Book Review: 'The Americanization of Modern Mexico' By Joseph Contreras

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By Review Manuel Roig-Franzia
Sunday, March 29, 2009

IN THE SHADOW OF THE GIANT

The Americanization Of Modern Mexico

By Joseph Contreras

Rutgers Univ. 276 pp. $24.95

When I traveled to Mexico City in 2005 to check out my new digs as The Washington Post's bureau chief there, Mexican friends recommended that I shop for groceries at Walmart. Never mind that there was a beautiful, traditional open market offering luscious, tree-ripened mangoes and other delights within walking distance of our house in Coyoacan, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Also within walking distance were two Starbucks, as I found out when Mexican sources frequently suggested meeting there. I wanted authentic Mexican experiences; they wanted Frappuccinos.

Joseph Contreras, author of the provocative and highly informative "In the Shadow of the Giant," discovered much the same. A longtime foreign correspondent who is now a U.N. public information officer in Sudan, Contreras served two tours of duty as Newsweek's Mexico City bureau chief. During his first, in the mid-1980s, there was precisely one McDonald's in all of Mexico, he notes. When he returned on a reporting trip in 2000, there were 292.

A seismic event, of course, had occurred in the interim: The North American Free Trade Agreement had taken effect in 1994 and vastly increased commerce between Mexico and its richer northern neighbor. Contreras, perhaps reaching just a bit, asserts that the pact has transformed Mexico into "a de facto economic colony of the United States."

By 2006, when he moved back to Mexico City, Walmart was Mexico's largest private employer. Citigroup owned one of the country's largest banks. About 400,000 Americans had bought second homes in Mexico. And Mexicans, he notes, were slurping Coca-Cola at a higher per capita rate than consumers in any other country, including the United States. "Invaded," he writes. "That single word best captures what is happening to Mexico in the twenty-first century. In varying degrees American fashion, food, phrases, status symbols, social diseases, department stores, tourists, pensioners, religious denominations, and belief in the gospel of free trade have all established firm footholds inside today's Mexico."

The son of Mexican immigrants, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, Contreras despairs when Mexican friends order frozen margaritas, "an Americanized travesty of a national treasure." He laments the destruction of the elegant Casino de la Selva hotel in Cuernavaca, which figured prominently in the classic novel "Under the Volcano," to make room for a Costco.

But he is most troubled that Americanization "has infected" Mexico with "three quintessentially American social diseases": HIV, illegal drug use and obesity. He asserts that Mexican airline workers brought HIV to Mexico from the United States, although he rightly praises Mexican health officials for fostering progressive prevention strategies that have kept the infection rate among the lowest in the region.

He is less impressed with Mexicans' eating habits, blaming American-style fast food and junk snacks for the fact that more than half of Mexican women between the ages of 18 and 49 are now overweight. At the same time, America's "insatiable demand" for illegal drugs has given rise to cartels responsible for thousands of killings in Mexico each year. Inevitably, some of the drugs headed for the United States stay in Mexico, leading to huge increases in addiction rates and making drug trafficking one of "the nation's top growth industries." "That grim outlook won't improve," he writes, "until Washington either legalizes narcotics such as cocaine and marijuana or undertakes a concerted effort to reduce illegal drug use."

Overall, however, Contreras believes that Americanization has done Mexico more good than harm. He credits U.S. influence with promoting rights for Mexican women and gays, advancing judicial reforms and strengthening the nation's democracy after decades of one-party rule. Still, he worries that the U.S. political establishment will always view Mexico as "a problematic neighbor" and "the international equivalent of an appendage."

The dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico for three decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is often credited with saying, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." If Diaz were alive today, Contreras writes, he might say, "Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from a relationship based on true equality and respect."

Manuel Roig-Franzia was The Post's Mexico bureau chief from 2005 to 2008 and now writes for the Style section.


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