The Miami Herald
Mon, Sep. 06, 2004

In Mexico, ancient life vs. Wal-Mart

A small group is waging a lonely battle for what it calls its defense of Mexico's landscape and culture against a Wal-Mart-owned discount store rising near archaeological gems.

MEXICO CITY - (AP) -- A Wal-Mart-owned discount store rising a half-mile from the ancient temples of Teotihuacan has touched off a fight by a small coalition that doesn't want to see the big, boxy outlet from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.

But with most people in the area supporting Wal-Mart, the group is waging a lonely battle for what it calls its defense of Mexico's landscape and culture.

The dispute in Teotihuacan -- a town built next to the ruins of the 2,000-year-old metropolis -- illustrates how the allure of low prices and U.S. lifestyles often wins out in Mexico, leaving traditionalists struggling to draw a line in rapidly shifting cultural sands.

Emmanuel D'Herrera, a business owner in Teotihuacan, 30 miles north of Mexico City, claims a tall sign will loom near the huge twin pyramids that draw hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, although a government-appointed archaeologist disputes that.

And while the store is visible from atop the pyramid, so are many other modern businesses and houses.

Underlining his group's lack of support, D'Herrera said probably 70 percent of the town's mostly poor residents support the new store because it will offer lower prices than the area's small shops.

''The housewives want to go shopping with credit cards . . . and the teenagers want to go skateboarding in the parking lot, like in the United States,'' he said.

The archaeologist, Veronica Ortega, said the opponents represent shopkeepers afraid of losing business to Wal-Mart.

The opponents don't deny that, but they argue that small stores and markets should be preserved, even if they offer little cultural purity.

''There is a street market at Otumba, a mile or so away, that will be destroyed by Wal-Mart,'' said D'Herrera. ``The market is full of plastic stuff and Chinese goods, but it still should be preserved.''

While Wal-Mart started work without the presence of the government-mandated archaeologist and refuses to allow a reporter to visit the site, it says it has ``promoted and respected Mexican culture and traditions.''

The store's walls and roof struts are already up, and Wal-Mart executives say they have taken steps to make the store inconspicuous.

''A number of conditions have been set to make the store blend in,'' said Ortega, who monitors the site. ``It will be lower than a regular store -- below the tree line. It will have more subdued colors, and a stone facade.''

The low-profile sign won't even say Wal-Mart. The U.S. company -- now Mexico's biggest retailer after buying up numerous Mexican store chains in recent years -- is putting in one of its Bodega Aurrera outlets, which offer cheaper merchandise than a Wal-Mart-branded store.

D'Herrera's Front to Defend the Teotihuacan Valley led dozens of machete-wielding protesters in a failed bid to shut down the construction site Aug. 6. Wal-Mart accuses the protesters of injuring a female employee, a charge they deny.

The demonstrators argued the work would damage artifacts and pre-Hispanic ruins on the property.

Old Teotihuacan was large -- about 150,000 people lived here 2,000 years ago -- and remains of ancient residential areas extend out beyond the protected temple complex. The 7 ½-acre lot for the store is in a secondary archaeological buffer zone where construction is subject to limits, but where hundreds of buildings have been allowed.

Ortega said few artifacts had been discovered on the site: some clay figurines and a crude gravel platform that served as the base of an ancient farm house. The latter will probably be reburied to preserve it.

Expecting to lose their fight locally -- like a similar failed attempt in 2002 to stop a Costco store in nearby Cuernavaca -- the activists are turning to outside help, saying they will encourage foreign tourists to boycott Teotihuacan until the store is shut down. ''A lot of times, we find more support among the international community than among people here in Mexico,'' said Carlos Carvajal, a lawyer for the group.