Teotihuacan flourished for nearly a millennium between the second century BC and 700 AD. In the year 500, half a million people lived in the city, which covered an expanse of eight square miles, larger even than Rome. Having harnessed underground streams, the rulers of Teotihuacan created Mexico's first corn culture. Queztalcoatl, the plumed serpent, a deity ubiquitous in ancient Mesoamerica, ruled over Teotihuacan, and his priests maintained the balance of the agricultural seasons and upheld the sun in the sky through human sacrifice.
As I climbed the 247 steep stone steps divided into four narrow tiers to the pyramid's summit, many of my fellow pilgrims expressed their umbrage at the new Wal-Mart, in plain sight down below, just 2,000 meters away. "It is like an invasion, a new conquest," opined Rafael, a young computer technician from Cordoba, Veracruz.
"Falta de respeto" (a lack of respect), a middle-aged woman missing her two front teeth spat. "This is Mexico, you know."
"What a horror! They insult the Gods! Quezalcoatl must be furious!" said Mexico City grade school teacher Xenia Marquez, extending her arms towards the weak December sun at the very apex of the Pyramid of the Sun. Her tirade was interrupted by the tingling of her cellphone.
The saga of the resistance to the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart is a picaresque footnote in the battle against the global leviathan. "Wal-Mart has profaned the City of the Gods, and there are no deities in Mesoamerica that can protect it," darkly warned Miguel Limon-Portillo, the celebrated translator of Aztec poetry. Whereas in the U.S., such disputes are apt to be settled before permit appeals and zoning boards, the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart touched a raw national nerve, and so this war was fought a la Mexicana.
Having jumped the gun on NAFTA by buying into the 122-store Bodega Aurrera chain here in 1992 and taking it over five years later, Wal-Mart now owns 687 superstores in seventy-one Mexican cities under the marquee logos of Wal-Mart, Bodega Aurrera, Superama, and Sam's Club--plus fifty-two Suburbias (a more upscale department store chain) and 235 Vips restaurants. Total Wal-Mart sales of $10.8 billion in 2003 dwarfed the $8 billion taken in by the next three retailers together. And Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. employer, is also Mexico's biggest job generator, accounting for 101,000.
As in the U.S., the bottom line is gospel for Wal-Mart in Mexico, and no unions or other troublemakers are tolerated on the premises. Non-union Mexican Wal-Mart "associates" earn an average of 13 pesos an hour (about $1.20) as compared to $9 for their nonunion U.S. counterparts.
"It is not good for our sovereignty that all our clothes and our food come from another country," asserts Vicente Yanez, director of the National Association of Self-Service Stores. (More than 2,000 McDonald's also stain the Mexican landscape.)
A full decade after NAFTA kicked in, the commercial physiognomy of Mexico is often indistinguishable from that of its neighbor to the north.
Not many months ago, polleros (people smugglers) in Tapachula, Chiapas, on Mexico's southern border, wheedled $5,000 each from six Guatemalans and two other undocumented workers whom they promised to deposit safely in the United States.
Moving through Mexico stealthily in an old bus with its curtains drawn and slipping immigration officials the obligatory mordida (little bite, or bribe) to ease through the checkpoints, the smugglers arrived in Chihuahua City, 100 miles south of the U.S. border, drove out to an upscale suburb, and dropped their load off in front of an enormous Wal-Mart, informing the clueless clients they had arrived on "the Other Side." The Wal-Mart shared the gleaming mall with a Wendy's, a KFC, even an Applebee's, and the ten-plex "Hollywood" Cinema.
"It looked just like how it looked on television" a rueful indocumentado told Froilan Meza of the local Chihuahua Herald.
The Civic Front to Defend the Teotihuacan Valley (Frente Civica) first got wind of Wal-Mart s plans very late in the game after concrete trucks started pouring a foundation less than two kilometers from the pyramids. Activists immediately suspected a deal had been cut between the conglomerate, the municipal government, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), without whose permission the project could not go forward.
On October 1, 2004, Lorenzo Trujillo, a middle-aged teacher, the self-styled "spiritual guide" Emma Ortega, and Emmanuel D'Herrera, a poet and professor, set up camp at the Wal-Mart site, rolled out their petates (straw mats), lit copal incense to the guardian figure of Coatlicue, a sort of Aztec Shiva, and, in classic lost-cause Mexican struggle posture, declared themselves on hunger strike. Their sacrifice made an impact in a nation that bridles at dubious NAFTA encroachments and has been galvanized by the plight of its Indian cultures after ten years of Zapatista rebellion.
Mexico State Governor Arturo Montiel, a dark horse presidential hopeful of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for seven decades and would like nothing better than to take back power in 2006, was a big booster of the new Wal-Mart store. He boasted it would bring 3,000 new jobs to this run-down region. But local street sellers and market vendors figured their livelihoods were jeopardized by super-store competition and joined the fray. Street fights ensued between those who opposed the project and those who did not want to bus twenty miles away to other towns to do their shopping. When the Frente Civica camp was attacked by angry construction workers, the three hunger strikers moved to the ruins. A second strike began on the sidewalk outside the INAH's Mexico City offices.
By now, lots of fingers were being pointed at the INAH for having declared the Wal-Mart site of "no archeological value." One fired construction worker, Martin Hernandez, told the national left daily La Jornada that he had seen broken pieces of pottery and other items being hauled from the construction site and was ordered to keep quiet about the destruction.
Soon Rigoberta Menchu and Sub-comandante Marcos were commenting on the desecration. The Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was a ready-made flashpoint for indigenous organizations such as the National Association for Indigenous Autonomy, which pointedly asked if the Catholic Church would allow a megastore to be thrown up at the door to the Vatican.
Francisco Toledo, Mexico's most luminous painter, who had single-handedly kept a McDonald's out of Oaxaca city's colonial plaza (which like Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), drew pictures of monkeys pushing shopping carts beneath the pyramids of "Teotihualmart," as social critic Carlos Monsivais tagged it. Union leaders came to express their support of the hunger strikers and to remind the press of Wal-Mart's antiunion bias. Anarcho-punks, anthropologists, and comedians expressed their outrage, and cabaret star Jesusa Rodriguez told of the "Hualmartas, a tribe from the north."
As the uproar mounted, Wal-Mart worked around the clock to get the new store up and running before October was out. And as the deadline approached, tempers flared. On October 24, militant farmers from nearby San Salvador Atenco, who had fought off a proposed international airport with their machetes three years previous, clashed with police just outside the ruins. A police car and three motorcycles were torched.
When on October 30 Wal-Mart was finally ready to throw open its doors, there were seventy customers in line before 9 a.m. A sound truck had been circulating through the small city for days advertising free gifts and big bargains. But just before opening time, a team of INAH workers appeared on the scene and demanded entrance in order to drill for last-minute samples. Two meter-deep holes were perforated between cash registers six and seven as store stockers stopped to gawk. The samples yielded only sand and fragments of twentieth century brick, and Wal-Mart received the INAH's blessings to open for business.
But the perforations had left a gaping chasm in the megastore's floor, and Wal-Mart public relations officer Claudia Algorri decided the inauguration would be postponed until after the long Dia de los Muertos weekend, Mexico's traditional celebration of its dead.
Over the weekend, the Frente Civica built altars to their ancestors and prayed that the gods of Teotihuacan were tuned in.
When customers once again flocked to the megastore the following Tuesday morning, 250 riot cops were on hand to greet them. The first scuffling occurred after the mob tried to take the doors, and Wal-Mart officials had to calm the public with free Cokes, French fries, and "little cakes," according to La Jornada. Then the link to the satellite, which would connect the Teotihuacan cash registers with Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, went down--the gods must have been listening. For six hours, the crowd hung around the parking lot under the blazing sun. A family quarrel broke out and noses were bloodied, the Jornada reporter noted. Finally, at about 3:30, customers were allowed to grab a shopping cart, and the consumer frenzy was consummated. But sales were not brisk. Many people had come just to gander at the marvels of modern merchandising contained within this temple of plastic.
That night, a band of toughs dismantled the Frente Civica encampment by the ruins. D'Herrera, then in the fourth week of his hunger strike, was rousted from his petate, and three students were slashed by a razor-toting thug. The Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was officially in business.
By December, the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was booming. Although "Nueva Wal-Mart" (the corporation's Mexican handle) has posted no outside store sign to avoid controversy, the interior is unmistakably a prototypical Sam Walton-style emporium stocked to the roof beams with mostly Chinese-made items.
Given the season, the toy aisles were packed with parents shopping. Of six customers questioned, all fervently concurred that Wal-Mart prices were the lowest in town. Princess Barbie was on sale for 288 pesos (about $20), He-Man action figures for 162. But a giant yellow Hummer toy weighed in close to 4,000 pesos. A miniature Wal-Mart megastore marked down to 988 pesos was drawing oohs and ahs. Elsewhere in the aisles, Black & Decker irons were going quickly at 97 pesos, and U.S. grown tomatoes and apples were holding their own against local produce.
Miguel Angel Nieves, a young custodian whose father worked rebuilding the Pyramid of the Moon in the 1960s, exalted the prices and the products. "Before Wal-Mart opened, we would shop in the street or in the central market, which is owned by one man," he said. "The prices were high--and, well, it wasn't very clean."
Out in the parking lot, Victor Acevedo, a local anthropologist who affects handmade Indian accessories, was sheepishly loading merchandise into his battered Volkswagen bug. "I don't like the idea of Wal-Mart being so close to the pyramids," he said, "but where else am I going to shop?"
Mexico is a four-millennium-old civilization with a culture as obdurate as granite and obsidian. When the Europeans came, they pulled down most of the Aztec temples. But the majestic pyramids of Teotihuacan remained. And so they will remain long after all the Wal-Marts in Mexico crumble into dust.
Veteran reporter John Ross has lived in Mexico City's old quarter for many years. His latest volume, "Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left, "is published by Nation Books.
Illustration by Aaron Piland