Bonnie Bucqueroux wrote:
Marc Cooper's full response to your thoughtful e-mail was: "Few
places in the hemisphere suffer such a profound socioeconomic divide
as does Cancun, in effect dividing the city into two separate worlds.
I am pleased to find that Siegel lives in the more fortunate one."
-- Snotty is as snotty does.
I hope that you can put aside your annoyance for a while and consider
what I have to say on its own terms. I'm also putting this letter
on my web site as it's rather long and you will be able to read
it more conveniently in your web browser. As you will see, it represents
quite a bit of work, so I hope that you will respect that and give
it the attention that I believe it deserves.
I do not like to criticize other writers. When I have to write
a negative book review I go out of my way to be diplomatic and to
find a few nice things to say. I'm sorry that I have had to take
such a harsh tone with you, but I have devoted my life to truth
and I have suffered a great deal for it. I know that lots of people
say that, but in my case it's true. I gave up my career as a writer
and went back to graphic design because I was unable to handle the
constant ethical conflicts that went along with earning a living
in the media. Maybe that doesn't give me the right to be sanctimonious,
but I found your article intensely upsetting, all the more so because
it appeared in The Nation. You can continue to sneer, or
you can be the true liberal and you can recognize that maybe you
made some very significant mistakes in this piece and you should
do your best to correct them. Snotty squibs are entirely out of
Instead of dealing with the substance of my complaint, you indulge
yourself in a preposterous statement that is completely and totally
false, and then you attack my credibility on the basis of your prejudices
and ignorance. There are many places in Mexico alone that have much
worse socioeconomic divides than Cancun. Try Ciudad Juárez,
for starters, or any of the miserable towns that the people of Cancun
fled from. There are worse places in the United States. Is Ecuador
not located in the Western Hemisphere? How about Caracas? How can
you make the statement that a city that has almost no beggars or
street people or malnutrition is worse than, say, Bolivia?
You fail to acknowledge that Cancun consists of more than two worlds.
There are several different Cancun worlds. One of them -- one of
the smaller ones -- is characterized by rock-bottom poverty (by
Cancun's standards, not Mexico's) in improvised housing areas with
very limited public services. The largest world is working class,
which includes strata ranging from lower to upper middle class.
There's much less economic segregation here than you might think,
as even the poorer neighborhoods have some very prosperous residents.
The smallest world is the one I live in, the Hotel Zone, which has
about ten thousand residents, mostly upper middle class managers
and administrators, some fabulously wealthy people, many people
who work in discos, time share and other well-paid but rather low
Yes, I do live in the more fortunate world of Cancun -- indeed,
the most fortunate, Pok-Ta-Pok, the Hotel Zone golf course area.
It's one of the perquisites of having lived here for twenty years.
No matter where I live, I defy anyone to challenge my progressive
My sons went to elementary school out in the regions you call slums.
Both of them work for companies in downtown Cancun. Eli, 22, is
an IBM-certified support technician working for the company that
provides technical support for the computers that TelMex sells on
time payments. He delivers computers all over Cancun and has even
installed them in tarpaper shacks. Jesse works as a graphic designer
at a downtown restaurant company with almost a hundred employees,
most of them waiters, busboys and maintenance people.
Faera lived with us for ten years and attended a public high school
in Puerto Morelos. She studied psychotherapy at the Puebla College
of Pyschonalysts' Cancun outreach program. All of her closest friends
were Mexicans and she lived with a Mexican boy for almost three
years. She returned to the United States in 1996 to complete her
education and is now a court interpreter in the Bay Area, handling
the cases of almost exlusively lower-class Mexican immigrants.
So where I live is really irrelevant. It's what I know about Cancun
that counts. Surely in the course of twenty years I would come to
know a lot more than you could possibly learn in a few days. Do
you think that I never go out of the house? That I don't read the
newspapers? That I only talk to people with college degrees? I don't
drive, so I am thrown into close contact with the people of Cancun
in public transportation and other situations.
I'm not a retired rentista. I work every day for every penny
that we live on. I meet all levels of people in the course of my
work, and I frequently go out to industrial areas to supervise printing
jobs. I've also done very intensive academic research into Mexico
in general and Cancun in particular. I translated a history of Cancun,
Cancun, Fantasia de Banqueros, from the Spanish of Fernando
Martí, who originally wrote the text for Unomasuno,
one of Mexico City's principal progressive dailies.
Now let us talk about you a little. When you wrote your piece did
you bother to examine any of the statistical information about Cancun?
I made the chart below based on statistics from the 2000 Mexican
Census for the municipality of Benito Juárez, which comprises
I'm in the process of researching other income, housing and population
figures, but that will take me a while. I'm also gathering some
figures about the environment from both official and non-governmental
sources. I need to analyze recent aerial photographs and mapping
of Cancun to offer more precise current estimates of population
and housing. These are not trivial tasks, believe me.
I could easily write an entire book refuting the errors in your
article because you completely missed the context of Cancun as a
functioning social entity. Almost any statement you make requires
a very discursive reply. You don't seem to know anything about its
history. Cancun does have some serious environmental and social
problems, but you distorted them all out of proportion. The majority
of the people don't live in tarpaper shacks. They live in cement
houses. Even some of the houses listed above as having tarpaper
roofs are cement structures. More importantly, most of the tarpaper
shacks are temporary residences thrown up by recent arrivals. Calling
these areas Soweto is not just wrong but insulting. People aren't
trapped there because of race. They are landing areas for migrants
from places that make these zones look like Monaco. Some people
do get stuck in these conditions. Most either move to better areas
or fix up the ones they are in.
The Hotel Zone is a very special private world for tourists. That's
what it was planned to be and it functions very well for the tourist.
They get an inexpensive five days out of the smog, immune from the
realities of life. That goes for Mexican tourists as well. You mention
that they are a minority. That's true, but they now represent almost
30% of our three million visitors, and the proportion is growing
steadily. By contrast, spring breakers, who seem to get most of
the publicity, are less than three percent, and declining
You comment that Mexicans visit here because it's like going to
the other side without leaving Mexico. That has a grain of truth,
but if you consider it carefully they are saying that they get the
best of both cultures. Yes, the architecture is modern, but why
is that unMexican? Is Barragán an Eskimo? Have you ever examined
the influence of Mexican monumental architecture on people like
Corbusier? Are you aware of the influence of Feliz Candela? Should
Miami Beach look like Williamsburgh? I stayed in the Poinciana Hotel
in South Beach when I was ten years old and I remember very well
the days when New York intellectuals sneered at the glitzy art deco
hotels. Now, of course, they are national landmarks. What changed?
You want to see Mexico in terms of, say, Oaxaca. But Oaxaca is
an unhealthy place, if quaint, with abysmal poverty, where tourists
typically suffer the worst diarrheas known to man. I urge you to
read my story "On
Becoming a Statistic" for a glimpse of what it was really like
there for us. That's old Mexico. Cancun is not some suburb of the
United States. It's a new Mexico. That's why Mexicans like it so
Be that as it may, I think that you will find it more helpful to
consider the Hotel Zone as if it were a gigantic hotel. There are
accomodations for every taste, but it was not designed to be a functioning
community any more than Disneyworld was. Do you go to Disneyworld
and criticize it because the workers don't get to use the rides
free? Because they have to commute to get to their jobs?
The Cancun Hotel Zone is a business and it has to be judged by
commercial standards. If large numbers of affluent Americans and
other foreigners lived in the Hotel Zone you might have a point.
But they don't. It's not a residential area. It's an entertainment
district. A few people like me have managed to establish residential
niches, but we are isolated exceptions. Despite this, it does have
very ample public beaches accessible by public transportation. All
the beaches are public, but use of the hotel installations is restricted
to the guests and other paying customers. Now compare this with
Massachusetts, where almost all the beaches are private. How about
You just made one of the worst mistakes that any progressive activist
can fall into. You went to a Third World area and you defecated
all over it because it did not fit your culturally imperialist views
of what the inhabitants should be doing with their lives. One of
the most disgusting items in your story was the sneer about the
Infonavit houses. Yes, they are small, but these people are proud
of them because they represent a huge step up. It's quite an accomplishment
for a low-income worker here to obtain the financing for one of
these little houses. You can't judge them by the standards of Beverly
Hills. You have to judge them by the standards of the places that
their owners came from.
Please look carefully at the photograph of the workers housing.
On the right hand side, you'll see a couple. I didn't notice them
until after I had the picture developed, as I was mainly interested
in the contrast between the sky and the houses. I think that their
attitude is very clear. This is exactly the kind of housing that
your source dismissed with ugly scorn.
I am sure that you are a well-meaning individual and you believe
that your article helped Cancun. I agree very strongly that is important
to keep the pressure on the government to correct Cancun's problems,
but when you make it sound as if this is a hopeless disaster you
tend to encourage the very kind of antisocial behavior you are trying
to expose. Trash heaps collect trash because of the implicit permission
to throw trash on them. Cancun is the most hopeful place I've ever
lived in. It's not a very good cultural fit for me, but where else
can I breathe clean air, earn a living (sort of) and go to the beach
when I want to? Where can my kids mix freely with people of all
races as a matter of course rather than a special effort? Sure,
there's contamination in the water table -- but it is mostly organic
and it can be corrected. Is that true for Long Island, where people
are dying of cancer from chemically toxic water? Which is really
the environmental disaster area? How about comparing Cancun to Key
West, where fecal matter floats up on the beach? Be serious, Marc.
Apparently you came here for a few days and you did some very superficial
research. You talked only to people who ratified your preconceived
ideas about Cancun. Vic tells me that you know a lot about Mexico,
so you must be aware that the one of the most important Mexican
cultural values is courtesy. This means that people here tend to
psyche out your position and then tell you what you want to hear,
because anything else would be considered hostile. A lot of Mexicans
do express contempt for Cancun, and there's a lot about Cancun that
is easy to criticize. All in all, however, the general feeling among
people who live here is that Cancun is one of the greatest places
in the world, but needs a lot more attention to its environmental
and social problems. They don't think it's glitzy and plastic. They
think it's modern and clean. Politically, both right and left are
prone to criticize Cancun unfairly because it was created by the
PRI and it is a success. Both the PAN and the PRD have very prudish
attitudes, the PAN because they are right wing Catholics, and the
PRD because they are still really lost back in Stalinism. Tourism
is undignified, way too sensual. Steel mills used to be the mode;
now I guess it's electronics. They forget that electronics production
can be much more toxic than tourism.
Ultimately, the question is one of choices. When Cancun was first
planned, Mexico was facing a population explosion. All development
was being financed from internal savings. Tourism had proven itself
to be a relatively labor-intensive industry with minimal environmental
impact. They called it the industry without chimneys. In 1971, Quintana
Roo was still an unincorporated almost roadless territory, very
sparsely populated, with most people living on Cozumel and Isla
Mujeres and in Chetumal, down at the southern end of the state.
There were only 117 people in Puerto Juárez and only three
caretakers on the island. You may think this was some kind of paradise,
but the mainland was absolute hell and had a long and bitter history
as Mexico's political Siberia, where dissidents were sent to die
of malaria and other tropical diseases.
The government chose to develop Cancun as an alternative to automobile
maquiladoras and other highly polluting industries. They were able
to get it started with a $27 million loan from the International
Development Bank. Since then, although there has been significant
foreign investment, Cancun has been largely financed with Mexican
money. Statistics on this are not easy to come by. I checked with
a leading real estate broker and developer who has been here from
the beginning. He said that at least 70% of the hotels are owned
by Mexicans, many of them local residents. In the early days, most
property buyers were Americans, but that changed because of various
unfavorable factors. Now the overwhelming majority of investors
and property buyers are Mexican, whom he describes as being more
"adventurous" investors than Americans. Hotel ownership can be a
little confusing because the operating companies such as Sheraton
and Omni are not the owners. They supply the marketing expertise
and connections. The Omni, for example, is owned by Abelard Vara,
a Cancun resident since 1971.
Obviously, there had to be an environmental and social cost for
the development, but I think that any fair examination of the options
available at the time will demonstrate that Cancun was then the
best choice. If the original very intelligent master plan had been
respected, Cancun would be a much better place. Unfortunately, its
success overwhelmed the plan, which was much more expensive than
the standard grid system they substituted after Hurricane Gilberto
in 1988. All these migrants arrived looking for new lives and the
authorities had to race to keep up.
I can't go into the full history here, but I estimate that approximately
35% of Cancun was developed according to the original master plan.
These sections are really very pleasant, and it is a shame that
you didn't take the time to explore them. There are many other large
neighborhoods in the newer areas that are decent places to live.
A considerable portion of Cancun does not conform to the standards
of Scarsdale. These are not slums in the conventional sense, but
typically mixed, mostly low-budget housing areas you see all over
Mexico. The style of the houses reflects traditional Mexican vernacular
architecture using cement block instead of adobe.
I don't represent Cancun. I just live here and work here. But if
you are willing to come back here and spend some time considering
the points I'm trying to get across, I'm sure that it would be no
problem to arrange an all-expenses paid familiarization visit through
the tourism authorities. I would be honored to be your guide. Meanwhile,
you will find more thoughts about your article at http://www.cafecancun.com.
I will be happy to publish any serious replies that you might
like to make.
[Note: Bonnie Bucqueroux was a Green Party candidate
for Congress in Michigan in 2000. She has spent 30 years writing
about crime and violence and working to prevent these problems in
our society. She won a National Magazine Award in 1985 for an article
on suicide. As Associate Director of The National Center
for Community Policing for almost a decade, Bucqueroux co-authored
two books on this important police reform and continues to consult
in the field. She serves as coordinator of the Media Program at
Michigan State University´s School of Journalism. The program
is dedicated to educating journalists of today and tomorrow about
victim issues. She is also Executive Director of Crime Victims for
a Just Society, which promotes progressive solutions to problems
of crime and violence in our culture.]