First published in The London Observer/Guardian Foreign News Service Jan. 17, 2000
Anita Brown (my beautiful bride these twenty-two years) met a lady from Littleton, Colorado, on the way to downtown Cancun this morning. “Her daughter had the face of an angel,” she told me. “You think of someone like that lying in a pool of blood in a schoolyard and you realize what we have here.”
Until we came to Cancun, we were migrant media workers. Writing a book called The Real Mexico, we wandered remote beaches and explored old churches — Yelapa, Cabo San Lucas, Oaxaca. In 1983, while I was painting signs and selling our photographic postcards in Puerto Escondido, we were invited to come to Cancun by the Mexican government to promote the resort. This lasted several hours, and we went back to free-lance media work, but our wandering was over. Sixteen years later, here we are.
Cancun was founded in roadless jungle in 1971 with a $27 million loan from the Bank for International Development arranged by Banco de México, which promoted the creation of tourism resorts as a means of earning foreign exchange. The island then had only three inhabitants, and there were only 117 living on the nearby mainland, to which it is now connected by causeways. Cancun today has a permanent population of almost 500,000 and serves 2.3 million tourists a year. It accounts for 25% of all Mexican tourism revenues.
Every day ten new families arrive in Cancun. There is no unemployment except for people who arrived yesterday and are still being fitted out with uniforms. Everyone seems to wear uniforms, especially the ubiquitous freshly starched school children unconsciously posing for Tina Modotti photographs symbolizing Education. Since tourism is one of Mexico’s top three industries, rivaling oil exports and automobile manufacturing, Pres. Ernesto Zedillo, an avid SCUBA diver, personally inspects coral reef damage. On breaking the surface, he issues edicts and entire marinas are closed down.
But a ring of tarpaper shacks ominously surrounds the carefully planned inner core. “We are becoming another Acapulco,” civic leaders warn authorities. Garbage collection is inept. The state police are so corrupt that they’ve been linked to two armored car robberies. Legal and illegal prostitution alike appear to be well-protected by the forces of law and order. Although it has the highest cost of living in Mexico, Cancun is in the lowest minimum wage zone.
Some of the richest folks in Cancun lived in tarpaper shacks, however, when they arrived here. We ourselves lived for eight months without electricity in a half-finished palm-thatched bungalow in neighboring Puerto Morelos, drawing our water by the bucket from a faucet at the curb, cooking all our meals on a campfire. For newcomers, doing without basic services is not the poverty of despair but the sacrifice of being a pioneer. Even affluent immigrants are fleeing the smog, crime and desperate overcrowding of urban disaster zones such as Mexico City.
According to Más Marketing, forty-eight percent of all households own automobiles (compared with only eighteen per cent in nearby Playa del Carmen). Home ownership is about seventy percent. Violent crime mostly consists of acts of passion, drunken brawls and an occasional liquor store stick-up. The area is booming by all the usual measures of prosperity, except infant mortality.
Infant mortality is one of the few generally accepted infallible indicators of social progress. The United Kingdom, ranked thirteenth in the world, has 5.7 infant deaths per thousand live births. Cancun, at 20.9, is well below the Mexican national average of 24.62, but uncomfortably higher than the 17.5 of the northern part of the state, which also includes Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and two other municipalities. All are less prosperous than Cancun but have much lower infant mortality rates.
“It’s an effect of progress,” explained Dr. Homero León, Director of Health Jurisdiction Number 2, which includes more than half the state population. “We have too many childhood deaths from automobile accidents. It’s a transient society. The suicide rate really worries me. Young mothers are isolated from their families. We have families with both parents working two shifts. Everything is moving too fast. All of this affects the maternal relationship.”
Dr. León, like other public officials, feels the Federal government has to send more money back to Cancun to provide the infrastructure promised in the original master plans. At the beginning, they built housing as they built hotels. Today, Cancun is falling far behind on all public services.
“Traffic lights and driver education would produce an immediate improvement in childhood mortality,” said Dr. León. “Surely an area that produces 35% of Mexico’s tourism foreign exchange can afford basic urban services.”
Sometimes we see a slight pall of smog hanging over downtown Cancun. Like the infant mortality rate, it’s a cost of progress. Anita says, “Children used to be number one in Mexico. If we lose that, we lose everything.”