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The Melding Americas : Heritage : Mexico Strives to Hold On to Its Past : The government has begun a program to ensure the nation's culture endures at a time of accelerating bicultural fusion.

September 27, 1994|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Juan Enriquez was trying to make a point about Mexican-American biculturalism over breakfast last week when he suddenly leaped up from his bagel and tea. Leading a visitor to his late-model Chrysler--the driver fielding the cellular phone in the back seat--the Mexican entrepreneur set off on a whirlwind tour that he insisted would best illustrate his point.

It took half a day, and included a handful of projects totaling billions of dollars in investments that Enriquez put together during his five years as Mexico City's urban development director.

And it showcased the cutting edge of cultural, corporate fusion in developments that are changing the face of the Mexican megalopolis.

There was the $33-million National Auditorium, where state-of-the-art sound systems, acoustics, lighting and seating have helped 36-year-old, Harvard-educated director Oscar Elizundia Tevino build the second-most profitable theater in the world in just 36 months, drawing acts ranging from Paul Simon, Jethro Tull and Ray Charles to the best Latin groups and the 1993 Miss Universe contest.

There was the high-tech Children's Museum, fully equipped with lasers, computer-generated imagery and the latest in interactive displays--almost all of it financed by private corporate donations from the United States and Mexico and now in the hands of a private Mexican trust.

Finally, there was Enriquez's centerpiece: The multibillion-dollar Santa Fe commercial center, the largest shopping mall in Latin America, housing merchandisers from Sears, Roebuck & Co. to an exclusive religious icon shop, where Hewlett Packard has built its steel-and-glass corporate offices beside the equally sleek headquarters of Mexico's second-largest financial group, and where bulldozers and cranes are now creating a new, traditional, Mexican-style town center--all on what a few years ago was a 2,000-acre garbage dump and site of Mexico City's worst slum.

At one point during the dizzying tour, Enriquez, 35, was asked if he could have put all this together--starting with a municipal budget 30% in the red--without the benefit of his Harvard MBA.

"No," he said flatly, acknowledging the bicultural base of his vision and drive. Nor could he have managed it without the Mexican instincts he needed to break the powerful garbage mafias that ruled the dump with the threat of death over the 10,000 professional scavengers who lived there before the Santa Fe project retrained and re-employed them as sales clerks, technicians and construction workers.

The son of an American mother and a Mexican father who was born and raised in Mexico City, Enriquez is a model of the biculturalism that is helping to change the face of Mexico, other Latin countries and the United States--particularly cities such as Los Angeles that are home to large Latino populations.

The economic and social benefits of biculturalism are a positive flip side to anti-migration arguments, and increasingly important in a massive, cross-border flow that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates at about 300 million legal crossings a year along the U.S.-Mexico border in both directions.

The effects have begun to grow exponentially, from the grass-roots dollar impact on rural Mexican families that have sent hundreds of thousands of young men to work in California and other border states to the macro-level payoffs such as Enriquez's development projects.

But the young developer, like most analysts in Mexico's private and government sectors, points out that the U.S.-Latin fusion has its limits.

At the core of Enriquez's projects, for instance, has been a simple tenet: "You take the best of both cultures and make them work together. You take the best from there and make them work here.

"I don't think you're ever going to reach a level of bicultural oneness," he said, juggling his mobile phone and traffic jams behind the wheel of his car. "And I don't think our goal should be bicultural oneness.

"Both cultures have a great richness and a lot to offer each other. But there are several fundamental differences that I believe can never be erased, among them family, religion and the work ethic. For example, in Mexico, your main value doesn't tend to be work. Your identity is not your work, as it is in the United States. In Mexico, your work is only a means to an end."

Officials at the highest levels of the Mexican government agree. At the root of government policy here is an assumption that Mexican culture is so strong and deeply rooted that it can never be overwhelmed by American influence.

And yet, in what some analysts see as an illustration of the depth of the dynamic, and Mexican concern about it, the government is underwriting a program to erase some of the cultural blurring in Mexican families that migrated to the United States generations ago.

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