The historic centre of Puebla City, where I live, is a World Heritage site. The main square is flanked by a cathedral built in 1575 and the nearby post office, like many buildings in the area, is beautifully decorated in the traditional tiles.
But among these buildings sit McDonald's, Dominos, Oxxo (a Coca Cola store), Subway and Burger King. A Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks are just one block away.
Starbucks has 670 stores in Mexico, Subway has 900 and Walmart has 2610, the largest number in any country after the United States and likely to grow 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 US transnationals have opened up in Mexico over the past few decades, taking advantage of unfair trade agreements, super-exploitative labour conditions and cheap utilities.
Local restaurants and traditional Mexican tianguis markets struggle to compete, and many Mexicans see the US 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 centres and supporting chain stores, while green areas and museums have been deprioritised. “This policy of urban development is based on copying the US model”, he says.
Walmart in Mexico (which operates as Wal-Mart de México y Centroamérica) is the biggest retailer in the country and 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 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994–2020) meant it could easily sell hundreds of products imported from the US tax-free.
Since then, Walmarts have been built in forested areas and on or near ancient ruins, and have threatened buildings of artistic value. 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, more than 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 US will earn US$1870 on average, in Mexico the figure drops to US$291.
NAFTA also resulted in a mass displacement of rural workers in Mexico and Arenas says public policy has abandoned rural areas in favour 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 US displaced local businesses here, like the tlapalerias [Mexican stores selling paint and hardware goods],” they told me, arguing that the tlapalerias 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 labour.
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 radio stations. 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 neighbours 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, it’s 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 US or European ways and buying products or brands from there. For hundreds of years, colonisation and imperialism have taught people that their culture and way of life were inferior.
Prior to the Spanish invasion, and well after it, 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, 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 told me.
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. Colonisation, then US economic and cultural imperialism, mean people are rejecting their indigenous roots and “instead they imitate US culture. Being indigenous is stigmatised”, 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 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 rose to 162 billion pesos in 2020, from 148 billion in 2019.
“Mexico is dominated by the US … 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.”