No, the Conquistadors Are Not Back. It's Just Wal-Mart.
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
AN JUAN DE TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico, Sept. 21 - The market in
this small town is a warren of streets with canopied stalls and
battered storefronts, where one can buy everything from fresh
avocados to jeans to a vaquero's saddle.
As they have for centuries, the merchants here ply their trade
midway between the ruins of giant pyramids built by the Maya and
the stone steeple of the town's main Catholic church, which Spanish
monks founded in 1548.
Now another colossus from a different empire is being built in
the shadow of the pyramids, a structure some merchants and other
townsfolk here say threatens not only their businesses but their
heritage. In December, an ugly cinderblock building rising from
the earth is to house a sprawling supermarket called Bodega Aurrera,
a subsidiary of Wal-Mart of Mexico.
"What's next?" said David García, 27, whose
family owns a dry-goods store in the market. "It's like having
Mickey Mouse on the top of the Pyramid of the Moon."
The 71,902-square-foot store with 236 parking places is about
a mile from a gated park where tourists flock to some of Mexico's
best-known ruins, a complex of pyramids and other structures built
between the fifth and ninth centuries and later called by the
Aztecs "the place where men became gods."
How Wal-Mart got permission to build a superstore on farmland
supposedly protected under Mexican law as an archaeological site
has vexed the merchants here, who freely accuse the town, the
state and the federal Institute of Anthropology and History of
The opponents charge Wal-Mart with trampling on their Indian
heritage and suggest that the backhoes clawing at the earth on
the site are destroying irreplaceable relics.
But an economic reality underlies this dispute - Wal-Mart has
not only built stores throughout Mexico, but has taken over several
other chains. It is the largest private employer in the country,
and wherever this American retail titan erects a new outlet, the
local merchants tend to disappear, or at least lose business.
"It's a crime," said Irma González Rodríguez,
40, who sells chickens in the market. "They say they will
bring 200 jobs. How many people are you going to leave without
jobs for those 200?
"The ruins and us go together. We are part of this culture.
They will leave us without work, without anything."
Nonsense, say state and local officials, who approved the project,
as they do most things, without any public hearings. Mayor Guillermo
Rodríguez Céspedes said there were no more than
20 opponents, people who were afraid of losing business. He points
out that Wal-Mart is promising to bring 180 jobs to a town struggling
with unemployment. He angrily denounced the grumbling about corruption
at City Hall as lies.
Archaeologists at the federal institute also defend their decision
to let the project go ahead. True, a small pre-Hispanic altar
of clay and stone was discovered under what will be an expansive
parking lot, along with a few other artifacts, said Sánchez
Nava, an official with the institute.
But most of the artifacts have already been recovered from the
area where the supermarket is being built. Besides, he said, teams
of archaeologists from the institute are at the site each day,
watching over the work. "I don't feel there is a risk,"
Opponents say the government is misleading people. They say they
have found what look like pottery shards, arrows and other relics
in the earth excavated from the construction site. They point
out that Maribel Miró Flaquer, who approved the project
for the institute, resigned shortly afterward. Her successor,
Raúl Javier Córdoba García, died of unknown
causes after only a week in office.
All this has fed the rumor mill on the town's streets, talk of
corruption and murder, charges officials call pure fiction. Some
compare Wal-Mart's invasion of the pyramid area to the Spanish
Ever since Wal-Mart entered the retail market by taking over
Cifra, a Mexican retailer, in 1991, it has gobbled up a greater
and greater share of consumer spending. It now owns more than
650 department stores, restaurants and supermarkets in six chains.
It rakes in revenues of more than $11 billion a year, greater
than the other top three discount retailers combined. In February,
it announced plans to open 77 new stores this year and next.
Raúl Argüelles, a spokesman for Wal-Mart of Mexico,
says the company's only motive for building a store here is to
bring lower prices for basic goods to consumers. People here now
have to trek 30 miles to the nearest hypermarket, he points out,
and pay higher prices in the old-fashioned market. He characterized
the protesters, who on one occasion threatened the site with sticks
and machetes, as a handful of malcontents. "The community
wants the store," he said.
But the opponents have been joined by some intellectuals, like
the poet Homero Aridjis, who in early September intoned that building
a shopping center in sight of the pyramids amounted to "driving
the stake of globalization into the heart of Mexican antiquity."
Emmanuel D'Herrera, a schoolteacher and former diplomat who lives
near the pyramids, said the federal archaeologists relied on surveys
to give their approval. He said the construction crews started
digging three weeks before government archaeologists arrived,
a charge that could not be verified.
"We see an awful corruption all around that stinks, from
INAH to the mayor's office," said Mr. D'Herrera, using the
acronym for the archaeological institute. "We want to preserve
our heritage. It's not a common piece of land.''
Others here are more pragmatic. Francisco Briseño has
sold cheese, ham, soap, bridles, saddles and other necessities
from his tiny shop in the market for 40 years. He does not care
much about ancient history. Asked what would happen when the big
store opened, he shrugged and said everyone else would lose some
business. Still, he has faith in his clientele.
"I don't think they are going to abandon me," he said,
smiling broadly, as if to say nothing ever really changes here,
even when it does.