Wealth Is Displayed, While Poverty Goes Unnoticed By Many in the Mexican Press
‘What one almost never reads or hears about in Mexico is the immense gap dividing the more well-to-do Mexicans from the native Indians ….’
Mexico is known as a land of contrasts. Its terrain stretches from the most arid deserts to exuberant tropical forests, with colorful architecture in the south and sober constructions in the north, with tropical huts on the seacoasts and modern skyscrapers in the cities. In urban areas, expensive European-made automobiles sweep through on broad highways, while in mountainous villages horses pull wagons on precarious dirt roads.
The enormous gap between how the rich and poor live in this land is something readily observable, though Mexicans, for the most part, shut their eyes to this uncomfortable reality, which has existed since colonial times. Extreme poverty in proximity to enormous wealth is not new in Mexico; neither is the blind eye cast to this circumstance. In 2002, the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics released a report classifying 44.1 percent of Mexican households as poor, with 15.8 percent living in what it called "extreme poverty." In that year, 10 percent of Mexico's wealthier families held 40.8 percent of the nation's income, a number that grew in 2004 to 42.1 percent.
Mexican society considers it bad taste to talk about these shameful contrasts. And so it seems that much of the news media in our country has adopted this sense of shame, as they ignore this story or find ways to tell it only in parts. What one almost never reads or hears about in Mexico is the immense gap dividing the more well-to-do Mexicans from the native Indians, who reside at the very bottom of the economic and social ladder. In part, this is a reflection of a lack of interest in such news by those who purchase newspapers and magazines. But this reluctance to engage with these issues is echoed in decisions made in newsrooms in which reporters are not encouraged to pursue such topics. For many — both inside and outside of journalism in Mexico — social inequality is often regarded as a given, and neither its presence nor its potential consequences is viewed as newsworthy.
After the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, the Mexican market opened up to the goods available and expanded the bank accounts of a few privileged citizens. But for those living in extreme poverty, their lives have not improved, nor have their incomes, which could hardly become worse. At the same time, there seem to be no limits to the ways in which those who have wealth now choose to display it.
During the mid-1990's the look of many Mexican cities started to change. Big shopping malls flourished in urban centers, as U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart, Costco, H-E-B groceries, and Sam's Club opened stores. Restaurants such as Chili's, Applebee's, and Carl's Jr., disdained by the wealthy in the United States for being chain restaurants, became the favorites of upper middle and middle classes in Mexico, who flocked to them as a way of demonstrating their modernity. They also shopped at exclusive designer boutiques — Fendi, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany — which are now found in major cities, alongside exclusive Spanish brands, such as Zara, Mango and Tous.
Celebrity Journalism Highlights Politicians
Unless the World Bank or United Nations issues a report about the contrasting poverty and wealth in Mexico, these issues — and the ripples of their consequences — will simply garner no media interest. Instead, today, the focus is on wealth and celebrities. This kind of journalism has flourished during the past five years, ever since Quién magazine was launched by Expansión, a media group recently bought by Time, Inc. "There were people who said that it was never going to work, because we don't have royalty. But we decided that the politicians were going to be our royalty," wrote Quién's editor, Blanca Gómez Morera, in an article about the Expansión group. "People read Quién to see how to dress." This successful formula was followed by Grupo Televisa, the largest media group in Latin America, which launched Caras. Indeed, nearly all of Mexico's leading political figures from various parties have appeared in the pages — and on the cover — of such publications.
This coverage has opened a new window through which Mexicans peer into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. A generation ago such frivolous stories would not have been published given the historic memory of the 1910 revolution that had raised the hopes of the nation's impoverished masses soon after Porfirio Diaz's regime, which was a period with one of the highest levels of social inequality.
Today, what appears on these pages is regarded by middle-class Mexicans as showing them the way — through dress, social behavior, and places to eat and purchase items — to move up the social ladder. These magazines have become for many a style manual for living. Unlike in other countries, education is not necessarily portrayed as the key to social and economic success. What is sometimes surprising is how willing politicians and their family members are to display their material "achievements" in a country with such high rates of poverty. And in their interviews, the sad reality of the disparities is covered with the mask of superficiality.
In a year-end interview with Caras, Jorge Emilio González Martínez, the young president of the Mexican Green Party who was recently involved in a corruption scandal, was portrayed in his bathrobe, eating a salad on his elegant bed, and wearing a swimming suit in what appears to be a pool in his home. His fancy closet reveals his preference for Gucci shoes (with four identical pairs), along with a pair of Ferragamo. His main concern, expressed in this article, is not how to promote green policies but how to find what he calls "the love of his life," a woman whom he describes as "relaxed, light, joyful and not good in school," because he wouldn't like to go out with a hard worker. Also, he observes, she should be 10 years younger, so she can feel some admiration for him.
González is just one of the many public figures who have naively exposed themselves in the Mexican celebrity press. There was Mexico's first lady, Marta Sahagún de Fox, who showed the most intimate spheres of her world and her heart to audiences of several publications and flaunted her expensive taste. A few years later, a political scandal emerged about the amount of public money being spent on her wardrobe. In an auction of her designer dresses for "good causes," just four out of 36 were sold.
Until the last few years, the Mexican media were mostly controlled by an oppressive government, ruled by a party that had remained in power for 71 years. For now, self-censorship in mainstream media and the marketplace are dictating what is published. Celebrity journalism will continue entertaining Mexican readers as long as it remains an attractive business. In the midst of this, let us hope that the relative freedom the press now enjoys will, in time, lead members of the news media to more meaningful stories about the nation's social and economic inequality. The path leading to this kind of change isn't clear right now, but it's possible that out of the excess of focus on wealth and power might emerge some greater awareness of what isn't being talked about but cannot remain unseen.
Ana Cristina Enriquez, a 2005 Nieman Fellow, has worked as editor in Reforma Group and is currently focusing on Mexican immigration as she studies at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.