David Lida’s book about Mexico City, First Stop in the New World, contains a really impressive chapter which traces the history of daily commerce in the capital from the vast Aztec market of Tlatelolco and the tianguis — temporary open-air markets where Mexicans have done their shopping for clothing and household goods for centuries — through the present day. Since a large part of this chapter concerns itself with the growth of Wal-Mart and its subsidiary companies in Mexico, and deals with the 2004 controversy over the opening of a Wal-Mart subsidiary in a small town outside Teotihuacán, it bears the arresting title “Two-for-One at the Pyramid of the Sun.”
As a native New Yorker, Lida detests Wal-Mart for many reasons, most especially the company’s labor-hostile policies. But he remains skeptical that the exponential growth of cut-rate retail in Mexico City is such a bad thing for the general population: “obviously it is with chagrin that I point to a Wal-Mart offshoot as the most desirable export of U.S. culture in Mexico,” he writes.
However, the mom-and-pop stores that Wal-Mart is swiftly replacing
were expensive and shopping in them [was] part of the Sisyphean experience of most of their customers’ lives. If they wanted a jar of mayonnaise, for example, they most likely had only enough money to buy the tiniest, which, ounce for ounce, was the most expensive. Yet they earned so little money that a larger jar was perpetually out of reach.
In towns the size of San Juan Teotihuacán (pop 45,000),
choices have always been limited. A chicken was bought in a chicken store, a stove in [a stove store], clothing at the tianguis … [suddenly] Teotihuacán’s citizens are confronted with more options than they have ever imagined [and] with few exceptions, everything is cheaper … than in the rest of the retail establishments [in the town], of great importance in an economy where so many people live so close to the margin.
Lida sharply attacks the kind of nostalgia that would keep the picturesque poor in their place:
Certain foreigners pine for an “old Mexico” about which they have a romantic notion — the Mexico of a Casasola photograph from 1910. You can see them in the public squares of the sections of Mexico City that have maintained their colonial architecture, like Coyoacán or San Ángel, fanning themselves under the trees… But those foreigners, while living in their lovely Casasola print, have enough money to enjoy tapas bars and pasta restaurants … “Old Mexico” is a charming conceit for those who are sturdily anchored in the twenty-first century. For an impoverished Mexican, “old Mexico” is not quaint or nostalgic — it represents misery and servitude. If your struggle to survive is not much improved from that of your ancestors of a hundred years ago, you probably despise “old Mexico” and dream of supermarkets. [Wal-Mart] bestows on its shoppers the fantasy that they are first-class citizens of the First World.”
The chapter has many more themes than those I’ve summarized above; Lida also writes at length about the tianguis, and shopping malls, and at one point he even brings Walter Benjamin into the discussion.