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A Tale of Woe at Teotihuacán

29 Dec

On the 17th of December the New York Times published an investigative article detailing how far Wal-Mart de Mexico were willing to circumvent Mexican planning laws to construct a store near the legendary and ancient Teotihuacán complex in Central Mexico.  The details of the case include a number of substantial bribes to various officials, and last minute illegal changes to planned zoning areas around the Teotihuacán complex, which prohibits commercial construction.  The bribes themselves included illegal payments for traffic permits ($25,900), zoning rights and alterations ($52,000), political pay-offs ($114,000), and ‘donations’ to archaeology (up to $81,000).  It is an eye opening article into the overseas business expansion of so famous a business, and it is well worth a read.  The following three paragraphs introduce the background . . .

“SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.”

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

I have had the pleasure of studying American prehistory and Pre-Colombian cultures at University, and I found Teotihuacán to be a particularly interesting city and archaeological site, and one I’d love to visit one day.

So it was with a deep interest that I read the investigative article.  In particular the following two paragraphs from the above article detail the emerging resistance against the store…

“But the tide turned as INAH’s archaeologists began to find evidence that Wal-Mart was building on ancient ruins after all. They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed. The discoveries instantly transformed the skirmish over Mrs. Pineda’s field into national news.

Student groups, unions and peasant leaders soon joined the protests. Opponents of other Wal-Marts in Mexico offered support. Influential politicians began to express concern. Prominent artists and intellectuals signed an open letter asking Mexico’s president to stop the project. Many were cultural traditionalists, united by a fear that Wal-Mart was inexorably drawing Mexico’s people away from the intimacy of neighborhood life, toward a bland, impersonal “gringo lifestyle” of frozen pizzas, video games and credit cards.”

The response from Wal-Mart can be found on the article site.

As archaeologists we often try to save and defend the ruins of the past, or at least mitigate the impacts of the construction industry by recording and analysing what remains ahead of building work.  This article, though, details not just a clash between the new and the old, but of different cultures and the role of international businesses in countries throughout the world.  The article, and the actions of both Wal-Mart de Mexico and officials in Mexico, depict actions that are happening across the world.  In an ideal world the adherence to local customs and laws must be a part of the planning process.

Further Sources:

  • The website Teotihuacán- City of the Gods, led by noted Teotihuacán scholar Saburo Sugiyama of Arizona State University, has an excellent introduction to the city alongside a detailed chronology of its lifespan and information on its major buildings and archaeological finds.  It also demonstrates the city’s history in Mesoamerica and its lasting influence on cultures that followed.
  • A few recent articles on the website Past Horizons highlight how new archaeological finds, including burials and artefacts, are often found at the city site complex.  This staggeringly beautiful crafted Jade mask was found during a project focusing on the Pyramid of the Sun from 2008-2011.  A further article at Past Horizon’s describes evidence for the the use of cosmetics on the dead as part of the funerary process, and hints at the large trade networks throughout Mesoamerica at this time.