It was a sunny day on the 12th of October 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed in America. It must have been, for the bright tropical beauty of what is today the Dominican capital Santo Domingo to steal the European sailors’ breath away. Then again, given the fact that these men had just spent months feasting on an endless panoramic view of water, it could have been cold and rainy for all they cared; they were here to stay. The New World had everything to offer: fame and fortune for discovering the new land (unless you were Columbus himself), valuable resources like gold and silver, and a perfectly adequate indigenous population to exploit and Catholicize.
As swiftly as 1501, the Spaniards set up the encomienda system to “divide both the lands and peoples of the New World into workable—and exploitable—pieces that were run by Spanish settlers. These encomenderos were given rights to land and the ability to demand work from the natives under their control in exchange for a promise to the Spanish crown to teach the Indians Christianity.”
There was just one problem: the Amerindian civilizations did not seem to want to be protected, exploited, or introduced to Jesus. So how do a few hundred Spaniards overpower millions of natives? They give them smallpox, measles, mumps, influenza, and a host of other interesting little diseases the natives have no immunity to. And just to ensure the job is properly done, the conquistadores also turn the tribes against one another: in 1519, Hernan Cortes defeats the Aztecs in the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán with the help of some very sneaky Tlaxcalan tribes.
The proud Mexicans of Yucatán, easily identifiable descendants of their very short Mayan forefathers, will boast that they never really gave in to colonization. Yes Spanish is the official language in Mexico (thanks to a 1714 ruling by King Philip V of Spain) and 9 out of 10 Mexican babies are baptized Catholic. But look a little closer at a statue of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, patron saint of the New World, and you may just find that it conceals an effigy of Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of fertility. Ask a Mayan where heaven and hell are, and he will wait till you turn your back before looking East and West. Most importantly, as of its independence on the 27th of September 1821, Mexico is no longer anybody’s colony. Or is it?
On the last day of a beautiful vacation week spent climbing pyramids and snorkeling with endangered sea turtles, and gorging ourselves with chili-sprinkled coconut and pitaya in between, mon chéri and I set off to find a typical Mexican pastelería from which to purchase artisanal sweets (Think alfajores, mazapan, obleas, sevillanas, calaveras de azucar, and virtually anything with dulce de leche). Local, exotic, and different were the order of the day. I practiced my Spanish with the people in the street, who humored the blond, sunburned tourist and pointed us toward the one-stop candy heaven we were picturing:
Se pueden ir a Gualma… Si si, vayan a Gualma…
Gualma? Ualma? Walma? Perhaps that was the name of a charming little abuela who made the best sweets in Playa del Carmen in a tiny blue kitchen. We took lefts and rights and diagonals but could not locate the elusive Gualma. Until it hit us, literally. There was no abuela. We were standing in front of a giant, blue, instantly recognizable… Walmart. Your local pastelería, Walmart. The best dulces in the area, Walmart. A neighborhood favorite recommended by the descendants of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world that invented the zero and developed astronomy, architecture, and one of the first calendars… Walmart.
Walmart bought out Mexican retailer Cifra and opened its first store outside of the United States in 1991. That store grew into 2,204 retail units and 243 supercenters. As of 2014, Walmart is Mexico’s largest private sector employer; it pays the salaries of 209,878 associates.
But please, let us not single out Walmart. It is certainly not alone. Take a stroll along the bustling Quinta Avenida and you will find a MacDonald’s, a Subway, a Starbucks, a Baskin Robbins, a Forever 21, a Wendy’s, and a Taco Bell. A Taco Bell!
As of 2014 the US accounts for 40% of all foreign direct investment in Mexico. And why not? Labor and real estate are plentiful and cheap, the climate is pleasant, and apart from the occasional buenos días, everyone speaks English. So let us buy out the local retailers and put up shiny signs. Let us build hotels and resorts and restaurants and malls. Let us buy their fuel and sell it back to them as electricity. Let us buy their corn and their vegetables and sell them nachos and guacamole. We will create jobs. We will eradicate poverty. We will issue the Mexicans big fat checks that they can redeem at our dulces y pasteles section, aisle 7.
The Mayans and the Aztecs are gone. The Spaniards too. But not much has changed down here in Mexico.
Photos courtesy of Leopold et Bonaparte.