Meanwhile, in the Other Mexico

April 2, 2012

Far from the limelight of the violent drug war in Ciudad Juarez, NAFTA appears to be working more or less as intended: the Mexican middle class is growing by leaps and bounds.   In the city of Queretaro in central Mexico, people are more concerned with mortgage payments and the quality of their kids’ public schools.   Chatting with a transfronterizo recently — one who went to my brother Catholic high school by commuting from across the border — reminded me what a new and promising phenomenon this is.  Those opportunities used to be the exclusive preserve of the rich.  No longer.

The middle class anywhere is as much about mindset and social attitudes as it is about an income bracket. That plays out in the case of Mexico, a rising middle income country where purchasing power is still quite high.  For this new class in the geographic middle of the country, there is also the virtue of being far from the drug violence of the northern states — something their own middle class attitudes and habits perpetuate and reconstruct, so that the distance becomes socio-economic as well as purely geographic.  Those who fled the violence especially serve to promote the distinction.

The Mexican middle class is young enough to share another of its characteristics with another society that experienced economic shock around the same time.  The Russian experience was unique, of course.   But nearly two decades later the majority of citizens in both countries want to hold onto what they have.

There are two main intersecting metrics for how to measure the middle class: consumption and perception.  An overwhelming majority of Mexicans see themselves as middle class — figures that would no doubt surprise most U.S. politicians, especially in the Southwest, to say nothing of voters.   We have become so used to drug violence being the narrative frame for this entire country that this development, the same thing that is happening globally for the same structural reasons, has been overlooked almost completely.  (Making it a perfect NYT story candidate, but I digress.)

If we have ignored such a major trend in our southern neighbor, if — more to the point — the popular imagination in the United States has even come to think Mexico is immune to the positive forces of development?  Houston, tenemos un problema.