A front page story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal describes in glowing terms the success of a new Wal-Mart in the Zapotec city of Juchitán, near the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca. The author, John Lyons, sets the tone for his story in the opening sentence: “For as long as anyone can remember, shopping for many items in this Zapotec Indian town meant lousy selection and high prices.”
Air conditioning and lights illuminate the wonderful new Wal-Mart, in contrast to the outdoor market in the city, where “flies swarm on buckets of shrimp and fish [are] piled on counters without ice, let alone refrigeration.” At another point in the story, he disparages the market vendors as “hawkers” who only “buff up the fruit and offer tasty sample slices.”
The article concentrates on the ways Wal-Mart cuts the costs of many consumer goods, such as microwaves and pharmaceuticals, which they can sell more cheaply than the local stores. They are successful because they operate with incredible efficiency. With their fleets of trucks, they can bring goods to the new store and easily undercut prices in the local markets. And they employ the minimal numbers of staff, to keep the prices low. For instance, the new store has concrete floors, which are easier to clean—so they can employ fewer janitors.
The growth of the Wal-Mart corporation, he writes, is slowing in the U.S., where it is subject to criticism due to its homogenization of local cultures and its lousy wages. But, fortunately, the company “is striking gold south of the border, largely free from all the criticism.”
People who oppose opening Wal-Mart stores in Mexican communities are repeatedly labeled as “leftists.” “Leftist groups” tried to stop the opening of the new Wal-Mart in Juchitán in 2005, but they failed, and shoppers flocked to the store, delighted with the low prices. “The place looked like it had been looted,” the store manager said happily about opening day sales.
When the author gets around to actually describing the new store in Juchitán, he refers to it as a “sun-soaked desert village of 90,000 residents…” Perhaps the newspaper belittles all modest-sized cities outside Manhattan as “villages”. Mr. Lyons describes the city as “a hotbed of left-wing politics” where, believe it or not, “many people … still prefer to speak Zapotec rather than Spanish.” But, fortunately, Wal-Mart has come to the rescue, bringing the benefits of consumerism and modernization.
The article admits that Eduardo Castro-Wright, a leading Wal-Mart de México official, is now an executive in Wal-Mart itself and is also a board member of Dow Jones & Co, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. That may have helped the newspaper present a favorable story about the company and cast aspersions on the traditional aspects of a Zapotec community.
Half of all Mexicans, Lyons writes, work in the cash-only, informal economy—they pay no taxes, receive no benefits, and have no pensions. He fails to mention how many pension benefits Wal-Mart gives to its Mexican employees, if any. But in the flow of his story it sounded good to look down on Mexicans.
The new store evidently treats its employees well. They begin each day with the required Wal-Mart cheer, but they are encouraged to chant it in their own Zapotec language. Sales ladies are dressed in colorful traditional skirts and blouses. Sales people broadcast announcements in Zapotec.
The article profiles two local people. One, a woman who left the city to get a job in Monterrey, wound up at a Wal-Mart there. When the new store opened in her home city, she happily returned and became chief of the billing operation. Most of her childhood friends have not had the opportunities that Wal-Mart has given her. The other person, in contrast, is a local boss figure who owns several stores and pharmacies. He was strongly opposed to the opening of the new store, but his opposition failed. His sales are falling, despite the fact that he is cutting his prices to try to compete with Wal-Mart.
Readers expecting to learn about the Zapotec people from a story in the Wall Street Journal will of course be disappointed. But the newspaper excels at showing how an American conglomerate can dominate the market of a modest-sized Zapotec city. While the author disparages every facet of traditional Zapotec society that he notices in his trip to Oaxaca, the story still touches on a serious issue. How will the Zapotec people and other Mexicans preserve their traditional cultures in the face of the American marketing juggernaut?