As Wal-Mart and other retail giants open outposts throughout Mexico, local activists worry that the country's traditional markets will soon be obsolete. Sara Silver reports.
The ancient pre-Aztec ruins of Teotihuacán, which lie just an hour north of Mexico City, are one of Mexico's most popular attractions. Each year some 2 million visitors—from amateur archaeologists to pagan pilgrims—flock to the site's massive Pyramid of the Sun. Last fall these visitors included hundreds of protesters rallying against Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, for opening a superstore in November in the neighboring town of San Juan Teotihuacán, an act they say profanes the site's heritage.
In Wal-Mart's defense, it designed the Bodega Aurrerá, an offshoot of the retail giant, to be inconspicuous from the top of the pyramid. But marred views from cultural sites are not the only concern. With Wal-Mart well established as Mexico's largest private employer and in control of 55 percent of the country's retail market, some are growing fearful about the wider influence of global companies like the megachain on the country's local economies.
Across Mexico, as chain retailers overtake traditional open-air markets, they are running afoul of activists trying to preserve the food, crafts, and buildings that make Mexican culture so rich. The activists' concern is not just for the merchants who must compete with mass-produced goods, but also for the country's vital tourism industry, in which diverse markets—full of handicrafts and regional produce—are one of the biggest draws.
In Cuernavaca, known as the city of eternal spring, many of the town's elite are boycotting a modern art museum that opened last year: the U.S. retailer Costco built the museum alongside two Costco-owned storeson the site of a historic hotel that had fallen into ruin. And locals from the colonial city of Oaxaca banded together in 2002 to keep a McDonald's from opening on the town's beautiful zocalo (plaza), where cafés serve fried grasshoppers, mole, and other traditional dishes.
According to the poet Homero Aridjis, founder of the Group of 100, an environmental organization that tried to stop the opening of the store near Teotihuacán, the arrival of megachains has already eroded the country's street markets in the most basic way, turning them into pallid imitations of supermarket aisles with standardized offerings. "Imported fruits bred for appearance have replaced local produce, handicrafts have been replaced by cheap plastics from Asia, and native textiles are now woven with garish acrylic fibers," he says.
Some observers are more circumspect in their assessment of the chain stores' impact. Carola García Calderón, a sociologist specializing in consumer culture at Mexico City's Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México, sees small vendors responding to the competition by successfully imitating certain characteristics of superstores, such as putting a wide range of merchandise, from traditional candy to crafts, housewares, and clothing, in one place. She also credits tourism with helping to curtail the influence of megastores, citing destinations like Zihuatanejo, which appeals to travelers with its local markets, regional foods, and small hotels. "The areas of cultural tourism are holding out against the trend toward homogenization," says García. One form of globalization, it seems, is empowering local resistance to another.
SARA SILVER is a Mexico-based reporter for the Financial Times.