Is Cancun Plastic?
By Jules Siegel
When I tell my media friends that I am writing a book called The Real Mexico, they invariably act a bit dumbfounded and frequently ask how I can possibly know anything about the real Mexico if I've lived in Cancun since 1983, as if this resort city on the Mexican Caribbean were located in Brooklyn.
The media image of Mexico is either border crossings and disgusting industrial slave labor zones or colonial towns filled with people in cute costumes. The reality is mostly based on cement block and steel girders in all varieties of taste and architectural distinction (or lack of it, mostly).
Mexico exports Volkswagens to Germany and oil drilling platforms to Ecuador. The world's third-largest cement company is Mexican. They just love cement here. They could make a plane out of cement and it would fly. So Cancun is really a good representation of modern Mexico -- except that it is a forbidden subject to New York media types.
This is what I call your basic wine and cheese cultural imperialism. Tastemakers in strategic power positions decide that it must have ferns and Tiffany lamps or it is not to be discussed any further. From a sociological perspective, however, Cancun happens to be one of the most interesting places I've ever lived.
Cancun was founded in roadless jungle in 1971 with a $27 million loan from the Bank for International Development arranged by Banco de México (the equivalent of the US Treasury), which promoted the creation of tourism resorts as a means of earning foreign exchange. At the beginning it had exactly three inhabitants, and another 117 lived on the mainland in nearby Puerto Juárez. It now has a permanent population of approximately 400,000 and receives 2.3 million visitors a year, accounting for 25% of all Mexican tourism revenues.
Because of the modern international architectural style that prevails everywhere here, many visitors assume that Cancun is some kind of foreign colony. This is not true. Foreign investment has played an important part, but Cancun was designed and built by Mexican architects and engineers. Mexicans are the majority investors in all the hotels. All the operating companies are Mexican corporations, even when they bear the names and logos of the foreign chains with which they are affiliated.
Many foreigners and some Mexicans feel that the modernization of Mexico is rape. Here in Cancun, almost everyone sees it as good and useful progress. The jungle isn't beautiful to people who have lived in it. It's terrifying. People used to starve to death here. In 1999, eighteen workers clearing land for the new developments down the coast died from snake bites. In Chetumal, the state capital, there are men with missing noses and ears, eaten by a worm that lives in the chico zapote trees (great fruit -- its sap is used to make chewing gum).
There are really simple people here who refer to a cement house as "una casa de material" -- a house made of material, because it's made of stuff from a construction materials store, not palm thatch or tar paper. They call the bus "la ruta" -- the route -- because busses are labeled with a route number -- "Ruta Cuatro" -- Route Four.
Now these people have houses and their kids go to computer school. So they see modernization and consumerism as salvation, and they want more of it. They don't want to live with nature and gather chicle when they can turn on the air conditioner and watch digital TV after a satisfying day approving credit card vouchers.
Cancun countryside Photograph by Faera Siegel, 1989
Cancun is an expression of Mexican middle class/upper middle class upward-striving fantasies. In 1999, "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas" (Sex, Chastity and Tears), was the country's number one hit. It takes place in an expensive high-rise neighborhood in Mexico City. What we usually consider Mexican is merely glanced at. The film could take place anywhere.
Leave out the smog, the crowding and the noise and it could take place here. This is where the liberal dream comes true -- that government, labor and business can work together to eliminate starvation, disease, homelessness and unemployment (among other evils) if not stupidity, neurosis and evil.
Cancun is a big industrial resort that mainly gives millions of very tired urban casualties five days of fresh air, blue skies, sunshine and crystal water for modest prices. It also employs, feeds, educates, houses and heals almost 500,000 people, most of whom would have lived and died without hope had they not come here.
There are lots of little places to go and be Gauguin, if you have the guts for it. It will be a long time before more than a fraction of them are discovered and ruined. They will do very well indeed if they do only so well as Cancun.
Fruits & Vegetables
Hotels Ice Cream
Zona de Tolerancia
Words to live by.