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RETURN TO DEMOCRACY.

Mexico struggles to create new opportunities for the poorest of the poor

Tannia Pagaza Moreno thinks that many Americans don't have a realistic view of Mexico. "In the movies, Mexicans are always in valleys with cactuses," says the 13-year-old. "They think we're all nacos [naive]. They need to know our cities, too."

With a population of nearly 100 million, Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. Mexico has a rich Indian heritage, including more than 100,000 historic ruins--sites built by the Aztec, Maya, and other Indian civilizations. This heritage has blended with that of the Spanish, who conquered Mexico in 1521 and called it "New Spain."

Hot Tamales

Tannia lives in an historic section of Mexico City. Hernando Cortes the Spanish leader who conquered the Aztec in the 16th century (see pp. 18-20), once lived nearby.

Tannia's middle-class life doesn't differ all that much from the lives of many kids in the U.S. She likes pizza, but also enjoys traditional Mexican foods such as tamales--pork or chicken rolled in corn meal and steamed in corn husks.

Several thousand years ago, Mexican Indians began growing corn, still the chief food of most Mexicans. Tamales, tacos, and other corn-based foods often are topped with a spicy sauce made from red chili peppers. It's so hot it can make you cry.

Widespread Poverty

Tannia loves sports, especially futbol--soccer to norteamericanos, as Latin Americans call those in the U.S.

Her father's income as an economics professor (her mother is an administrative assistant) allows Tannia to enjoy a comfortable life.

But many Mexicans live in grinding poverty. Twelve-year-old Raul Martinez shares a one-room house with his mother, brother, and sister. They live in an abandoned field on the eastern edge of Mexico City's sprawl.

Raul's mother and brother built the house out of salvaged wood and plastic. Water comes from a hose hooked up to a well, and the family uses an outhouse.

Each year, thousands of people move from rural villages to Mexico City, in search of a better life. But the lack of adequate housing, health care, and jobs makes the transition difficult.

Raul's mother supports the family with tips she earns as an auxiliary policewoman. The money doesn't add up to much; the Martinez family is among the more than 40 percent of Mexicans whose household income is less than $2 per person per day.

Ruins and Rain Forests

Most of Mexico's people live in the Mesa Central (Central Plateau). Mexico's largest cities, including its capital, Mexico City, are located there (see map, p. 17).

The plateau is bordered on the east and west by mountains, the Sierra Madres. Volcanoes, many of them active, extend along the southern rim of the plateau-some just miles from Mexico City. The volcanic soil provides fertile farmland for corn and other crops.

Indian ruins, rain forests, and beautiful beaches draw millions of tourists-mostly American-each year. Tourism is one of Mexico's largest sources of income.

The average family income is higher in Mexico than in most countries. Still, compared with the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Western European nations, Mexico is poor.

A New Beginning

The contrast between U.S. and Mexican standards of living lies at the heart of two problems that the neighbors share: illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Mexico's President Vicente Fox visited the White House this past month to discuss these issues with U.S. President George W Bush.

The two leaders get along well. Indeed, there's a lot of goodwill toward Fox around the world. When he took office last December, he promised Mexico's people real democracy and economic progress.

For 71 years, members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, by its Spanish initials) ruled Mexico. Many Mexicans came to regard the PRI as corrupt and inefficient.

Fox heads the National Action Party (PAN). When he took office, he promised to create 1.4 million new jobs. Instead, up to half a million Mexicans have lost their jobs.

One reason is the economic slowdown in the U.S. Since Mexico sells most of its exports to the U.S., changes in our economy affect Mexican jobs.

Crossing the Border

The border is another concern. After Mexico lost the Mexican War (1846-1848), it ceded (gave up) California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of four other states to the U.S. Thus, many Mexicans don't see the border as a fixed line.

Unable to find jobs at home, many cross the border in search of work. Estimates range from 3 million to 10 million a year. Once in the U.S., most Mexicans are paid low wages (see pp. 10-13). But the money they send home helps their families survive.

Lately, the U.S. Border Patrol has stepped up efforts to stop illegal entry-especially in urban areas. This has led more Mexicans to try crossing the border in remote regions. Hundreds have died. Last summer, 15 men died in the desert after being abandoned by a "coyote," a paid smuggler.

Illegal drug trafficking also keeps the Border Patrol busy. Marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are produced in Mexico, mostly for U.S. consumption. With billions of dollars a year at stake, people kill to get what they want.

Fox calls drug trafficking the greatest threat to Mexico's national security. So far, he has done his best to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement.

NAFTA and Beyond

Mexican officials say that the majority of people and goods that cross the U.S. border do so legally. Trade between the two nations has increased since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. Under NAFTA, taxes on trade among Mexico, the U.S., and Canada are to be eliminated over 10 years.

Mexico now sells 80 to 90 percent of its exports to the U.S. Some U.S. workers lost their jobs when factories closed and moved to Mexico, where wages are lower. But the U.S. also benefits from trade with Mexico. Mexico is a major oil producer, and its oil has helped ease U.S. energy shortages.

Will Fox deliver on his promises for a more prosperous Mexico? No one knows. He has said he will step up economic development in southern Mexico, where most of the country's 10 million Indians live. But the task won't be easy since the Indians are the poorest of the poor.

Mexico now has the largest economy in Latin America. That makes young people like Tannia and Raul hopeful for the future. Meanwhile, many Mexicans struggle to survive.

MEXICO

The northernmost country in Latin America, Mexico is part of North America. Of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, only the U.S. and Brazil have more people. A majority of Mexico's people are mestizos--mixed Indian and European (mainly Spanish) ancestry. Spanish is the official language, but 6 million Mexicans speak only Indian languages.

FACTS TO KNOW

AREA: 756,062 sq mi, almost three times the size of Texas.

POPULATION: 99,600,000; 74% urban.

GOVERNMENT: Presidential-legislative democracy; Vicente Fox is President.

ECONOMY: Tourism and service industries are the fastest-growing parts of the economy. Oil is a major export. Agriculture provides less than 8% of Mexico's GDP.

PER CAPITA GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT (GDP): $8,300.

MONETARY UNIT: peso, worth about 11 U.S. cents.

LITERACY: Males, 93%; females, 89%.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:presidential transition in Mexico
Author:Thompson, Morris
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 17, 2001
Words:1218
Previous Article:On the Road Again.
Next Article:Conquering the Aztec.
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