Reviews | Walmartland: How American Stores Colonizing Mexico Are Replacing Local Culture

The historic center of the city of Puebla, where I live, is a world heritage to place. The main square is flanked by a cathedral built in 1575, and the neighboring post office, like many buildings in the area, is beautifully decorated with traditional tiles. But among these 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 900 and Walmart 2,610, the most of any country after the United States, and a number that is expected to increase given their profits during the pandemic.

They encourage people to buy products that are not produced locally, and they have the money to secure the best locations in squares and main streets.

The impact of this change in urban landscape and consumption on the identity, lifestyle and culture of Mexicans should not be underestimated. More and more American transnationals have opened up in Mexico in recent decades, taking advantage of unfair trade deals, overexploited working conditions and cheap public services. Local restaurants and traditional Mexican tianguis markets struggle to compete, and many Mexicans view American businesses as a source of social status.

“There is no level playing field, so it is not really a competition”, explains Iktiuh Arenas, expert in town planning and human rights, and specialist in Mexico Secretariat of Agrarian, Land and Urban Development (SEDATU).

Arenas says that shopping malls, department stores like Walmart, and transnational restaurant chains have advantages over local markets and artisans because they have a big marketing budget. They encourage people to buy products that are not produced locally, and they have the money to secure the best locations in squares and main streets.

In recent decades, he argues, “development” has been limited to building shopping centers and supporting chain stores, while green spaces and museums have been decommissioned. “This urban development policy is based on the copy of the American model,” he said.

Walmart in Mexico (which operates as Wal-Mart de México y Centroamerica) is the largest retailer in the country, and it understand other brands, such as the small supermarkets Bodega Aurrerra, the wholesaler Sam’s Club, MaxiPali and Superama. In 1994, it had only 25 stores in Mexico, but the NAFTA agreement (1994-2020) supposed he could easily sell hundreds of products imported from the United States, without paying customs taxes.

Since then, Walmarts has been built on wooded areas, endangered buildings of artistic value and built on or near ancient ruins. There is a Walmart near the archaeological area of ​​Teotihuacán, and local resistance has managed to prevent us from being built in the indigenous town of Cuetezalan.

Hundreds of other companies including Pepsico, Uber, 19,558 Oxxos, The Cheesecake Factory, Baskin Robbins, 718 Dominoes, finished 400 KFC, Pizza Hut, Home Depot, Office Depot, Citigroup, JP Morgan Case and thousands of factories, from Ford to General Electric.

With the removal of tariffs and trade barriers by NAFTA, these companies also enjoy some of the highest exploitation rates in the world. While a Mexican worker in the United States to win On average US $ 1,870 per month, in Mexico the figure drops to US $ 291.

NAFTA also resulted in a massive displacement of rural workers in Mexico, and Arenas says public policy has shifted from rural areas to cities. He argues that “classism and racism towards rural workers” was also a factor.

I also spoke to Isis Samaniego, a traditional poet and merchant, and expert in indigenous Mexican fruits and vegetables. “Department stores, malls, and fast food outlets in the United States have moved local businesses here, like tlapalerias. [Mexican stores selling paint and hardware goods]”, they say, claiming that these stores sold products that lasted, while the new stores sold less expensive, but lower quality products.

Changing consumption habits

As more and more farmers moved to the cities, they became the new cheap labor. Bertha Meléndez is a longtime 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 newcomers to cities then sold the idea of ​​junk food as a way to feel modern.

“It was not just a change of regime, but a change of lifestyle, as people were leaving communities where there were close neighborly ties and a slower approach, and coming to the towns where they were then. so exploited that they didn’t have time to prepare their own food, ”she says.

While she is talking, we are eating tortilla soup. “It’s a Mexican dish,” she says. “It takes time to prepare.

“People are ditching 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’re in the upper class. People think the food is better there, but it has a lot of chemicals in it. it can be very addicting and bad for your health, ”comments Samaniego.

Many Mexicans feel the need to make appearances. It involves pretending that their living conditions are better than the poverty they face, as well as emulating American or European ways and buying products or brands from there. For hundreds of years, colonization and imperialism taught people that their culture and way of life was inferior.

Before the Spanish invasion, and long after it too, people ate seasonally, notes Arenas. “But now Walmart sells products year round, so it breaks with the old way of doing things,” he says.

He explains that producers compete for the privilege of Walmart storage space, and consumers buy things they don’t need as part of their aspiration to be something better. “It reinforces these problems of classism and loss of identity,” he says.

Before the Spanish invasion, people gathered in the main squares and central areas and laid down woven petate rugs, and then arranged their products there. They traded goods or sold them for cocoa or copper tools. These tianguis markets were a key part of the culture and way of life of the people, and they continue to to exist in one form or another today in cities like Cuetzalan, Tianguistengo, Otumba, Tenejapa, Chilapa, Zacualpan, etc.

“At Walmart, you exchange money with someone, but you don’t exchange knowledge, you don’t have a conversation,” says Samaniego. But in modern and traditional tianguis, you can speak directly to the farmers or artists who made the crafts, they argue.

Corn children

That’s why Meléndez sees companies like Walmart and McDonald’s as a displacement of communities, as well as their food and lifestyle.

“We are the children of the corn. Since ancient times we have depended on corn, ”she says. It describes a relationship with the land and the environment which is a key part of people’s identity.

“Indigenous culture is alive, but it’s not as visible,” she says. Some of the languages ​​in which she sings, such as Nahuatl and Mixtec, are widely spoken. But others are almost extinct, spoken by a few hundred people. Colonization and then US economic and cultural imperialism saw people reject their indigenous roots, and “instead, they imitate American culture. Being indigenous is stigmatized,” she says.

This is why Meléndez considers his songs and his indigenous and Mexican art as essential to the sense of identity of people and their visibility. There are 12 millions professional folk artisans in Mexico. But they have been one of the most negatively impacted by the pandemic. They often live in areas without internet or telephone signals and often lack the technical knowledge to promote their products online, relying instead on interactions on the streets and in squares. During the shutdowns last year, many artists were completely cut off from their income.

On the other hand, stores like Walmart have adapted to selling online. Walmart’s profits in Mexico and Central America increased to 162 billion pesos in 2020, compared to 148 billion in 2019.

“Mexico is dominated by the United States… culturally, economically, and they even choose our presidents so they can continue to send their businesses here and enjoy cheap labor… and with that comes a policy that makes people reject their culture, and that means rejecting themselves. “, says Melendez.

Foreign companies have a lot of freedom in Mexico and they are supported by trade agreements like NAFTA and USMCA which were created out of a very unequal power dynamic. An activist, Gustavo Esteva during the 2002 edition protests against plans for a McDonald’s in Oaxaca’s main plaza, says it succinctly, “This is nothing short of a cultural conquest.”

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