've got a front row seat in the Change Wars, reserved in your name.

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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