Behind Globalization's Glitz
"Go just about anywhere in the world and the city, its streets, its markets, its people, are all part of the tourist attraction. Yet, here in Cancún, they hide it," says Araceli Dominguez, a leader of the local environmental-action group known as GEMA. Hiding it might be somewhat of an exaggeration. But certainly the bulk of foreign tourists hardly know of the existence of the actual city of Cancún, legally known as the municipality of Benito Juarez.
The gritty downtown sits immediately adjacent to the hotel zone. Even here small local business has been pushed out by big-box franchises, including two Wal-Marts, a Sam's Club and an Office Max. The inner rings of the city consist of graffiti-covered tenements--incubators of a robust coca-driven youth-gang culture. This is Cancún's Soweto, the ghetto dormitories that house many of the tourist industry's impoverished workers. Behind most of the grim cinder-block houses stand cramped, low-ceiling, add-on structures with tin roofs, wood-slat walls and earthen or concrete floors. Little more than human stalls, these cuarterias--little rooms--are illegally rented out by the day or month to the 40,000 or so mostly Mayan construction and hotel workers who commute into Cancún from their rural villages and go back home on weekends or once a month. "Cancún's development has caused the disintegration of the whole Mayan region instead of its development," says Araceli Dominguez. She and other critics complain that while billions have been invested by international capital in the resort hotels, almost nothing is spent on those who work in them.
The water system was privatized a decade ago, but with deference to the tourist hotels; many in Benito Juarez have running water only three or four hours a day. The 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement has also contributed to the collapse of local services. Job-seeking subsistence farmers, bankrupted by the import of cheap American corn, have flooded Cancún, accelerating what was already explosive and chaotic growth. Today, about half the residents are not connected to the sewer system, and local groundwater has turned toxic.
Some tourist-industry workers live a bumpy, hourlong bus ride from the hotels in places like Colonia Avante, a crude settlement in front of a modern Coca-Cola bottling plant and nestled around the towering pylons of a crackling high-tension electric line. As wages have fallen over the past five years and with most workers hired month to month and facing layoffs in the slow season, for many, places like this are their only choice.
The unpaved roads into Avante are so rough, the local police use sure-footed horses on their patrols. The residents live mostly in palapas, rough-hewn shacks made of strapped-together poles. Water is gathered from open wells. Hijacked electric power snakes through the village on a jumble of wires and cables held up by forked sticks no more than five feet off the ground. A half-mile into Avante, the pirated lines disappear, replaced by candles and oil lanterns. In the early morning hours, residents--some in their colorful corporate uniforms--stream toward the highway to catch a bus to work. Directly overhead an American Airlines 757--like a giant creature from another world--makes its approach into Cancún International Airport.
There are some tourist-industry workers climbing the economic ladder. New housing developments dot the city's periphery. Along dusty, unpaved but leveled roads, the more fortunate of the working-class families can buy a new, brightly painted "mini-casa" for about $16,000. Each mini-casa in a row of attached homes consists of one main room with a window, a separate shower stall and a tiny patio with a barbed-wire front fence--a total living space of 11 by 15 feet. "You live so close to one another," darkly jokes a local journalist, "that you have to cut the tails off your dogs, ask Jesus on the cross to hang his hands out the windows, and prepare for having your neighbors hear even your secrets."