The historic center of Puebla city, where I live, is a World Heritage site. The main square is flanked by a cathedral which was built in 1575, and the nearby post office, like many buildings in the area, is beautifully decorated in the traditional tiles. But among theses buildings there is also a McDonald’s, Dominos, Oxxo (a Coca Cola store), Subway, and Burger King, and there is a Pizza Hut, KFC; and Starbucks one block away.
Starbucks has 670 stores in Mexico, Subway has 900, and Walmart has 2,610—the largest number in any country after the U.S., and a figure that is likely to increase given their profits during the pandemic.
The impact of this change in urban landscape and consumption on Mexicans’ identity, lifestyle, and culture, shouldn’t be underestimated. More and more U.S. transnationals have opened up in Mexico over the past few decades, taking advantage of unfair trade agreements, super-exploitative labor conditions, and cheap utilities. Local restaurants and traditional Mexican tianguis markets struggle to compete, and many Mexicans see the U.S. companies as a source of social status.
“There isn’t any equality of conditions, so it isn’t really a competition,” says Iktiuh Arenas, an expert in urban planning and human rights, and a specialist with Mexico’s Secretariat of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development (SEDATU).
Arenas says shopping centers, department stores like Walmart, and transnational chain restaurants have advantages compared to local markets and craftspeople, because they have a big marketing budget. They encourage people to buy products that weren’t produced locally, and they have the money to secure the best locations in squares and main streets.
Over the past few decades, he argues, “development” has been limited to building shopping centers and supporting chain stores, while green areas and museums have been deprioritized. “This policy of urban development is based on copying the U.S. model,” he says.
Walmart in Mexico (which operates as Wal-Mart de México y Centroamérica) is the biggest retailer in the country, and it includes other brands, like the smaller Bodega Aurrerra supermarkets, the wholesale Sam’s Club, MaxiPali, and Superama. In 1994, it had just 25 stores in Mexico, but the NAFTA agreement (1994-2020) meant it could easily sell hundreds of products imported from the U.S., without paying customs taxes.
Since then, Walmarts have been built on forested areas, threatened buildings of artistic value, and been built on or near ancient ruins. There is a Walmart near the archaeological zone of Teotihuacán, and local resistance managed to prevent one being built in the Indigenous town of Cuetezalan.
Joining the Walmarts are hundreds of other companies, including Pepsico, Uber, 19,558 Oxxos, The Cheesecake Factory, Baskin Robbins, 718 Dominos, over 400 KFCs, Pizza Hut, Home Depot, Office Depot, Citigroup, JP Morgan Case, and thousands of factories, from Ford to General Electric.
With NAFTA’s lifting of tariffs and trade barriers, these companies also benefit from some of the highest rates of exploitation in the world. While a Mexican worker in the U.S. will earn U.S.$1,870 per month on average, in Mexico the figure drops to U.S.$291.
NAFTA also saw a mass displacement of rural workers in Mexico, and Arenas says public policy has abandoned rural areas in favor of cities. He argues that “classism and racism towards rural workers” has also been a factor.
I also talked to Isis Samaniego, a poet and traditional market worker, and an expert in native Mexican fruits and vegetables. “Department stores, shopping centers, and fast food joints from the U.S. displaced local businesses here, like the tlapalerias [Mexican stores selling paint and hardware goods],” they say, arguing that those shops sold products that lasted, whereas the new shops sell cheaper, but lower quality goods.
Changing consumption habits
As more and more farmers moved to the cities, they became the new cheap labor. Bertha Meléndez is a lifelong activist and well known musician. She sings in 10 Indigenous languages and researches and compiles Indigenous songs, while collaborating with community radios. She says the new arrivals to the cities were then sold the idea of junk food as a way to feel modern.
“It wasn’t just a change of diet, but a change of lifestyle, as people left communities where there were strong connections between neighbors and a slower approach, and came to the cities where they were then so exploited that they didn’t have time to prepare their own food,” she says.
As she talks, we eat tortilla soup. “This is a Mexican dish,” she says. “It takes time to prepare.”
“People are abandoning the street markets and going to supermarkets because of the status … When a family goes to McDonald’s, its because they want to look like they are upper class. People think the food is better there, but it has a lot of chemicals in it, it can be very addictive and bad for your health,” comments Samaniego.
Many Mexicans feel the need to put on appearances. That involves pretending their living conditions are better than the poverty they face, as well as imitating U.S. or European ways, and buying products or brands from there. For hundreds of years, colonization and imperialism have taught people that their culture and way of life were inferior.
Prior to the Spanish invasion, and well after it as well, people ate food according to the seasons, Arenas notes. “But now, Walmart sells products all year round, and so it breaks with the old way of doing things,” he says.
He explains that producers compete for the privilege of Walmart shelf space, and consumers buy things they don’t need as part of aspiring to be something better. “It strengthens those issues of classism and loss of identity,” he says.
Before the Spanish invasion, people gathered in main squares and central areas and laid down woven petate mats, then arranged their products on them. They either exchanged goods, or sold them for cacao or for tools made of copper. These tianguis markets were a key part of people’s culture and way of life, and they continue to exist in some form today in towns like Cuetzalan, Tianguistengo, Otumba, Tenejapa, Chilapa, Zacualpan, and more.
“In Walmart you exchange money with someone, but you don’t exchange knowledge, you don’t have a conversation,” says Samaniego. But in the modern and traditional tianguis, you can talk to the farmers directly, or to the artists who made the handicrafts, they argue.
Children of corn
That’s why Meléndez sees companies like Walmart and McDonald’s as displacing communities, as well as their food and lifestyle.
“We are the children of corn. Since ancestral times, we have depended on corn,” she says. She describes a relationship with the land and environment that is a key part of people’s identities.
“Indigenous culture is alive, but it isn’t as visible,” she says. Some of the languages she sings in, such as Nahuatl and Mixteco, are widely spoken. But others are almost extinct, spoken by a few hundred people. Colonization, then U.S. economic and cultural imperialism have seen people rejecting their indigenous roots, and “instead they imitate U.S. culture. Being indigenous is stigmatized,” she says.
That’s why Meléndez sees her songs and Indigenous and Mexican art as being vital for people’s sense of identity, and their visibility. There are 12 million professional folk craftspeople in Mexico. But they have been one of the sectors most negatively impacted by the pandemic. They often live in regions without Internet or phone signals, and frequently don’t have the technical literacy to promote their products online—instead of relying on interactions in the street and squares. During last year’s lock downs, many artists were completely cut off from their income.
Stores like Walmart, on the other hand, have adapted to selling online. Walmart’s profits in Mexico and Central America increased to 162 billion pesos in 2020, from 148 billion in 2019.
“Mexico is dominated by the U.S … culturally, economically, and they even choose our presidents so that they can keep sending their companies here and enjoying cheap labor … and with that comes a policy of making people reject their culture, and that means rejecting themselves,” Meléndez says.
Foreign corporations have a lot of freedom in Mexico, and they are backed by trade agreements like NAFTA and USMCA that were created within very unequal power dynamics. One activist, Gustavo Esteva during the 2002 protests against plans for a McDonald’s in the main square of Oaxaca put it succinctly, “This is nothing less than a cultural conquest.”