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A Literary Love Affair

Letter to The Nation's Marc Cooper

Letter to the Nation by Jules Siegel

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.

Dear Marc,

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 place.

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?

Cancun vs. Mexico income distribution

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 prestige jobs.

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 credentials.

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 Cancun:

Housing in Benito Juárez by construction materials

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 much.

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 Malibu?

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.

Workers Housing, Cancun, 1984

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.

As always,

Jules Siegel

[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.]

1: Cancun Bashing is in Season
2: The $7.50 Ice Cream Cone
3: The Myth of the Narco-Resort
4: An Open Letter to The Nation's Marc Cooper



Fruit Drinks
Fruits & Vegetables
Hotels Ice Cream
Insect Repellents
Night Life
Personal Care
Take-Out Food
Vacation Rentals
Water Purifiers
Zona de Tolerancia

Words to live by.