MEXICO CITY — The vast Oasis mall, situated in the cobblestoned neighborhood where the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés once lived and where Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits, is an unheralded symbol of Mexico in the era of NAFTA.
Two decades after the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the consumer floodgates here, Mexicans have become accustomed to such luxurious shopping centers, where you can browse Williams-Sonoma crockery, try on Steve Madden shoes, eat at Olive Garden, take your kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s, and watch “War for the Planet of the Apes” on the big screen.
The revolution in shopping options has become so ingrained that many Mexicans recall with haziness the pre-NAFTA days of limited brand choices, domestic knockoffs and black-market scrounging. In such cultural ways, the NAFTA years have brought Mexico and the United States far closer together, a cross-border blending of behaviors that even a clampdown on trade is unlikely to undo.
NAFTA renegotiation talks began Aug. 16 in Washington, on the same day that the NFL sold out tickets in under an hour for an upcoming football game in Mexico City. These first sessions wrapped up four days later, just before a Hollywood movie crew began to film “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in Mexico City’s central plaza.
On Sunday, President Trump once again blasted NAFTA, tweeting that it was the “worst trade deal ever made.” He blames the treaty for the $60 million annual U.S. trade deficit with its southern neighbor and a loss of industrial jobs. But in Mexico, NAFTA represents something more profound. In conversations here, free trade is often a stand-in for what kind of relationship Mexico wants with the United States, and what type of country Mexico wants to be.
“NAFTA broke the barriers that limited our society from going out into the world,” said Sergio Aguayo, a prominent political commentator and academic at the College of Mexico. “In a spontaneous way, it began to hybridize cultures, from Mexico to the United States and from the United States to Mexico.”
That cultural mixing — and the job gains that have come to some sectors with freer trade — have made NAFTA more popular in Mexico than north of the border. A Pew Research survey published in May found that 60 percent of Mexicans polled believed NAFTA had benefited the country, compared with just 39 percent of Americans.
Analysts attribute Mexico’s positive feelings to NAFTA’s role in opening what had been for decades a closed economy. The agreement ushered in a flood of U.S. consumer goods and retailers such as Walmart — now Mexico’s largest employer — and chains such as Starbucks, which has opened outlets in all 32 states and sells drinks costing more than the daily minimum wage of $4.50 per day.
All the big box stores that populate the American landscape — Costco, Target, Home Depot, Office Depot, Best Buy — also fly their flags in Mexican cities.
“Mexico, in consumer terms, has always loved the United States,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos. “The definite proof that this country loves America is that IHOP opened its first outlet on Palmas,” one of Mexico City’s swankiest streets — and near the offices of the country’s richest man, Carlos Slim.
Mexican government and business leaders are zealous advocates of free trade and lower tariffs, even though that wasn’t the case for much of the past century. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which came to power in 1929, eventually embraced a protectionist model that kept out foreign competitors and subsidized domestic industries — a strategy intended to keep the powerful United States from bleeding the Mexican economy dry.
One result of this strategy was that product selection was scant, with items often of poor quality and sold at high prices. Mexicans who could afford to often traveled to Texas and other border states to shop or found contraband known as “fayuca” at home — everything from imported Snickers bars to Levi’s jeans to stereo systems.
“The variety, quality and the prices” are all better now, said Luis de la Calle, an economist and one of the original NAFTA negotiators. “Previously, Mexican companies wanted to sell what they decided to produce. Now they produce what sells. It’s a psychological and cultural change, thanks to NAFTA.”
Some of the artifacts of pre-NAFTA Mexico can be found in the Museum of Ancient Mexican Toys, a four-story time capsule in Mexico City that has preserved an era when model trains and buses, “lucha libre” plastic wrestling dolls and hand-crank music boxes were manufactured in Mexico.
The owner, Roberto Shimizu, opposed the free-trade agreement when it was negotiated, and he was far from the only one. The Zapatista guerrilla group launched its armed rebellion on Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect.
Shimizu’s Japanese immigrant father had opened a toy and stationary shop in 1940 and later ran a toy company. His factory closed down like so many others in Mexico when faced with the onslaught of cheaper toys from the United States and China.
Over the years, Shimizu collected what he called “common toys for common people,” eventually filling warehouses with Mexican-made products. He said he opened the museum “to show my kids the value of these Mexican toys and the industry history.”
“Mexico lost all this manufacturing, and it never will be recovered,” he added.
Guadalupe Loaeza, a 71-year-old columnist, said Mexican consumers have morphed over her lifetime into something almost foreign to her.
At dinner parties, she said, her friends serve imported steaks; when she goes to restaurants it might be for sushi, hamburgers, Argentine beef, Spanish tapas, Italian pastas. Mexican food, she said, is “not the first option.”
“The world has become more open to us, and it’s made us voracious, greedy for everything, insatiable,” Loaeza said. “So many excesses have contaminated us as a society; we have lost our essence, our equilibrium.”
The degree to which NAFTA has transformed Mexico or “Americanized” the country remains disputed. The Mexican government promoted the agreement in the early 1990s with the heady promise of making Mexico “First World.” But the economy has expanded at a middling pace of roughly 2.6 percent annually.
Some states have boomed, including those benefiting from tourism, such as Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur (home to Cancún and Los Cabos, respectively) and the central-west region known as the “Bajío,” where auto and manufacturing investments flooded in. However, almost half the population still lives in poverty, according to government statistics, while average purchasing power has eroded in recent years.
Unlike during the first negotiations, no strong anti-NAFTA lobby has surfaced in Mexico recently. Protesters, including farmers and union members, did march on the day that NAFTA talks began, and some prominent politicians say they want to pull out of the treaty before Trump can blow it up. But the opposition does not appear large enough to influence Mexico’s bargaining position. Even leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador — whose lead in the polls spooks political and business elites — hasn’t forcefully attacked the treaty.
The lack of widespread opposition in part comes from the weakness of unions and farm groups. Analysts cite additional factors, including Mexicans’ appreciation of the wider selection of goods and services available. After Trump’s inauguration, an attempt at ginning up a boycott of Starbucks and other American companies fell flat.
Lawmakers have also kept any anti-NAFTA rhetoric in check, a reflection of the country’s cautious political culture and a recognition that Mexico depends on foreign direct investment, said Juan Fernando Ibarra, a Mexico native and assistant professor of political science at Colgate University.
Ibarra also points to the boom in the Bajío region, where annual GDP growth in some states has topped 10 percent a year.
“Growth in the country has, on the whole, been somewhat poor,” he said. “But there is a nucleus of states that really benefited.”
Along with growing trade, American trends have taken hold in Mexico.
“Brisket is now in the vernacular,” said Dan DeFossey, a Long Island native and co-founder of Pinche Gringo BBQ, one of at least 14 barbecue joints in Mexico City. (Pinche translates as “damned,” or worse.)
DeFossey started selling brisket from an Airstream trailer parked in a vacant lot in 2013, later started a restaurant and recently opened a second 410-seat outlet.
A poll for El Financiero newspaper found 88 percent of Mexicans surveyed disapproved of Trump — with just 3 percent expressing approval. But DeFossey says the anger toward Trump hasn’t surfaced in his barbecue business.
“The day after the election I was terrified, because of our name, Pinche Gringo,” DeFossey said. “Not one time has anyone said anything about us or given us bad comments.
“It’s the most beautiful thing in this country, the separating of politics from people.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.