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by Raúl Tortolero Saturday, Apr. 08, 2006 at 12:06 AM

6 APRIL 2006. MEXICO CITY MONTHLY.- It’s a tragic-cynical reality show. The street is a mesh where rich and poor mingle without suspicion, but not because they want to be good neighbors. The rich have no guarantee of happiness, but they do have a secure present. This will continue because the poor don't hate them yet, since they can’t even imagine the macabre nature of income distribution. When they find out, everything could burst into crime.

A poor kid in Mexico City who sees how money is squandered by kids his age on luxury cars, watches, women, influence peddling, tightens his fists and is much more tempted to crime because of social resentment and desire to succeed than someone who is not exposed to such financial ecstasy. Such is the story of Viken and Jesús, two people who have not met. If this were a soap opera, the first would employ the second, who, in the course of time, would inherit his emporium. But life is not as gracious as that.

In reality, they would only meet when one cleans the other’s Trail Blazer, packs his groceries… or sells him cocaine. Let’s take a short tour through the unreal mind of a Chilango It’s a bit stupid. A much more shmaltzy and innocent Cinderella than her spiteful competitors, who have better curves, dreamlike designer gowns and a better look, but are bitches. And of course, according to the urban mind of their creators, these chubby adversaries are spoiled; only lust for money will quench their thirst for freestyle swimming in golden pools. The grease of egoism clogs their veins, because they have no soul.

When a maid or flower vender who is needy and heartbreaking meets a handsome guy with lots of dough and marries him after many difficulties, we are witnessing a bad story from the deranged and “ambitious” Mexican television. With such dramatic structures our screenplay heroes dictate a lesson in “values” with a vague Christian touch. Suffice it to recall the saying: It is easier for a furry camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the reign of heaven. (Well, if it’s Carlos Slim, he better not enter; heavenly boredom would probably become capitalist tough work).

What is repeated ad nauseam in soap operas is basically one thing: the poor guy is always also the good guy. Such simplicity is overwhelming, as though moral behavior had anything to do with property. If so, all those who live in 35-square-meter social development apartments should be saints and all the mansions should be swarming with evil. Or even simpler: a poor man is good, a rich one evil. In their role of electronic evangelists, they point out the road to redemption for the wealthy: to experience true love in the form of a poor girl. At the same time, the maiden manages to get away from the slums, thanks to love. Mutual redemption.

Fueled by a culture of other slanderous soap operas, screenwriters become really perverse. The homogenized and pasteurized story of pure love between rich and poor exhibits its mental confusion. It is not a simple story of love. If that were the case, there would be no point in criticizing it. Deceit makes its appearance the moment money enters the game. Behind the door, romance is not enough for the maid, because what she seeks in a man is the fast track to abundance. She no longer wants to shop at the neighborhood market. Neither does she want to buy three pairs of underwear for ten pesos, she prefers thongs in boutique shops, limo air-conditioning to the sweaty subway. The rich guy thinks she likes him because he’s cool, or because his latest peeling makes him look super. Both of them are a mess.

Shamefully, Made in Chilangoland soap operas are highly esteemed in many countries. Due to the fact that there are 20 million poor people in the country – as the result of populist PRI administrations and neo-liberal right-wing technocracies – who want to leave their misery behind (do they really?), they get caught in a scheme where falling in love with the right guy is enough to kill two birds with one stone, find a mate and get rich simultaneously. It is not only a story of how two people who fall in love get to the altar. The rich guy doesn’t want to give away his cash, so he rejects harpy women of his social status and seeks comfort in the slums, where he believes he will not be ransacked. And the poor girl visualizes love and checkbook as a single set.

The “lesson” for poor Mexican girls is that they should not study and work in order to obtain economic stability by their own efforts, but trap the goose that lays the golden eggs. That’s why those cheap soap operas are trash. All poor people can study and work, and the trait we need to eradicate – a very deep-rooted one – is to expect someone else to fight our battles for us. Although this kind of TV is not a good measuring instrument for the secret desires of the Mexican psyche, we can think of some ideas.

- Screenwriters believe that poor Chilangos are uneducated, that they wear ragged clothing, stink because they don’t bathe, and respond more to their emotions than to their heads. Rubbish. –That we Mexicans don’t want to build our material wealth by work, but through “love”, which is very close to prostitution. –That the principle objective of the poor is to be rich. And the rich are only interested in looking for true and unselfish stuff.

Conclusion: the true heirs of the kingdom of God – perceived as a state of cool consciousness – are those who, although they may not be rich, are not anxious to be so. They are fighting for their ideals and do not expect external solutions. And if they are rich, then they want to do more than jealously guard their safe deposit boxes.

But let’s go back to reality. If the previous lines are a good summary of a virtual-reality of the Mexican mind, i.e., soap operas, with the following paragraphs we will penetrate the bowels of reality. Mexico City is like a centipede that cannot be frozen, all studies about it tend to fail, and any vision is a partial one.

In this city, there are people who have a Coke and a sweet roll for breakfast, or a tortilla with hot pepper and tap water, or maybe nothing at all. The launch of the NAFTA agreement was supposed to propel us into the first world, but actually sent us to the underworld. After 12 years, according to data from the World Bank, 8% of all Mexicans live on less than a dollar a day, and 24.3% on less than two dollars a day. That means that poverty levels are as they were in the 1960s.

At the same time, the third richest man in the world, Mister Carlos Slim, has amassed a fortune of 30 billion dollars, according to Forbes. He makes 17 million dollars a day, 700 thousand dollars an hour. The disproportion is incredible.

According to Rolando Cordera, a poverty specialist, in an optimistic scenario “with a 4.3% annual economic growth from 1997 to 2010, and a real 3% raise in salaries; poverty would only be reduced 10 percent”, and at least 33 million Mexicans would still be in some level of poverty by 2010. Many southern indigenous people are begging alienated drivers on our streets. Do we have to give them money only because they are indigenous, when many of them could work? Is having a car equal to being well-off?

This city that eats our brains, our morale, our spirit, a little bit every day, has made us egotistic monsters. The Chilango is a selfish fiend. Both the person who begs for a living (you can make around 200 pesos a day) and the grouch who hates being asked for money, are wrong.


Here is the first of two – Chilango flesh and capital blood – characters, who we mercilessly questioned until they revealed their secrets. We are talking about our rich kid, and let me tell you something: to begin with, he definitely doesn’t look like one of those soap opera well-offs. He’s just like anyone else; if it weren’t for his relative good looks, probably nobody would look at him twice on the mysterious, deep and chaotic streets of the city. He’s 5 foot, brown hair, light skin, with a three or four-day beard on his cheeks, worn-out pointed boots, jean jacket and pants; that’s it. His breakfast? Here our screenwriters would go wrong, nothing sophisticated; a measly sliced coconut with Valentina hot sauce in a plastic container and a soft drink. This means that his wealth does not imply being well-fed. Although he does recognize that one of his main aspirations in life is to “maintain his current status”. He told me so; but it’s obvious, why would he want to lose it?

He also wants to “be happy”. In his case, wealth and happiness go hand in hand; that’s why he wants to keep what he already has, and multiply it. His rubber flip-flop factory needs to grow and not stagnate. His name is Viken S. Ruiz and he’s a Chilango in his early 20s. He studied in a bilingual school and then at the Ibero University, which cost him around 50 thousand pesos a year.

On the other hand, our poor kid, Jesús Martínez Chavarría, in his late teens, was educated in public schools, specifically the José María Morelos #74 junior high school, where he wore a brown sweater, beige checkered pants and a white shirt. It was free.


When I spoke to Jesús about the article, he was sweeping the grocery store where he works. I told him that we would write about the contrasting story of a rich kid and a lower class one. After a while, he asked if he was the rich kid or the poor one in the article. This probably means that he doesn’t feel poor; and if we adhere to the positivistic way of thinking, “To be is to be perceived”, then Jesús is not a poor kid at all. And as he flunked a subject, he couldn’t finish high school and missed a year.

His mother told him: “If you want to have fun, you need to work”. So he got a job at the grocery store, where he arranges furniture for 8 hours a day and makes 600 pesos a week.

At 19, Viken got his first job in his father’s sandal warehouse in Tepito. “Once I brought my Chevy Cavalier and a guy told me to go to Ecuador Street, three blocks from Aztecas. At the garbage dump I saw a decapitated person. I thought to myself: “I cannot live here any longer. I paid the neighbors in the slum, five pesos a day to keep an eye on me. Now the Korean mafia took over; they have contacts in Asia and contraband”.

Viken used to earn 3,000 pesos a month; so we could have considered him a poor kid back then, but that is not the case. We should not be mistaken; measuring instruments for poverty are not as trustworthy as one would like them to be. For example, the National Statistics, Geography and Information Institute (INEGI) asks many strange things in their polls, such as how many light bulbs you have in your home, or whether you rent or own the house you live in, what type of floor, whether it’s made of earth, cement or something else.

Obviously, the amount of money you earn is important, but not in our rich kid’s case. Let’s cut the crap. Viken is currently working, and will inherit, together with his beautiful twin sister, a factory and several sandal warehouses that are worth 10 million dollars.

His clients are Wal-Mart and Chedraui. He used to spend 3,000 pesos a month on his ex-girlfriend, whom he dated for a tiresome 6 years. That’s more than the 2,400 pesos Jesús earns a month in his painstaking 8-hour-a-day job. By the way, Jesús could not be considered middle class in Mexico, because if he lived alone, he would have to rent a room in an over-populated neighborhood; in contrast, middle class citizens may not have their own house, but they do have a maid who washes their clothes and cleans for them.

Viken is of Armenian descent; as a result he likes System of a Down, but he did not take his ex-girlfriend to watch them on stage. He took her to eat at Non Solo Pasta in Polanco, to Le Bouchon, French meat, creme bruleé. Now, with no girlfriend, he invests around 4,000 pesos a month in overwhelming his liver with ethylic bubbles. He’s a beer guy, but he likes to save money. He used to go to the Bull Dog in Sullivan Park, where he hit the bottle at the open bar for only 200 pesos, or at Rioma where he used to spend 500.

Jesús’ mother told him to work so he could have fun, but does he have fun? Jesús has a girlfriend; he spends 50 pesos each time he visits her, but just on the fair.

–We don’t go anywhere. I visit her during working hours; she works in a stationary shop. She goes out for a moment and they neck. That’s it; there is no time or money for more. – We talk a lot –, he says. – Meaning, not much –, I say – just necking; no real action. He laughs. He is skinny and his green eyes are like marbles; his hairstyle, new and fashionable clothes contradict the bloody soap opera screenwriters. He’s a poor kid, but that doesn’t upset him at all. He feels great. Even better than before, while Viken sells thousands of sandals to Wal-Mart, Jesús worked in Bodega Aurrera in Apatlaco and Churubusco, where he packed groceries and made between 30 and 50 pesos a day. Then, since he had no insurance, no paid vacations, no steady salary, he started washing cars on Miramontes Avenue, where he got 10 pesos plus tips for each car. When they remodeled the joint he left and didn’t go back since it was too far off. He lives in the Juventino Rosas neighborhood, Iztacalco district, in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and little sister, who sleep with him in the same room and bunk bed.

Viken’s lives in Pedregal de San Ángel – one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. The house has four parking spaces, four bedrooms, a billiard room, a garden, 800 square meters of land, and the house is 700 square meters on a single floor. In his spare time Viken plays golf. Jesús, on the other hand, devours green sauce enchiladas and puts up posters of Vince Carter, listens to salsa music and went to Cancun to visit his father, who lives there and works as a cable TV installer. His father doesn’t send any money. His mother is a hairdresser and charges 25 pesos, although sometimes she has no clients, and she doesn’t have a credit card. Viken does though, one with 100,000 pesos of credit and two with 20,000 each. He drives a Trail Blazer worth 300,000 pesos. Jesús has never owned a car. The apartment he lives in is his mother’s; she inherited it from her grandfather, who got it for supporting the PRI for years. Viken’s father drives a BMW 325. Viken has traveled to Japan, Europe and the US, and has a house in San Diego. He buys Diesel Jeans and Ben Sherman shirts. Jesús buys his clothes from the street venders outside Pino Suárez subway station, such as Panto Negro who sells Ben Davis and 50-peso shirts. Jesús doesn’t know anybody who is really poor, although the “richest” person he knows is his friend, who has a Mercury Cougar and gets lots of MP3’s and has a Playstation.

His family is the most important thing for him. “I have never felt very sad…or very happy either”, he reflects. – Who is rich? I ask Viken. – Someone who owns a BMW and a business worth half a million dollars. And a poor person is someone who begs on the street and earns less than 3,000 pesos a month.

Viken smiles; in 10 years he sees himself married with a child, and happy. “Being happy is not enough?”, he says as a conclusion. What does Jesús expect of the future? – I want to go to college. After that, I don’t know. – I ask him: “If you were rich, what would you do today?” – I would buy a car. A Jetta ’95. – Why such an old car? – It’s the one I like; and a house in Cuernavaca. I would buy houses and rent them. – What is the best way of making money?, I ask. – To work – he doubts for a moment, then he opens his mouth again and says something sincere: The fastest way would be drug trafficking. If I were in a tight spot I would try it. – You could go to jail for 10 years – I argue. – “That is if they catch me! I would only do it until I get over my troubles. You need to know who to work with. My friends sell coke and marihuana… This chapter from real life – if there is such a thing in this city – closes with a strange disjunctive: “coke and pot”, an idea as basic as it is explosive, an instant passport to very unlikely wealth. There’s no such thing as good “peddling.” Jail, as hard as it is, is the least of all: you could end up getting killed. And on the other side, Viken carries the burden of inheriting a compromising kingdom, and he complains. He must duck from possible kidnappings. ?He´s a slave of his golden destiny and his father´s demands are sharp. He can smile at the end of the day, though. He´s gotta make some sacrifices to feed the corporate monster; others suffer as well but without a nickel. (MEXICO CITY MONTHLY)

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