|NY Times, September 28, 2004
No, the Conquistadors Are Not Back. It's Just Wal-Mart.
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
SAN 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
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
"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 corruption.
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
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," he said.
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 conquest.
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
"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
"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.