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A heated Mc-culture clash

In a city that holds fast to tradition, McDonald's wants a spot in the historic main square.

October 28, 2002|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

OAXACA, Mexico--The zocalo, or central plaza, a 473-year-old colonnaded square, is the heart of this city, and its languid beat almost never changes. In timeless rhythm, people linger in sidewalk cafes under its stone arches, watching passersby stroll in the shade of Indian laurels around its gazebo. The same two dozen local merchants along its perimeters have been fixtures for years, enjoying moderate, easygoing prosperity.

That's why eyebrows shot up in May when El Mundo Elegante shut down after 52 years of selling clothes on the zocalo's eastern edge. The explanation, two months later, was an even bigger jolt: The owner had agreed to lease the place to McDonald's.

The ensuing protest in defense of "slow food" has stalled the hamburger chain's bid for an operating license and opened a debate here over the cultural correctness of Big Macs. The debate is echoing across Mexico, where large American retailers have become ubiquitous in a decade of freer trade but have yet to become universally accepted.

Oaxaca is world-renowned for its Indo-Spanish cuisine and mind-boggling variety of chili peppers. It boasts seven kinds of mole, a painstaking sauce that takes three days to prepare. Deep-fried crickets, not French fries, are the snack of choice.

More than a food fight, however, the conflict is about money, power and urban geopolitics: Should a multinational giant, in return for investment in one of Mexico's poorest states, be ceded space in the very center of a culturally distinctive city?

"Perhaps sacred is too strong a word, but our zocalo has a style, a soul, a way of being that would be altered forever by American fast food," said Francisco Toledo, a leading Mexican artist and Oaxaca native, who launched the protest with the battle cry "No McZocalo!"

Yet people here are sharply divided over the proposed franchise. The city's business elite, backed by many who simply love burgers, argues that Oaxaca can ill afford to snub a foreign investor that promises to respect the zocalo's treasured Spanish colonial architecture (no golden arches allowed) and create more than 70 jobs.

Mayor Gabino Cue Monteagudo proclaims neutrality as he struggles to reconcile fast versus slow, growth versus tradition. The law allows him to veto any project that endangers "intangible" elements of the city's cultural heritage, including cuisine, but no mayor here has ever used that power.

Oaxaca is still a "slow" city, and the mayor is in no rush to decide.

Indeed, this battle has a laid-back style, unlike other recent fights over globalization in Mexico and elsewhere that have stirred violent passions. The farmers who forced the cancellation of a new international airport for Mexico City in August and the marchers resisting plans for a Costco bargain warehouse on the site of an old spa in Cuernavaca have wielded machetes and clashed with police.

In the most famous attack, farmer and activist Jose Bove drove a tractor through the glass front of a McDonald's under construction in Millau, a cheese-making center in southwestern France, three years ago.

In Oaxaca, Toledo and his band of artists, writers, intellectuals and conservationists showed disdain for McDonald's last summer by gathering people in the zocalo and giving away tamales by the thousands. The rallies have been peaceful, the debate civil, the deliberations glacial.

A range of ills

Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Mayor Cue chose to move the discussion beyond McDonald's to confront a wider range of ills degrading the old city center. This month, he organized a six-day forum so Oaxacans could think up ways to rescue that 188-block zone from traffic jams, vandalism, noise, shoddy maintenance, unlicensed vendors and marchers for political causes who camp in the streets for weeks on end.

"All the polemics over McDonald's, all this energy, we're trying to channel into something more ambitious: a revival of our city center," the mayor said in an interview. "What we eventually decide about McDonald's is secondary."

The City Council will soon debate the licensing request, he said, after searching for a consensus in hours of transcripts from the forum and thousands of still-uncounted ballots cast in an informal referendum over the last weeks.

McDonald's has opened 235 franchises across Mexico since 1985. One opened here in 1993, but it is clustered with Sears, Office Depot and Sam's Club on the city's outskirts, where some Oaxacans think such retailers should be confined.

Patrick Santamaria, who manages that McDonald's, said market studies pointed to the zocalo as the ideal spot for a second restaurant because of heavy pedestrian traffic there. He noted that the chain has put franchises on or near the central squares of five Mexican cities with nothing like the opposition raised here.

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