Lucia Sanchez stood chuckling in front of a magazine rack, reading about the rich during her lunch break. She flipped through page after glossy page about the marriages of Mexico's dandy class, about the polo matches and the scandals, including how an ex-president's granddaughter recently had her fancy nose broken in a disco brawl.
"They used to live in another world," Sanchez said. "We didn't know anything about their private lives. We used to only be able to read about the rich people in other countries, but now we can read about our own."
Sanchez and millions like her now know which spa in Thailand is in fashion with Mexico's jet-setters. She knows where they buy their clothes, whether they are cheating on their wives and who vacuums fat from their thighs. She knows all the juicy name-calling cited in the divorce papers of former president Jose Lopez Portillo, 82, and his estranged wife, a racy former film star.
What Sanchez knows represents a revolution in Mexico's social order. Even a couple of years ago, the wealthy flitted from Mexico City to Miami to Paris like pampered poodles, protected from public scrutiny by their place among the elite who controlled this country's money, politics and media.
Was another ex-president's wife a lush? Were a mogul's kids spoiled brats busting up discos with Daddy's bodyguards? Not according to the Mexican press, which for decades was forbidden by its owners from mentioning any such things.
From 1929 to 2000 Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in what was often called the "perfect dictatorship." For much of that time, the government was the sole supplier of newsprint and the largest advertiser in newspapers, and it handed out broadcast rights only to friendly companies. The result was a blackout on scandalous reports about the ruling party and the economic elite that surrounded it. But that grip eroded in the 1990s with the rise of opposition parties, a movement that led in 2000 to the election of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party.
Once the political taboo was broken, the media began breaking others. They have started new gossip and glamour magazines, expanded old ones and dramatically increased the amount of ink devoted to skewering the rich and powerful.
"There's a new freedom of expression; there are no limits now," said Guadalupe Loaeza, a social critic and the author of a book about monied Mexicans called "Those on Top." "We now know where rich ladies breakfast. We know whose kids are on cocaine, who's gay, who's had plastic surgery, who's had an out-of-wedlock child. . . . The media were manipulated here for 30 years, but that's all changed."
In a nation with a yawning gap between rich and poor, some analysts say the new spotlight on the wealthy could lead to uncomfortable questions. Some of Mexico's richest people got that way while technically earning nothing more than their salaries as mayor, governor or even president. Magazines showing how their children and grandchildren fritter away money could trigger more serious investigations into corruption, some said. Others say the celebrity reporting is simply fun, and that readers just enjoy knowing where the upper class eats and what it wears.
Half of Mexico's 100 million people live in poverty, and they contribute to the global image of a nation struggling to climb out of the developing world. Huge numbers of people live on $2 a day, said Daniel Lund, president of Mund Americas, a Mexico City marketing and research firm. But, he added, the perception of Mexico as "hopelessly poor" is incomplete, and "to say there is a dichotomy between the rich and poor doesn't capture it, either. . . . There are many Mexicos."
Studies show that about 10 million Mexicans are in the upper middle class or higher and a third of those are fantastically rich -- many of them more familiar with Monaco than with most of Mexico.
The wealthy Mexico is now more visible than ever.
One reason is the recent proliferation of luxury items, especially since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement opened the previously closed market. Foreign luxury cars, for instance, were effectively kept out of Mexico until the mid-1990s because of import duties and trade laws. Suddenly the monied were free to tootle around in Jaguars, Land Rovers, Porsches and Ferraris, now increasingly common sights.
Luxury shopping, once possible only by flying to New York, Paris or another foreign city, is coming here in force. Upscale shoppers can now be spotted paying $700 for a pair of pumps or $20,000 for a necklace, then lunching at the growing number of restaurants where a twosome can spend $100 on a light bite. Tiffany's opened its first shop in Mexico City in 1999, and Chanel followed in December 2000, the month Fox took office.
World-class entertainment is also increasingly available. In October, Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus, ventured into Mexico for the first time, with tickets priced from $30 to $100. Demand was so high that the show was extended twice. When the lights went out last month on the 111th packed house, more than 270,000 Mexicans had seen the show.
Santa Fe, the Mexico City neighborhood where the Cirque du Soleil audiences arrived in a parade of fancy cars and wearing expensive clothes, is a sandbox of the monied class. The booming high-rent district on the western hills of the city looks like a larger, more luxurious Tysons Corner. A shopping mall is filled with women in look-at-me sunglasses, J. Lo look-alikes in spiked heels, toting overstuffed shopping bags from Prada and Versace while chatting loudly on cell phones. By early afternoon, there is an exodus from the day spas of Santa Fe to the $20,000-a-year private schools so pampered moms, usually driven by chauffeurs, can pick up their little heirs.
Ultramodern $1 million apartments in Santa Fe are advertised for newlyweds, who tone their forms at country clubs and gyms where annual fees exceed the yearly salaries of many Washington bureaucrats.
For much of the PRI's 71-year rule, the rich were more discreet, and with good reason. Many government officials during those times skimmed countless millions for themselves while preaching austere revolutionary values to the masses.
Rodolfo de la Torre, an Iberoamericana University researcher who studies the rich, said the Mexican government -- perhaps not eager to explore the huge gap between the poor and the powerful -- has never shown much enthusiasm for analyzing wealth.
"The concentration of wealth is still not well known here, nor is how many of these people got their wealth," de la Torre said.
A recent cover of the popular magazine Quien featured Emilio Azcarraga, scion of the family that owns Televisa, a media company. The son of a once-untouchable billionaire who used his powerful company to shield his friends from scandalous coverage was pictured with his estranged wife over the headline "Crisis or Definite Separation?"
"These kinds of stories were unthinkable even a few years ago," said Julio Chavez, editor of Etcetera, a magazine about media trends. "It's undoubtedly a result of our more democratic era."
Chavez said a recent article on first lady Martha Sahagun's taste in jewelry would not have been published in the old days. "Maybe before, the story's theme would have been on the first lady's work for children or the poor," he said.
Splashed on the front page of several national newspapers this week was the ultrasound image of Fox's first grandchild. The president's daughter-in-law, who married his son in October, is expecting a baby this spring -- semi-shocking information for those who count the months. In the ultrasound image, the baby's tiny fingers appear to be making a "V" sign, imitating Fox's signature "victory" gesture.
"We definitely know more about these people," said Paola Vieyra, 31, a government worker browsing a newsstand at the Santa Fe mall recently and getting an eyeful of how various publications were otherwise X-raying the very fortunate. "It's fun to read about these people."
Judging from the uproar surrounding the publication last year of a book of photos of Mexico's super-rich, not all of the elite are happy about their new exposure.
"Rich and Famous" is a collection of poses of the daughters of some of the wealthiest families. The women are in decadent surroundings, inside eye-poppingly opulent homes, some wearing naughty little outfits. One woman was photographed rolling around in money, surrounded by bottles of champagne.
Several social analysts said members of Mexico's jet set are caught between wanting to be photographed so that they are "in play" and seen to be worthy of publicity, and wanting to keep out of the limelight for security reasons. Many live behind gates, guards, security systems, barbed wire and electrified fences for fear of being kidnapped or robbed.
A sign at a movie theater in Santa Fe reminds patrons that their bodyguards must pay the full ticket price, too.
Researcher Mireya Olivas contributed to this report.