As a free trade zone and Latin America’s most popular destination, Cancún, Mexico, is more than just a tourist town. Maya migrants make up more than a third of the city’s population. In A Return to Servitude (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), M. Bianet Castellanos presents an ethnography of Maya migration within Mexico that analyzes the foundational role Indigenous peoples play in the development of the modern nation-state. Today on our blog, she discusses how Cancún’s popularity impacts Indigenous communities.
The Transnational Reach of Tourism and Its Affect on Maya Communities
By M. Bianet Castellanos
How does Cancún’s popularity among tourists impact Indigenous communities?
With more than 3 million visitors annually, Cancún is one of Latin America’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists are drawn to Cancún not only because of its beautiful beaches and warm climate, but also by the ancient remnants of Maya culture. Although tourist visits are brief (typically no longer than a week), they leave a deep impression on the Indigenous communities surrounding Cancún. By their sheer numbers, these visits translate into service jobs, many of which are occupied by Maya migrants who make up approximately a third of Cancún’s population. Indigenous workers interact with tourists in hotels, on the street, and in airports. These encounters produce ideological shifts that transform local cultural practices. I offer two examples here.
First, to capture tourist dollars, rural communities have altered traditional gender roles in which men migrated in search of work and women remained at home. Prior to 1991, only two women left Kuchmil (a pseudonym for a rural Maya village studied in A Return to Servitude) to work as domestic servants in private homes because unmarried women who worked outside the home placed their reputations at risk. Today, the stigma once associated with migration has disappeared. To fill the demand for Indigenous domestic servants, unmarried Maya women migrate to Cancún in almost equal numbers to that of men. Their earnings have granted these young women a greater decision-making role in the household and this earning potential has convinced them to postpone marriage for a few years. Twenty years ago, women were married by the age of twenty-five. Otherwise, they were considered old maids.
Second, ideas of leisure in rural communities that previously centered on spending time with family and attending religious festivals have been expanded to include local tourist consumption. Modeling themselves after the trope of the universal tourist (as sightseer and always at play) portrayed on television programs and visible in Cancún, Indigenous migrants spend their leisure time visiting national tourist sites like Chichén Itzá in Yucatán and the Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas. Car ownership, a recent phenomenon, has made this type of leisure possible and affordable. Families also join group tours organized by their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues to places like Mexico City. But travel is not just confined to road trips. One young couple took a vacation without their children—a practice that is practically unheard of in village life—to visit the city of Puebla. They happily recounted their experience flying for the first time and shared photographs with friends and neighbors of the tourist sites they visited. Not surprisingly, they relied on the same practices (e.g. visiting historical sites, traveling on a guided tour bus, staying at hotels), and technologies (e.g. cameras and video cameras) to “consume” tourist places. For many Maya migrants, this type of leisure is associated with modernity and marks their transformation from peasant to cosmopolitan citizen. However, this type of leisure was not available to most migrants, given their tenuous economic circumstances.
How do threats to Cancun’s tourism industry — such Mexico’s drug war and last year’s swine flu scare — impact these rural communities?
Cancún depends on the labor of the rural indigenous communities. Conversely, after land redistribution ended with the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and as agricultural production has declined, rural communities have also come to depend on tourism. This interdependence has been highlighted over the past few years as Cancún has faced hurricanes, a flu pandemic, a global economic recession, and the drug war’s escalating violence. After Hurricane Wilma devastated the city in 2005 (more than two-thirds of the hotels were shut down), many indigenous migrants lost their jobs or took a pay reduction. Hotel and restaurant workers depend on tips from tourists to supplement their minimum wage salaries. Tips can double and sometimes triple monthly salaries. Migrants’ reduced income had repercussions for the countryside because they could no longer send remittances to their rural families. It took migrant families approximately one year to recover economically from this disaster, only to then face another drastic reduction in tourism beginning in April 2009 when the swine flu pandemic broke out in Mexico City.
Few cases of swine flu were documented in Cancún, but the panic that ensued kept tourists away. Since the pandemic occurred during the low tourist season, Cancún’s economy could have recovered quickly with the onset of the high tourist season in December. Hotel workers put aside funds to get them through the low season. Then within months, the global economic recession followed. Tourists stayed away because they could not afford or were afraid to spend money on a vacation. Mexico lost over $2 billion in tourist income in 2009. It was an especially difficult year for Cancún’s Maya workers. Like everyone else, they were dealing with the fall out of the banking crisis, but given their already marginalized economic existence, the lack of tourism left many people unemployed and with few options to find work. They quickly depleted their savings before the end of the year. Many returned home to their rural communities to seek financial help or eke out a living on farm work.
Further compounding these problems is Mexico’s escalating drug war. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have died as a result of drug-related violence. According to the media, Cancún remained untouched by this violence until recently. On August 31, 2010, a local bar in Cancún was bombed, leaving eight people dead in what investigators have said is a drug-related attack. In spite of international media coverage of this incident, tourism has not declined and is showing signs of recovering from the flu pandemic and economic recession. Although the drug violence has tempered tourism to other parts of Mexico, Cancún has been spared because the bar attack occurred in a working-class neighborhood located far from the tourist zone. Given the Mexican government’s and transnational corporations’ dedicated efforts to police people’s movements in and out of tourist zones, urban violence usually takes place beyond tourist zones, making local residents, not tourists, its targets. Tourism, in spite of its seasonal flows and vulnerability to economic and natural disasters, remains central to the Mexican government’s plans for economic recovery. For example, after Hurricane Wilma, the Mexican government stepped in immediately to provide aid and help businesses re-open within six months. This is a good thing for indigenous communities because it means that tourist centers like Cancún (and the jobs they provide, even if they are minimum wage jobs) will continue to be bolstered during tough economic times by government funding.
M. Bianet Castellanos is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota. She will discuss her book A Return to Servitude: Maya Migration and the Tourist Trade in Cancun on Tuesday, November 30 at 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.
This post is also available on the University of Minnesota Press blog here.