Feb 20, 2005, 6:38 AM
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Wal-Mart eyes possibilities in Mexican 'magic town'
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Feb. 19, 2005, 10:22PM
Wal-Mart eyes another tourist locale
Giant has bought land in Mexican 'magic town'
By JEREMY SCHWARTZ
Cox News Service
PATZCUARO, MEXICO - Long before the Spanish arrived, the Purepecha Indians considered this place to be a doorway to heaven, a portal through which the gods descended to earth.
Today, Patzcuaro is one of Mexico's most important domestic tourist destinations, a so-called magic town that lures thousands of visitors with its charming cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and a picturesque lake high in the green mountains of Michoacan.
But over the last month, this pueblo of 66,000 people has become something else entirely: the latest battleground in the Wal-Mart wars.
Just weeks after opening a store at a highly controversial location near the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan, the retailing giant has set its sights on Patzcuaro, unleashing a torrent of worry and anticipation in this sleepy hamlet a five-hour drive from Mexico City.
For now, Wal-Mart officials in Mexico say they are only studying the feasibility of a Patzcuaro location.
But Chamber of Commerce officials in Patzcuaro say the Arkansas-based company has already bought land at the entrance to town, as has been widely reported in the Mexican press, and rumors are flying in Patzcuaro that Wal-Mart is in the process of getting the municipal permits it needs to build. With 695 stores under various names, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in Mexico.
A group of merchants and community leaders has formed a group to oppose the project and pressure municipal and state officials, who they complain so far have made only vague statements supporting Patzcuaro's cultural tradition. The coalition also plans on linking with the National Front Against Wal-Mart, a Mexico-wide organization formed in January.
The group fears that the presence of the mega-retailer will destroy local businesses, causing increased emigration to the United States, and open the door to more chain stores and the big-box blight of U.S. cities.
"When Wal-Mart arrives, the identity disappears," said Escarcega Viveros Juan David, owner of a school supply and toy store in the city's historic center.
David's store is one of hundreds interspersed among hotels and sidewalk cafes in what were once colonial mansions in Patzcuaro's downtown. Much like Santa Fe, N.M., local law here dictates the appearance of downtown businesses, even regulating the size and color of storefront signs.
Elvira Rodriguez, a Patzcuaro journalist with the weekly Punto y Aparte, fears Wal-Mart will put mom and pop shops out of business and ship their earnings to the United States.
"Money comes into Patzcuaro from remittances (from immigrants working in the United States), but it goes right back with Wal-Mart," she said.
In 2002, Patzcuaro joined a list of 17 Mexican pueblos dubbed "magic towns" by the government, in a program designed to promote tourism and preservation. Beyond its colonial center and lakeside attractions, Patzcuaro is famous for its Night of the Dead celebrations, which draw thousands of sightseers to the dance, music and traditional altars of the Purepecha Indians.
Gerry Lewis, a Boston-area psychologist vacationing in Patzcuaro with his wife, said he worries that the introduction of Wal-Mart could mean the beginning of an unwelcome transformation.
"I think that it will ruin this city," said Lewis, relaxing with a book in the town's zócalo, or main square, widely considered to be one of the prettiest in Mexico. "I think people come to Mexico to get away from Wal-Mart and the big stores. You come here for this — the little shops."
But not everyone is dreading the arrival of Wal-Mart.
Alejandro Vasquez Cardenas, a columnist in the daily Cambio de Michoacan, says the opposition is led by a loud, self-interested minority and points out that the proposed site is removed from the town's historic center and near several less-than-flattering existing businesses.
Just south of Patzcuaro's main square is an outdoor market, itself a virtual Wal-Mart, where shoppers can find everything from avocados and mangoes to extension cords and pirated DVDs.
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"He upon whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain will find no peace in any other land." Malcolm Lowry