All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1992

The Rebirth of Mexico

Sheila Melvin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

The traffic light dangling above the massive intersection in downtown Mexico City changed to red, and our airport taxi driver unwillingly slammed his foot on the brake. All around, cars, trucks, and cycles ground to a momentary halt. Although the day had been clear in the air above Mexico, here on the ground pollution, particle-laden and thick as fog, obscured all traces of sunshine.

Stepping out of the smog and into the clogged roadway, a young man with a painted face and harlequinesque clothing approached our cab. In his right hand he held a flaming torch which he brandished theatrically before his captive commuter audience. Looking at me through the open window, he raised the torch to his mouth and swallowed the flames with a flourish.

I blinked. I had never seen a fire-eater close up, and had certainly never seen one at a busy intersection in a major world capital. After a moment, the young man pulled the torch out of his mouth, waved it as though to prove that the flames had really been extinguished, and held out his hand for a donation.

! blinked again, but was convinced that the act had not been an illusion—the flames had been real and, somehow, the young man had swallowed them. As I fumbled for some coins, the light changed and the cab driver accelerated. Craning my neck for a last look as we careened away, I saw the flame swallower relighting his torch in preparation for his next performance.

These were the first moments of my first visit to Mexico. Over the next three weeks, I would have more than a few occasions to blink as I attempted to reconcile my rather murky image of Mexico as a desperately poor, corrupt, Third World country with an abysmal economy, a socialist-leaning government, and an anti-American populace, with the reality of the Mexico I saw around me. But by the end of my visit, I was convinced that the Mexico I was seeing—hard-working, friendly, efficient, open, and developing economically at an astounding pace—was no illusion.



“Salinastroika” is the word coined to describe the transformation the Mexican economy has undergone since Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president in 1988. It is a catchy term, but the difference between it and the “perestroika” it is derived from is that “Salinastroika” is actually working.

President Salinas has a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and he has surrounded himself with talented advisers; The Economist calls the current Mexican leadership “probably the most economically literate group that has ever governed any nation anywhere.” Under Salinas’s guidance, many of the sodalist policies that hobbled the Mexican economy have been disassembled. Nationalized banks, state enterprises, high tariffs, nontariff barriers, and much of the other paraphernalia of a statist economy have been swept away in favor of private banks, private enterprise, and foreign investment. Inflation, which reached 160 percent in 1987, has been brought way down. Salinas’s policies are considered so successful that some Western analysts have even suggested that Eastern Europeans should emulate “Salinastroika” as they attempt to drag their economies out of the Communist abyss.

By allowing foreign investment and greater competition in the domestic market, by limiting government intervention, and by pushing to enter into a free trade agreement with the United States and Canada, Salinas and his advisers hope to give Mexico’s 90 million people the best opportunity they have had in years to pull themselves upward economically. There is strong evidence that “Salinastroika” is succeeding in doing just that.


This Is the Third World?

Prior to visiting Mexico, my travel companions and I immersed ourselves in literature on Mayan hieroglyphs and Indian villages, but read next to nothing about the 1991 Mexican reality. We knew only that Mexico was a poor Third World country, and we approached it with the assumptions and attitudes formed in a year spent traveling together in China, India, Indonesia, and half a dozen other Third World Asian nations.

Wishing to purchase train tickets from Mexico City to Oaxaca, we scheduled half a day to wait in line and hoped that it would be enough time. When we got to the station, a gleaming modern building, we were astounded to find no lines. An English-speaking information officer guided us to the ticket counter where a clerk issued computer-generated tickets in less than five minutes. On the way out, we noticed an automatic teller machine with links to our banks in the United States. Although they needed no money, both my friends pulled out their bank cards and got cash just to see the machine access their American bank accounts and spit out crisp peso bills. “This,” we asked each other, “is the Third World?”

The long-distance bus system, comprised of a number of competing companies, was even more convenient than the trains. As one Australian who had just spent four months traveling by bus in the U.S. put it, “Mexico’s bus system puts Greyhound to shame.” Mexico’s worst buses, we concluded, were as good as China’s best, and Mexico’s best buses—with reclining seats, air conditioning, VCRs, and TV monitors—were better than any we had ever seen.

As we wandered through Oaxaca and Chiapas, two of Mexico’s poorest states, we repeatedly wondered how Americans, ourselves included, had formed their impressions of Mexico. One by one, we lifted our stereotypes of “south of the border” up to the Mexico we saw around us and found them to be fundamentally unsound.

No, the water could not be drunk by foreigners, but bottled mineral water was available in even the most off-the-beaten-track destinations, and we never had to use the iodine tablets we had used regularly in other nations. The roads were not super-highways, but they were for the most part well-paved and well-maintained and were far from terrifying. Traveling by night bus, we encountered not the proverbial banditos, but courteous, if overzealous, police officers who boarded the bus to check passengers’ identification cards and passports. With one exception, every bus we took arrived on time or early.

Most important of all to us, we experienced none of the virulent anti-Americanism we had been told was common in Mexico. On the contrary, any time we looked the slightest bit lost or confused, someone would approach and offer us help in English. None of us spoke Spanish, but rather than getting angry or impatient as the three gringas mispronounced Spanish words or, worse, Aztec names like Teotihuacan, ticket clerks, waiters, and cab drivers listened in amusement and did their best to help us.


A New Market for Pepsi?

Demand for American goods in Mexico is high, having skyrocketed since Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986. As Herminio Blanco, chief Mexican negotiator for the Free Trade Agreement, has stressed, if the agreement is passed, this demand will grow with the wealth that will be generated by it.

American cars are everywhere, and consumer items such as film, soft drinks, and candy are available in remote towns, even in ghost towns. The manner in which one American product (Pepsi-Cola) has penetrated a segment of the Mexican market not renowned for its openness is startling. San Juan Chamula is an Indian village located in the southern state of Chiapas, just outside the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The 60,000 Tzotzil-speaking Chamula Indians who live in the town and its surrounding mountains are known for their mistrust of change and firm adherence to tradition. Several years ago, two foreign tourists who violated Chamula sensibilities and town regulations by taking a photograph inside the church were reportedly stoned to death. In 1987 the Chamulas, who have been Catholic for hundreds of years, expelled all Catholic clergy from their town and began assaulting any tribal members who worshipped at the cathedral in San Cristobal; Chamula leaders claimed that the local Catholic bishop was not respectful enough of traditional Mayan forms of worship.

San Juan Chamula’s 400-year-old church is a windowless building with no pews or other furnishings. Figures of saints, draped in velvet robes with mirrors dangling from their necks, line its walls. The church floor is scattered with fresh pine branches, and burning candles stand upright in their own wax. Families of Chamula worshippers kneel among pine and the candles, chanting and bowing as they pray in a manner that does not remotely resemble the worship most Catholics would recognize.

During their prayers they pass a live chicken back and forth over the candle flames. The bird’s startled clucks blend with the eerie chanting; combined with the scent of the pine and the glow of the candles, the scene is truly exotic. The chicken is placed back in the bag, and eggs are passed over the flames in the same manner. Then, the denouement—16-ounce bottles of Pepsi-Cola are brought out. The Pepsi, which is substituted more and more for the traditional pash, a strong sugarcane liquor, is passed over the burning candles and held up reverently before the figures of the saints. Next, the man of the family pops open a bottle and takes a swig. Family members lean back on their heels and rest as they sip from the communal Pepsi, and nearby worshippers are sometimes invited to partake of the refreshing beverage. When the man decides the Pepsi break is over, he recaps the bottle, sets it down gently, and the family resumes its worship.


The Word Is Spreading

In 1990 Business Week wrote that Mexico, for the first time in a century, “is starting to look like one of the world’s best places to do business.” Apparently, many investors agree. Some restrictions on foreign investment still exist, but investors from the U.S., Europe, and Japan are investing more and more in both manufacturing facilities and securities. Word of the burgeoning Mexican economy and the benefits of investing in it have spread farther afield than many people realize and have proved irresistible to some.

A case in point is Han Zhu, a 36-year-old Beijing native who heard about the investment possibilities in Mexico and decided to take advantage of them. Risking it all, Han picked up and moved from Beijing to Oaxaca City in the spring of 1991. He and his sister, who is married to a Mexican, are the only Chinese in the entire state. Together, they have opened Oaxaca’s first—and only—Chinese restaurant and Chinese emporium. Han’s experiences can hardly be called typical, but they are certainly encouraging.

Han Zhu’s Qing Long Chinese Restaurant and his shop are located on the second floor of a shiny new shopping mall. The restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the soaring stone bell towers of the Church of Santo Domingo.

Prior to leaving China, Han had considered going to New York, but decided against it because “it’s too crazy and there are too many Chinese people.” He and his sister chose Oaxaca for several reasons, one being that there were no Chinese for hundreds of miles. This, they reasoned, would give them a leg up in selling Chinese cuisine and products. “Everybody comes to my restaurant if they want Chinese food,” Han explained simply. “There is no other Chinese restaurant in Oaxaca!”

Han, who worked in the import-export business in China, had never run a restaurant before he came to Mexico, but the Qing Long is doing fairly well. Half the customers are foreign tourists, the biggest groups being American, European, and Japanese. The cooks are Mexican and, though the food is ostensibly authentic Chinese, it has a distinctive Mexican flair. “I have to respect their tastes,” Han says of his Mexican customers.

Han’s true love is his shop, the Ni Hao import Export Company (ni hao means “hello” in Chinese), which he says is the only import store in the country with products directly from China. He plans to drive his Ford pickup truck to Mexico City twice a year and from there to travel to China to restock his inventory.

Han has had remarkably few problems with his shop. In fact, his biggest problem is that “the people here know nothing about China, and they want things explained to them. But my Spanish is not good enough to explain everything. So I explain it to my salesclerks in bad Spanish, and they explain it to the customers.”

Hah has retained his Chinese citizenship and does not consider himself to be an immigrant. He would not comment on the political or economic situation in China. “I don’t want to say anything bad about China,” he demurred. “I may go back there after I have gotten rich.” But for now, Han is settled in Mexico and couldn’t be happier. “The Mexican market is just beginning to open and develop,” he said with a broad smile. “I am like a pioneer here. I like it very much.”

Mexico still has numerous problems to overcome. Grinding poverty persists, and as many as 25 percent of the houses are without running water. Corruption continues to plague the country, and charges of election fraud are frequently leveled against Salinas’s party, the PRI. Economists worry that 75 percent of the capital flowing into the country is going into easily liquidated investments, rather than factories, and that it could quickly be withdrawn if investors lose confidence in Mexico’s continued development. However, such a loss of confidence seems unlikely, particularly if the Free Trade Agreement succeeds. Mexico appears to be close to attaining the economic prosperity its long-suffering people deserve. When that prosperity arrives, much of the credit will go to the free-market policies of “Salinastroika.”