SANTIAGO - Enrique Peña Nieto hasn’t stopped moving. Since he took over as president of Mexico, two weeks ago, he has signed enough documents and made enough promises to keep his government busy for the whole six years they have in front of them.
In his inaugural address, he laid out a 13-point plan with 13 promises to catapult Mexico into the future. Two days later he joined Mexico’s other major political parties in signing the “Pact for Mexico,” in which all of the signees agree on a 95-point action plan.
And those 95 points are not minor. The include opening the petroleum industry to the private sector and ending the state monopoly, creating universal social security and unemployment insurance, a system for evaluating teachers to improve education, providing every student in the school system with a computer, defending human rights and the rights of immigrants as well as the right to broadband internet access and the licensing of two new television channels to compete with Televisa and TV Azteca.
If he only manages to get half of the things on the list done, Peña Nieto will be the best president in Mexico’s history.
And the winds are blowing in his direction. After five years of bad news - the worst recession on the continent after the financial crisis of 2008 and a serious increase in violence from drug cartels that has left nearly 60,000 people dead - now Mexico is improving on all fronts.
Its economy grew by 5.5% in 2010, the highest growth rate seen in ten years. Mexico even exceeded Brazil’s growth rate in 2011, with 4.5% growth. This year, with a 4% growth rate, Mexico’s growth is twice that of Brazil. If growth continues at these rates, the Mexican economy could surpass the Brazilian economy by the end of the decade.
After signing the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada in 1994, Mexico turned into a factory for manufactured goods destined for the U.S. and Canada. Now it is a factory for the whole world. Today, Nissan is spending $2 billion to build a car factory in Aguascalientes and Audi is spending $1.3 billion on a car factory in Puebla. There are more engineers graduating annually in Mexico than in Germany, and the country is diversifying. It now has free trade agreements with 44 countries and it is the country with the most free trade agreements in the world.
This open policy suffered a setback in the last decade, when China started making everything for everyone, paying the lowest salaries on earth. But now the salaries in China are rising, and the minimum wage in Shanghai is higher than the minimum wage in Mexico.
The promise of a real democracy
There is good news on other fronts, too. The country’s high rate of population growth has slowed down, to the point where it will soon be lower than the United States. And emigration to the U.S. from Mexico has nearly completely stopped.
Even if the drug violence continues – and it isn’t caused by factors in Mexico, but by the American anti-drug policies – the truth is that in 2012 the number of homicides dropped for the first time in five years.
Increasing police forces and reinforcing community actions has started to have an impact in the areas most affected by the drug violence, but more is needed. The new president has promised to send 40,000 soldiers to the police and to increase the amount spent on security from about 1.5% of the GDP to 5% of the GDP.
Peña Nieto is also bringing the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) back to power, the same party that governed the country from 1929 to 2000 using corruption and electoral fraud to the point that Mexico became known as “the perfect dictatorship.”
The new president has promised a real democracy, and his Pact for Mexico shows that he is looking for alliances with the opposition to implement his proposals. And he will really need the opposition: The PRI did not get a majority in either the Senate for the House in the past election, and several of the 95 points on the action plan will require constitutional reform -- which requires two thirds of the votes in both chambers of the legislature.
One other thing that he should do, although it was not one of the things he promised, is to get closer to Latin America – to build economic ties with the south and to take advantage of the commercial opportunities in all of the countries in the region, in addition to reaching out to the governments.
So far, Peña Nieto has been doing well, creating good will and confidence both in Mexico and abroad. Now we just have to hope that he does manage to do half of the things on his list. And becomes the best president in Mexican history.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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