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COLUMN ONE : Peso Crisis: Bitter End to Dreams : Mexican currency's collapse has put life on hold. Rich and poor alike complain of delayed plans and making do with less. People who still have a job feel lucky.


MEXICO CITY — For Cecilia Ortega, 1994 was a year of hard work and great hope; 1995 would be the year of dreams fulfilled.

At 24, she and her boyfriend had saved enough money to marry. They would have two salaries, a tidy nest egg "and finally, we could afford to start a life together." They set the date for early spring.

"But then the crisis came, and the savings we counted on lost their value," Ortega recalled. "In other words, everything we had went up in smoke."

Like thousands of other young couples throughout this country, Ortega and her boyfriend were forced to call off their plans when Mexico was gripped by its worst economic crisis in a decade.

"Now, all I can think of is to double my work," she concluded. "At the end of the day, that is the only thing left for us Mexicans now."

Lives ruined. Dreams shattered. Opportunities lost. That is the human face of the crisis that started with the radical devaluation of the peso two months ago and appeared--to outsiders, at least--to end late last month when President Clinton unveiled a $50-billion international credit package to bail out the Mexican government.

For most Mexicans, the crisis is not over. It has just begun, and already it has torn deeply into the fabric of their lives.

It has shattered Mexico's upwardly mobile middle class, eliminated jobs, compounded family debt and frozen millions of lives in place.

For the rich, the crisis has meant no more ballet lessons, private schools, new cars.

For the poor, it has cut into meat and milk at mealtimes.

In the two months since a crisis of confidence in President Ernesto Zedillo's new government detonated into the economic emergency, the nation's capital--the world's largest city--has become a kaleidoscope of pain, anger and frustration.

Crowds of newly unemployed gather throughout the day at the gates to the city's main Metro station and at key government buildings and corporations that have been forced to lay off thousands since late December. Arms folded, they shout for work and insult executives who make their way through the crowds.

At the iron gates of Zedillo's official Los Pinos residence, French perfume hangs heavy in the air every Thursday afternoon. Carmen Romano de Hevias, wearing Chanel sunglasses and shouting the angry new slogans of the upper class, has led hundreds of wealthy women here in a weekly protest of economic policies they say are rapidly making all Mexicans impoverished. During one demonstration, the women clashed with riot police while their maids held their protest signs.

In far larger and grittier protests, tens of thousands of angry peasants and factory workers have marched down the city's main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, hoisting massive banners calling for a new national economic order and demanding help for the growing numbers of unemployed and poor. Their audience works in the glass-and-metal office towers that line the boulevard and house the capital's powerful elite.

Each protest has ended in a human sea of anger in the Zocalo, the city's main plaza, which abuts the presidential palace.

In the Central Historical District that surrounds the Zocalo, a lower-middle-class bastion that has become a melting pot of Mexican society, stories of the new poverty changing so many lives are as common as higher price tags and going-out-of-business signs.

Edgar Davalos Ibarra manages Rose's Decorations, a shop that imports raw materials for wedding decorations, parties and other festive occasions that are fewer and farther between.

His prices are up 45%, sales are down 20%, and he was forced to lay off 20% of his staff--19 people out of work in a city where few are hiring.

"It's very painful to take away jobs in these times, but it was that or everyone's job," said the 27-year-old Ibarra, who has felt more than a pinch in his personal life as well.

His wife is three months pregnant and out of work. When the peso lost a third of its value almost overnight, simultaneously boosting interest rates, the burden of his home loan increased 30%. With the economy in turmoil, all loans were immediately adjusted to the new rates, and he pays 50% of his frozen salary in interest.

At a silk-flower shop around the corner, 22-year-old manager Daniel Castro recently was told not to come to work after the middle of this month. The shop's rent had doubled overnight, the price of the flowers imported from China jumped 70%, and sales dropped through the floor. But threatened with closure and with no prospective tenants, the building owner was forced to scale back the rent increase.

The shop now plans to remain open another year, and Castro, once full of hope, is happy to have a job.

"Most of my friends have been laid off. They're managers like me, but these days the owners are doing the job themselves," he said. "I'm relieved, but that's about all. I can't afford any luxuries, marriage--nothing but food. And my friends? Many are thinking about leaving the country."

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