Mexican middle class rising

By Erika Wurst

Gabriela del Hoyo stands in the tree-lined street outside her home holding her 2-year old son Rodrigo by the hand.

She's keeping an eye on Rodrigo's big brother, Eugenio, 5, who is peddling away from her as fast as he can on his pint-sized, black and red Mongoose bike.

A red Chevy truck comes coasting by and a pregnant Gabriela hollers at her son to get out of the way. The man in the truck gives the family a friendly wave as he passes, and Eugenio takes off racing after him.

"Every afternoon the kids go out in the street and play with their bikes," says Gloria del Hoyo, Gabriela's sister-in-law, who lives next door. "The mothers and dads just sit down on the sidewalk and play with the children."

This is the neighborhood that Gloria grew up in and where she still lives; a neighborhood framed by rose bushes and long, neat driveways displaying a Dodge Stratus here, a Chrysler Town and Country car there.

It is a neighborhood that could be found anywhere in the United States, but this one happens to be located in Mexico, a country better known for poverty than suburban middle-class subdivisions.

Compared to the United States, Mexico's middle class is small. But it is growing, especially in Monterrey, one of Mexico's most Americanized cities, located in Nuevo Leon, a Mexican state bordering Texas.

Because more than 50 percent of Nuevo Leon's businesses reside in Monterrey, nearly 85 percent of the state's population chooses to reside there as well. Filled with bustling malls and shopping plazas, car dealerships and factories, McDonalds and Applebees, the thriving industrial city has been coined the "Pittsburgh of Mexico."

Though Nuevo Leon is home to just 4 percent of Mexico's population, a whopping 9.4 percent of Mexico's manufactured products are produced there--generating 8.6 percent of Mexico's gross national product. In 2000 alone, Nuevo Leon attracted 18.4 percent of Mexico's foreign direct investment.

Alejandro Gomez, director of foreign investment for the state of Nuevo Leon, credits the unusual rise of a hearty middle class in Monterrey to nothing less than globalization.

As companies like Coca-Cola and Femsa have arrived in Monterrey, so have jobs, Gomez said.

"The economic spillage has fostered a fairly large middle class," said Lic. Javier Bolanos Cacho Martinez, coordinator de cadenzas Productivas for the state.

The existence of a middle class is still unusual in Mexico, where most people tend to be either rich or poor. The wealthiest 10 percent of income earners earned 40 percent of the national income and the poorest 10 percent earned a mere 1.1 percent

Overall, Mexico is still an extremely poor country. As of 2003, poverty levels in Mexico were almost quadruple those in the United States; some 40 percent of those living in Mexico live below the poverty line. In the United States, the population of people living below the poverty line is just 12 percent.

But what is happening in Del Hoyo's neighborhood and others like it all around Monterrey and other large Mexican cities could change those numbers - and with them, the face of Mexico.


"Medium-class" values

The sound of cartoons echoes throughout the del Hoyo house, thanks to the surround- sound speakers for the oversized Sony TV.

DVDs of Shrek, Toy Story and other Disney classics are perched on a wooden shelf next to portraits of the two young boys, dressed in matching blue and white striped shirts and overalls.

Everything in the house, from the leather couch and faux Van Gough paintings to the matching candles on the matching coffee tables, evokes the middle class.

Like most middle-class Americans, Gloria views her family as being comfortable, but far from rich.

"We think we are the medium class," she says. The family values simple things, "like a bike, like a boat, summer in the swimming pool," she continues, as she watches Eugenio play in the dirt with his yellow truck. Rodrigo sits timidly next to Gloria on his mom's lap.

"They wear normal clothes," Gloria says. Today, it's brightly colored striped shirts, long shorts and high-top sneakers for the two boys. "Sometimes we go to rich stores, but not every day.

"It's not important if we travel a lot. We care about education and values, if we are together as a family. That kind of thing."

With another boy on the way in just a few weeks, her sister-in-law, Gabriela, stays at home with the children while her husband, Gloria's brother who earned his masters from Stanford University in California, heads off to work in telecommunications at Cemex, a leading global producer of cement founded almost 100 years ago in Mexico.

Not all Cemex workers are as well off.

"In Cemex, there are people with very less income," Gabriela says quietly. "People that live in little houses, that only have money to eat every day."

While the del Hoyo's appreciate what they have, they are quick to make it clear that they are not a rich Mexican family. Just as a thriving middle-class has sprouted in Monterrey, so has a large upper class, full of business executives and the larger-than-life rich.

"There is a big difference between San Pedro and here," Gloria says, still lounging in the backyard of her brother's home, where the sun has begun to set.


Bienvenidos a San Pedro

Just blocks from the del Hoyo home, BMWs and silver Audis replace soccer mom mini-vans. It's as if a line has been drawn between Monterrey and its neighboring town, San Pedro.

It's as big as the difference between Nike and Armani.

Dream houses take up entire block of property and couples jog at dusk through immaculately maintained parks.

Bridges look like works of architectural art and giant stone fountains rise up out of the streets.

It's the kind of place where you can't get into a club without the right "look," much like in Los Angeles or New York.

"It's very elitist," one 20-year old Monterrey resident says with a tinge of anger.  

"When I go to a club with my friends, the man standing in front of the door says, 'You, you, you -- enter. You -- no.'"

In some ways, Monterrey residents seem obsessed with upscale San Pedro and its residents.

They drive slowly through the neighborhoods, as if admiring elaborate Christmas displays.

They pass on rumors of a woman who lives so high up on a mountain that she must take a helicopter to get to her home. Just knowing someone who lives in San Pedro garners automatic bragging rights.

Movie theatres in San Pedro are labeled VIP, serving dinner and alcohol instead of buttery popcorn and Coke, and giant shopping malls take hours to cruise through.

But these luxuries are enjoyed by few.

Back in middle-class Monterrey, the del Hoyo family is enjoying the simpler things in life.

Rodrigo and Eugenio have worn themselves out playing in the back yard. The two sip from apple juice boxes while they put together a Lego airplane in front of the TV.

Gabriela shows off her cluttered fridge, decorated with magnets she's collected from her travels, places she's been fortunate enough to visit -- Los Angeles, Switzerland, Australia, Cancun.

"When you have money," Gloria says, "you have a different way of life."

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©Crossing Borders
December 8, 2004