Mexico's culture mix
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 21, 2005
Influx of U.S. businesses fuels Monterrey's growth
Sarah Muench

Carl's Jr. was packed.

Every seat taken, every register beeping, every fryer boiling. Six-dollar burgers piled on plates, plenty of fries on the side.

And just outside: government offices, a major university and sprawling freeways, all lit up under a glaring sun.

The place looks, feels and smells a lot like Phoenix, but it's Monterrey, a full-fledged Mexican city minus the sombreros, mariachis and ponchos.

Monterrey, one of Mexico's largest and most prosperous cities, is about as Americanized as a Mexican city can be, and still be Mexican.

It is a place where Mexican culture holds on for dear life, a few carnecerias and mercados wedged between the Burger Kings and KFCs.

Next to Mexico City and Guadalajara, it is the fastest-growing city in Mexico, in both people and wealth.

With a population of 3.3 million compared with the Valley's 3.4 million and a similar business mind-set, Monterrey is a magnet for rural Mexicans. Nearly 70,000 people per year migrate from other Mexican states with hopes of finding jobs, according to Romeo Flores, a regional development coordinator for the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located.

About 150 miles from the U.S. border, Monterrey has long been exposed to American influences and American money.

Monterrey residents frequent fast-food restaurants, watch American television and wear the latest U.S. fashions. Young people attend a major university that has a football team, American-style football as well as soccer, and a modern, sprawling campus that looks a lot like Arizona State University.

"I have to admit that here in Monterrey, we are very 'americanizados,' " said university student and Monterrey native Karina Fuerte.

The Americanization of their city doesn't seem to bother residents of Monterrey. Many say they welcome any businesses that bring jobs and prosperity to their country.

"I think it's OK to have U.S. businesses here in Monterey and in Mexico in general," Fuerte said. "But I also think that sometimes those businesses are more welcome here than Mexican businesses, and I do not agree with that. I think that all businesses should have the same opportunities no matter where they came from."

Monterrey native turned Phoenix resident Silvia Murguia said she doesn't buy the argument that American money has corrupted Mexican culture.

"I think it's good because the people are going to have more choices," she said.

Nuevo Leon state officials seem to think the same.

"Nuevo Leon in general actually welcomes different cultures," said Javier Bolaños, state secretary of economic development. "We welcome it, we want it. I think it gives more choices, makes Nuevo Leon more cosmopolitan. And the same thing happens in the U.S."


An American influx


It hasn't always been this way.

American businesses first started moving in a big way to Monterrey after the implementation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened borders and made it easier for businesses to go where labor is cheap.

Since then, foreign investment has flooded in. There are nearly 1,700 foreign companies in Nuevo Leon, most from the United States. The state accounts for nearly 20 percent of direct foreign investment in Mexico although it has only about 5 percent of the country's population.

James C. Malee, owner of Technical Contractors and Consultants in Phoenix, has been making business trips to Monterrey for more than 20 years.

"In the past decade, (American companies) have really grown down there," he said. "I can remember when there were (no American restaurants)."

Today, Mexicans can take their pick: Applebee's, KFC, McDonald's, Burger King and Carl's Jr. are just a few of the choices. Domino's Pizza alone has nearly 500 locations in Mexico.

And when it comes to shopping, Mexicans are likely to find themselves at that most quintessential of American businesses: Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart, which made its way into the country by buying Cifra, Mexico's largest retailer seven years ago, is now the giant of Mexican retailers, with 671 stores and 30 percent of all supermarket sales.

Wal-Mart recently opened a store outside of the pyramids of Mexico City, despite protests that it would damage Mexico's cultural integrity. And in February, executives announced that Wal-Mart would spend $640 million over 18 months to open 77 stores.


A hybrid culture


When autumn nears in Monterrey, ghouls and goblins pop up in shops and doorways all over the city, along with battery-powered tarantulas and bright orange jack-o-lanterns.

Locals celebrate the American holiday of Halloween just a few days removed from the traditional el Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Although both involve death, the latter's purpose is to honor late relatives and commemorate death as a passage that should not be feared.

"We've lost our traditions here," said Maritza Damayanti Saldaña Elejarza, 20, a student at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Monterrey's large private university. "El Día de los Muertos is Halloween."

Carlos Calleros, a Monterrey native who is studying at ASU, said it is hard to escape the U.S. influence at home. Even the language has been affected, he said: "Now English is a must."

Residents of Monterrey "want to be like Americans," Murguia added. But they also want to hold on to some traditional customs and values. For example, the family is still very important to most Mexicans; relatives support one another and many people, young and old, live with their parents.

The farther you get from the U.S.-Mexican border, the more people are concerned about U.S. influence, said communications Professor Alma Elena Gutierrez, who grew up in southern Mexico.

To some extent, that reflects the divisions between the northern and southern parts of the country.

"It's a problem . . . values have changed," Gutierrez said. "Northern people say the South is lazy, and southern people say the North is stingy."

Luis A. Soto, editor of El Norte, a large newspaper based in Monterrey that serves primarily northern Mexico, agreed that divisions are deep.

"Many northern states (in Mexico) are more conformed to the U.S.," Soto said. "Many people wouldn't mind (even more Americanization) in the north."