"What the hell is that?": A guide to the sounds of Mexico City

"What the hell is that?": A guide to the sounds of Mexico City

Hopped off the plane at CDMX with a dream in m-


When one moves to Mexico City, you would assume that the last thing stuck in their head would be the voice of a 10-year-old girl. On repeat. Every. Single. Day. Yet, lo and behold, here I am thinking about it. The truth is, there are a LOT of weird noises, voices, and whistles that blow at all hours of the day and night. Various trucks, cars, carts, and pedicabs make their way around the streets blasting recordings or just straight up yelling about the things that they want to buy from you, sell to you, or convince you to eat. If you're new here like I was, or you're just curious as to what my daily playlist consists of besides my Spotify "Discover Weekly", this is for you. 

Sell this little girl your old shit!

Is she okay? Who's yelling? Is it a child in pain? A cat in heat? Should I go outside? Good god it's getting louder. These are all normal thoughts when you first hear the piercing sound of a girl's voice blasting from a truck driving slowly down your street. No, she's not just fallen and can't get up like some sort of Life Alert commercial. The recording comes from a 10-year-old girl that was done back in 2004; she's asking to buy your old mattresses. And refrigerators. And stoves. And washing machines. And microwaves. Or any other iron things that we can buy. (Listen for yourself below.)

The story goes that when the father of 10-year-old María del Mar Terrón Martínez was picking up scrap metal, he needed a way for the people of Mexico City to know. But, as he said in an interview, his voice was shot from always yelling over all the other sounds (which we'll get into as well). So, his daughter recorded this, comparable to a "fire album" today, and it's now known all over the country, as well as in Latin America and even parts of the U.S. Today, it's become a war cry for all your old shit and a memory that one can't erase after hearing it even once. 

Eat a sweet potato, damnit! Unless you prefer bananas, I have those too!

It's pretty easy to be convinced that everyone is yelling at you when the cacophony of noises in the city all come together, so excuse my French in these titles, but it's merely what it feels like to be among the actual noise itself. (Onomatopoeia can only go so far.)

The camotes y platanos man doesn't yell words at you though. He whistles. Loudly. For elongated periods of time. To the point where you flinch and cover your ears if you're too close because he must have have blown both of his at a cumbia concert back in the 80s or something. This man is so sweet, and so are his potatoes (covered in La Lachera aka sweetened condensed milk) - until he hollas at you with his cart. Fair warning: you may want to make sure your headphones are turned down before you press play on the video below. 

That being said, they are delicious...

Listen to me play this out of tune instrument! (then tip me!)

Think of a jack-in-the-box. No, not your beloved Sourdough Jack; the one you cranked as a child and could never quite tell when a frighteningly happy clown on a spring would pop out. Remember that tune? The creepy music that was meant to be cheerful, but was always put into a minor key and inserted into scary movie trailers? The organillero is a real life version of all of this. 

It didn't always used to be, though. Back in the 1890s, when it first made its appearance in the city, men would play charming melodies, even accompanied by monkeys at times, as people strolled along on a Sunday afternoon, requesting popular tunes (since radio didn't exist yet) and tipping an extra ten pesos into the hat of the monkey, paleta in hand. Nowadays? Not so much. Doing some research, it appears that the instruments are easily damaged due to rain. And with the abundant amount of rain that this city sees, it's no wonder that almost every one you hear is out of tune. Most of the people still cranking them can't afford to fix them and have no other way to make money. Though annoying, it is pretty sad. The next time you're in a plaza or a hear one in the street, think of the 75-pound instrument on their back (yeah, these things are heavy) and consider having some sympathy. Or listen for it in your next nightmare. Karma is real, kids. 

Buy my tamales! 

Any man who knows me knows that food is a pretty easy way to win me over. (Buy me a wheel of cheese over flowers any day.) So naturally, you'd think the tamale man would have a masa-wrapped key to my heart. Right? 

Wrong. I've never slept with the tamale man, but he's woken me up at least three times a week since I've lived here. He's also constantly outside blasting his recording a la Say Anything. 

Not heard from this scene: "Hay tamales Oaxaqueños, tamales calientitos…"

Not heard from this scene: "Hay tamales Oaxaqueños, tamales calientitos…"


Though I never had to run into the arms of the trash man, plenty of people in the city do. Trash is a huge problem in Mexico City, and the trash man is some people's only way of disposing of their garbage. However, unlike in the states or other parts of the world, you gotta come to him. (And possibly wait for him to come to you. And possibly run quickly when you hear him because he doesn't need to wait for you.) One guy usually walks around with a cowbell for a while before leaving. *reminisces on "MORE COWBELL" scene from SNL* (skip to :17 in the video below)

Incessant honking. 

This is the worst one. A city of 22 billion people means WAY too many cars for one place, and with a traffic system worse than any Hot Wheels track I built as a kid, people have no idea what else to do besides honk. All. The. Time. And always for longer than just a few seconds. They also just looooove mimicking a honk when someone else does it. If I ever were to live here, I'd never have a car. The video below is what my apartment sounds like ALL THE TIME. 

Well folks, there you have it. Just some of the things I hear every day. Though annoying, this has been my home for the month and I've truly embraced the wonderful food that comes with the noises. Not so keen on the others.

The silly thing is that this shit works. If it didn't, no one would be using the same recordings over and over again. (True story: I thought the tamale man was the same guy for like, a week. I thought that somehow he traveled really quickly and efficiently like some sort of Tamale Santa Claus. My thoughts are ridiculous.)

Safe to say though, I invested in ear plugs. And I swear to god, wake me up with a tamale again and it will be the last time anything is "calentito" between us. 


Professional writer, designer, and do-it-aller. Remote Year citizen/alum. Currently living in San Francisco and probably trying to avoid the terrifying amounts of pigeons.