War of Symbols: Teotihuacan Vs. Walmart

Teotihuacan: a place where men become gods… or consumers.

“No, it’s not the Return of the Conquistadors, it’s just Wal-Mart”. So James C. McKinley, New York Times correspondent entitled his article on the cultural and economic battle sparked by the construction of the Wal-Mart mega-store in Perimeter C at the archeological center of Teotihuacan, one of 20 or so belonging to the aggressive transnational chain in the State of Mexico. The headline is not gratuitous: The transnational has a well-earned reputation for crushing local businesses, so the threat to merchants, who for centuries have lived by selling their products on the outskirts of the sacred city, is real. In our day, conquests are made, not by force of arms, but by commerce, and this seeks the natural and energy resources of our countries. It is no accident that we are seeing daily the economic re-conquest of our territory by foreign corporations. So the battle for Teotihuacan, apart from implying the crushing of local business, is a war of symbols: the symbol of Ancient Mexico opposed to the symbol of Transnational Commerce, MacDonald’s and Genetically Modified Corn, the Day of the Dead versus Halloween, Skulls against Pumpkins.

The problem of the mega -store in Teotihuacan is not just one about a transnational corporation and local businesses, but it is also linked to archeology and the landscape. It does not matter that INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) tries to make light of the matter by arguing “the absence of cultural heritage in the area was confirmed by the work of archeological recovery carried out by the archeologist Ana Maria Teresa Jarquin in 1984 (20 years ago!!!), whose report confirmed the absence of pre-Hispanic architecture”. It is not such a simple matter. Besides ruling out future exploration in a zone that is extremely large and rich in traces of pre-Hispanic history, the door will now be open for further building. Other development since, along with Wal-Mart, will come: MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the current standard bearers for the economic colonization of Mexico, who are also crushing the small businesses of Latin America.

With the destruction of the landscape the visual environment and the relationship between architecture and astronomy at Teotihuacan is changed. From the roof of Wal-Mart can be seen the Pyramid of the Sun, and, from the Pyramid of the Sun, the 24,000 square meters of the mega-store (6,500 in the building 8,000 in the parking lot with all the coming and going of cars and trailer trucks). As pointed out by Anthony F.Aveni, “there was also a topographic relationship between Teotihuacan and its environment as was frequently noticed by visitors to the ancient city. Seen from the Pyramid of the Moon, at the north end of the city, the silhouette of the Pyramid of the Sun is outlined against background of the Cerro Patlachique in the distance, with the escalated façade of the pyramid reproducing the natural elevations. The pyramids appear to reflect the mountains that surround the valley of Teotihuacan; as though they had been created to visually reproduce the mountains,” (Observations in the Sky in Ancient Mexico, FCE, 1991). Saul Alcantara, an architectural expert and a member of Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, told UNESCO on September 22, “one argument the Mexican government used in its request to have Teotihuacan declared a World Heritage Site for Humanity was that there was no visual pollution towards the horizon that consisted of mostly cultivated terraces”. Let us remember that five years of opposition resulted in cancellation of the industrial salt works in Laguna San Ignacio, when President Ernest Zedillo cited “damage to the landscape”. But now, thanks to politicians from the State of Mexico and high officials in the cultural ministry (CONACULTA) we have a backdrop close to Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Stonehenge, the most important megalith in European pre-history, that was also created as a site for worship of the sun and the moon, and possibly used for astronomical purposes, is the recipient of an important project to restore its integrity. The highways and side roads are to disappear and to be replaced by meadows, and a tunnel is to be built so that, at a cost of about 74 million pounds, the traffic will be neither seen nor heard from the ceremonial center.

“We want you to trust us, because this is a company with deep Mexican roots (sic) that has no intention of harming the national heritage”, so his newspaper was told by Raul Arguelles, vice-president for corporate affairs of Wal-Mart de Mexico, a chain that manages 657 businesses in the country, including 150 Bodegas Aurrera, Supermas, Suburbias, Vips, Sam’s Clubs and Wal-Marts. Arguelles also assured that, in accordance with the guidelines of INAH, “the store will be “transparent” to the landscape”. Although good business is in the offing, because as the vice-president emphasized, there is no self-service store within 50 kilometers, the question is, as reported by the Frente Civico de Defensa del Valle de Teotihuacan, that the opening of the commercial center will affect the local population, 57% of whom are involved in business. “The Wal-Mart store, being built one kilometer from the archeological site of monuments, does not represent a benefit for the inhabitants of San Juan Teotihuacan; on the contrary, it acts against the markets and businesses of the area, which also represent a heritage with origins in pre-Hispanic eras”, denounced the teacher Emmanuel D’Herrera, a member of the Frente Civico, who, together with Emma Ortega and Lorenzo Trujillo began a hunger strike on September 20.

Responsibility for the granting of the licenses to Wal-Mart lies with a group of officials from the municipality, the State of Mexico and from INAH. On October 6, INAH released this notice: “On March 23 of this year, the business named ARRENDADORA Y CENTROS COMMERCIALES S.A. DE R.L. DE C.V. applied for a permit for an architectural project to build a self-service store on the site situated on the Cruz de la Mision Street, on the Lot named La Parroquia in the Municipality of Teotihuacan de Arista”. So in May, the INAH Center for the State of Mexico, “exclusively authorized the architectural project, providing that the technical and judicial requirements of Federal Law regarding Monuments and Archeological, Artistic and Historic zones were complied with”. With this statement they reiterated their determination to “maintain an open dialogue with all interested parties and to support the proposal of the Governor of the State of Mexico to move the commercial establishment to an alternative site.” The proposal of Arturo Montiel turned out to be demagogic since it was soon denied by the Secretary for the Government and the Wal-Mart construction continued. With 70% now completed the store will open in December.

Although some consumers may benefit from the Bodega Aurrera, the best solution for this war of symbols between the Teotihuacan civilization and the Wal-Mart globalizer would be to locate the mega-store on an alternative site, separated from the most emblematic ceremonial site in ancient Mexico. As says Aveni, “the rectangular plan that predominates, the largest and most famous of all ceremonial sites in ancient Mexico is, at the same time both grandiose and precise”. Here the architecture features an ordered harmony whose origin is assuredly in the cosmos. But the orientation of the city that the builders designed centuries before the Christian Era, appears to defy local topography. Once set in place, each part of the natural environment seems to have been forced to adapt to it”. That which is certain is that the local topography does not conform to the disturbing and alien presence of the Wal-Mart store.