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Ancient ruins' new neighbor: Wal-Mart

By ELIZA BARCLAY, UPI Correspondent   |   Oct. 8, 2004 at 7:12 PM   |   Comments

SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACáN, Mexico, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- The hopes of some local residents of this small town, which lies in the shadow of the great, mysterious ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacán, were dashed this week when international historic conservation officials gave the green light to Wal-Mart to build a store within a mile from the ruins.

Though the community of San Juan Teotihuacán remained split over whether a new branch of the Wal-Mart subsidiary Bodega Aurrera should be permitted to continue construction even after a small pre-Hispanic altar was found embedded in the ground at the construction site, the local government of the state of Mexico ruled Wednesday, with the blessing of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, that the store's construction would not cause any damage to the ruins.

"The project in question does not damage the conservation of archaeological remains, or the integrity, environmental or cultural values of the archaeological zone," ICOMOS's Mexico chapter's report said.

Teotihuacán is one of the largest archeological sites in the Americas and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Archeologists say it was built by a Mesoamerican people (whose identity is still unknown) between 100 B.C. and 250 A.D., long before the Aztecs built their great city of Tenochtitlan where Mexico City is now located, 31 miles southwest of the ruins. It was the Aztecs who venerably coined Teotihuacán's name, which means "The Place Where Men Become Gods."

Despite San Juan Teotihuacán's proximity of one mile to the ancient city, it is a town where some crave the modernity that a Bodega Aurrera would presumably supply. On the lightweight metal wall that surrounds the construction site, a banner hangs, reading, "The inhabitants and consumers of the Valley of Teotihuacán completely support the Wal-Mart. Yes -- better quality, better treatment and better prices. No to the opponents."

The store's opponents, who also belong to a vital local faction, have vociferously asserted that the Wal-Mart would put local family-owned enterprises out of business and permanently alter the community's culture that dates back centuries. Throughout the summer, opponents staged protests, and in early August, protestors tried to occupy the site and shut down construction.

Beyond the demonstrations, the store's adversaries also filed criminal and civil complaints against authorities, contending that the project's approval was illegal.

Amanda, who asked that her last name not be used, works in a pharmacy a block and a half from the Bodega Aurrera site. In her 40s, Amanda was among the protestors to come out clearly against the store.

"There is no way small commercial enterprises like mine can compete against Wal-Mart, a store with all kinds of services," Amanda said. "We will not be able to sustain ourselves; it is going to be a critical situation for us."

Amanda noted, however, that the majority of San Juan Teotihuacán's populace was in favor of the store.

"They say it will be beneficial for the town, and the young people say it will provide them with jobs," she said. "Of course, it is an OK place for a young person to work because the wages are low, but not for someone like me."

While much of the town has been wrapped up in the store's implications for local economics, the potential impact on the archeological site has been less well examined, though one fear local activists brought to the table was the store's intrusion on the view from the Pyramid of the Sun, one of the largest pyramids in the world at a height of 230 feet.

In ICOMOS's report to Wal-Mart, it did recommend that Wal-Mart apply non-reflective roofing materials, perimeter walls and trees to the site to reduce it as an eyesore in the view from the pyramid's summit. But the report did not specify whether the company would be permitted to put up the trademark Bodega Aurrera sign -- a boastful, green indicator of the store's ubiquity that flaunts itself on the horizon of many other neighboring towns where Bodega Aurerras are planted.

The discovery of the pre-Hispanic alter buried at the site also did not concern ICOMOS or the state officials. It was deemed a piece of stonework that did not warrant the project's aversion.

Teotihuacán has long been revered internationally as a place of majestic historical and cultural value. It earned a place on the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage List in 1987, but then was also relegated to the World Monument Fund's list of 100 most endangered monuments in 1998, where it remains.

The WMF says that efforts to improve Teotihuacán's Temple of Quetzalcoatl's, "environmental conditions and undertake necessary conservation have been thwarted by lack of funds."

According to the Mass.-based Sprawl Busters, a non-profit called "Wal-Mart's No. 1 enemy" by Forbes Magazine, Wal-Mart's involvement in a historically sensitive area like Teotihuacán is not a singular instance. Wal-Mart is also in the midst of a controversy over skeletal remains that were dug up at a historic site in downtown Honolulu, which angered Hawaii natives.

Though the Teotihuacán controversy appears to be dissipating somewhat now that Wal-Mart has received a second and third go-ahead, some community members like Amanda see the issue as one of very large proportions.

"This project is a threat to all Mexicans," Amanda said. "Our town is small without much power, and this could happen again and again to other towns."

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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