SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACAN, Mexico - A Wal-Mart store rising near the 2,000-year-old pyramids of the Teotihuacan Empire has ignited the wrath of Mexican conservationists and nationalists, who say the U.S. retailer is destroying their culture at the foot of one of Mexico's greatest treasures.
Since news broke last May of Wal-Mart's plan to construct a 71,902-square-foot store near the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, the entranceway of the primordial city has turned into a carnival of demonstrators, most protesting the plans, though some welcoming the 180 jobs the store will bring.
Demonstrators wearing long feathered headdresses, bright indigenous costumes and loincloths dance around fires spewing incense and implore "gods" and the government to halt construction. Signs charge "Yankee Imperialism," "Foreign Invasion, Get Out!" and "We'll be here until victory."
The store, with 236 parking spots, is to open any day, but protests are snowballing and its future is uncertain.
An Aztec descendant spews incense into a fire during a protest against
the construction of a Wal-Mart subsidiary in Teotihuacan, Mexico.
(KRT Photo/Janet Schwartz)
On Wednesday, protesters blocked the entrance of Mexico's National Institute for Archaeology and History in Mexico City because it gave Wal-Mart its permit. They remained there Thursday, preventing employees from reporting for work.
On Tuesday, Gerardo Fernandez, a national director of Mexico's Democratic Revolutionary Party, filed charges with the federal attorney general's office to block the store. He charged that Wal-Mart damaged archaeological relics during construction, a crime subject to imprisonment, and accused government officials of illegally fast-tracking the project.
Last week, 63 prestigious artists and intellectuals, in a letter published in Mexican newspapers, asked President Vicente Fox to stop the structure. They see it as a battle pitting Mexico's heritage against encroaching U.S. influence. Wal-Mart is already Mexico's largest retailer, with 664 stores in 66 cities, with sales of $12 billion.
"The struggle for Teotihuacan is a war of symbols," they wrote. "The symbol of ancient Mexico against the symbol of transnational commerce; genetically modified corn against the Feathered Serpent (the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan in Mayan) and Mexico's traditional foods; the Day of the Dead against Halloween; skeletons against jack-o-lanterns."
Mysteriously abandoned around 700 A.D., Teotihuacan was called "the place where the gods were created" by the Aztecs, who re-encountered the city in 1300. The ethnicity of the builders is unknown.
"Don't small towns have the right to have access to the same level of quality goods that Mexicans have in larger cities?" Wal-Mart said in a statement late Wednesday. "Today, residents of Teotihuacan have to travel 15 miles to get to the closest department store."
Opponents see Wal-Mart's modern capitalism as an assault on native culture.
"Wal-Mart's aim is to destroy our identity, replace our symbols with the dollar sign," said Jaime Lagunez, 44, a molecular biologist. "The construction at Teotihuacan was made by the people who built their homes and temples with dignity."
Emanuel D'Herrera, who coordinates the Civic Front coalition, which has stopped other controversial projects, recently sued numerous government agencies for granting "an illegal" building permit.
Wal-Mart's subsidiary, Bodegas Aurrera, won its permit to build by arguing that the store's site lies outside the area that the United Nations' chief cultural agency, UNESCO, declared in 1987 was a World Heritage Site. The National Institute for Archaeology and History said excavations in 1984 confirmed that there was nothing of archaeological value in the area. Fox and local municipal officials reviewed the permits and endorsed them.
The permits required that inspectors from the archaeology institute be on site during construction. They also set a number of restrictions on everything from construction materials to the color of exterior paint. The store's height was limited to avoid obstructing the view of the nearby domes of the 1548 Church of St. John the Baptist.
On Aug. 25, archaeology institute inspectors found a 3-foot-square altar 1 foot under Wal-Mart's parking lot. The altar was excavated and conserved on-site, but it touched off new claims that the store was destroying archaeological treasures. Nevertheless, UNESCO gave the structure its blessing this week, as did the Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites, a group that advises UNESCO.
Noting the endorsements, Wal-Mart said: "We will continue investing, generating jobs and economic development to strengthen our vision, which is to contribute to improve the quality of life for Mexican families."
From the top of the 200-foot-tall Pyramid of the Sun, visited by tens of thousands of people annually, Wal-Mart is barely visible. On the ground, the construction site is humming as workers rush to install lighting, air conditioning, refrigerators - and shrubbery, intended to conceal the 30-foot-tall, ochre-colored building.
"I make good money here at Wal-Mart and live well," guard Jose Garcia said.
Martin Becerra, 50, who's worked on the store's construction and will work full time at the store when it opens, said he had a "great job, with better pay than in other places. We want to buy so many new things we haven't seen before."
Teotihuacan and Wal-Mart, centuries and cultures apart, share one thing in common: Both blossomed from trade.
Teotihuacan, which flourished between 250 and 600 A.D., controlled an intricate network of commercial routes that stretched north, west and south, reaching a thousand miles to the Classic Maya civilization of southeastern Mexico and Guatemala.
Tens of thousands were employed there in crafts. Some estimates say there were 100,000 traders. Among goods exchanged were valuable gray and green obsidian used in knives, instruments, mirrors and jewelry, and bartered for faraway sea salt, shells, Quetzal feathers, jade and chocolate.
No one knows why the civilization eventually failed, though no one doubts its sophistication; Teotihuacan's streets were aligned with the planets and stars.
In contrast, the modern town around it has a haphazard feel, and grazing sheep still stroll through it.
Mario Hernandez, 53, the owner of a small shop that sells sodas and chips, said most people welcomed Wal-Mart. He said he wasn't concerned about the retailer's reputation for putting smaller stores out of business or the alleged threat to archaeological treasures.
"We are far enough from the archaeological site," he said. "We respect our roots, but we don't want to stop progress."
Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.
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