Wal-Mart vs. Pyramids
By Laura Carlsen
Global Beat Syndicate
MEXICO CITY--The showdown is rife with symbolism. Wal-Mart's expansion plans in Mexico have brought about a modern-day clash of passions and principles at the site of one the earth's first great civilizations.
Several months ago Wal-Mart, the world's largest retail chain, quietly began constructing a new store in Mexico--the latest step in a phenomenal takeover of Mexico's supermarket sector. But the expansion north of Mexico City is not just part of Wal-Mart's commercial conquest of Mexico. It is infringing on the cultural foundations of the country. The new store is just 3,000 meters from the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest structure in the ancient city of Teotihuacan.
The Teotihuacan Empire is believed to have begun as early as 200 B.C. Its dominion stretched deep into the heart of Mayan country in Guatemala and throughout present-day Mexico. At its peak, Teotihuacan was a thriving city of about 200,000 inhabitants, but the civilization declined in 700 A.D. under circumstances still shrouded in mystery.
Since then, other tribes and civilizations, including the Aztecs and contemporary Mexican society, have claimed the "City of the Gods" as their heritage. The grand human accomplishment it represents and the power of its architectural, historical and, for many, spiritual legacy is central to Mexico's history and culture.
While little is known for certain about the rise and fall of Teotihuacan, much is known about the rise of the Wal-Mart empire. From a store in Rogers, Arkansas founded by the Walton brothers in 1962, the enterprise grew in the breathtakingly short period of 42 years into the world's largest company.
In Mexico, its conquest of the supermarket sector began by buying up the nation's extensive chain, Aurrerá, beginning in 1992. Today, with 657 stores, Mexico is home to more Wal-Marts and their affiliates than any other country outside the United States. Wal-Mart is now Mexico's largest private employer, with over 100,000 employees. But recent studies in the United States, where resistance to the mega-stores has been growing, show that job creation is often job displacement, because Wal-Marts put local stores out of business, leading to net job losses.
Wal-mart has revolutionized the labor and business world by working cheap and growing big. Labor costs are held down through anti-union policies, the hiring of undocumented workers in the United States, alleged discrimination against women and persons with disabilities, and cutbacks in benefits. Prices paid suppliers are driven down by outsourcing competition. Buoyed by $244.5 billion dollars in annual net sales, the chain can afford to make ever deeper incursions into Mexico's retail sector.
A diverse group of local merchants, artists, actors, academics and indigenous organizations are leading the opposition, protesting that the store damages Mexico's rich cultural heritage. Through ceremonies, hunger strikes, demonstrations and press coverage, the movement to defend the site has kept the conflict in the public eye and heightened the public-opinion costs to Wal-Mart. Now opponents have taken their concerns to the Mexican Congress and UNESCO.
Some ancient ruins have already been found on the store's new site and Wal-Mart construction workers told the national daily, La Jornada , that they had orders to hide any archaeological relics they found. Normally, the presence of relics requires that further excavation be carried painstakingly or halted altogether. But the booming Wal-Mart corporation clearly has no time for such delays.
The dispute in Teotihuacan today is not a battle between the past and the future. It is a struggle over a country's right to define itself. For defenders of the ancient site, the foremost symbol of the nation's cultural heritage also constitutes part of its contemporary integrity. Modern Mexico is still a country that defines itself by legends, and whose collective identity--unlike its neophyte northern neighbor--reaches back thousands of years.
In this context, Wal-Mart is a symbol of the cultural insensitivity of rampant economic integration. While its actions may be technically legal, in the end Wal-Mart could pay a high price for this insensitivity...and if there is anything Wal-Mart hates, it is high prices.