23 December 2005

Chinese competition dampens holiday spirit for Jalisco ornament firm

Story by : David Agren

Open cardboard boxes loaded with shimmering ornaments, which are easily visible from the sidewalk, suggest happiness and joy. But the present economic reality for Sorpresas en Artes Navideñas (SeAN), a glass-ornament manufacturer in San Julian, Jalisco, brings little cheer for its manager and his dwindling number of employees. Stiff foreign competition has jeopardized the future of their industry, flooding the Mexican and export markets with poor-quality knockoffs that sell for a fraction of the price.

"The Asian factories have hit us hard," said Guillermo Gonzalez Mata, the plant manager. "We can't compete on price."

SeAN used to ship a trailer-load of ornaments to the United States each month. This year, it failed to fill a single trailer. Asian factories churn out identical merchandise for a fraction of the price. It often shows up in Mexican street markets, but also in supermarkets and department stores. SeAN manufactured 500,000 ornaments for the 2005 Christmas season. Unlike many of its competitors, its employees produced each piece by hand, giving each ornament a unique one-of-a-kind luster.

"There's a lot of conscience involved," Gonzalez said proudly.

The ornament-making process takes 25 minutes from start to finish. Each piece starts out as narrow tube of glass, which is then cut according to the size of the ornament. The pieces are blown into the appropriate shape. The shiny pieces are metalicized while the frosted items are exposed to oxygen gas. After being formed into globes, ovals and teardrops, the pieces are painted. Some pieces like the miniature Santas, bells and toy soldiers, come from moulds. Finally, a small army of detailers hand-paint most of the ornaments.

After outlining the labor-intensive process, Gonzalez observed, "The quality of the Chinese merchandise is poor."

But China has stolen market share away from San Julian's factories, leading to job losses. One factory on the outskirts of the Los Altos-region town closed last year while another produced even fewer ornaments than SeAN did. Three years ago, SeAN employed 100 people, who designed, manufactured, decorated and packaged the ornaments. This year it only hired 22. The town, famous for its dairy industry, increasingly survives on remittances sent home by migrants.

"There's not a single family in San Julian that doesn't have at least one member in the United States," Gonzalez said.

With the export market drying up, SeAN focused more on selling its goods in Mexico.

"We sold more here [this year] because we can't compete with the Chinese," he added.

The factory snagged several private-label contracts, including one from the Transportation and Communications Secretariat (SCT). SeAN decorators hand-paint the government agency's logo on three types of ornaments. The company also boxed sets of premium ornaments, which require attention to detail the Chinese factories can't match. Glass ornaments adorn fewer trees with each passing Christmas, although some Americans prefer the traditional decorations to the now-ubiquitous plastic offerings. Antiques dealers scour Mexican pueblos, looking for the classy, if less-refined, ornaments from factories like SeAN.

Andrea Hernandez, a nine-year veteran employee of the San Julian plant, which is 150 kilometers northeast of Guadalajara, said most of SeAN's retail customers come looking for something original.

"There's a lot of outside competition, but there are still people who like to keep traditions. ... There are people who value our work," she explained. "It's artesania because it's all done by hand."

Susanna Kirchberg, a Guadalajara folk art dealer, said glass ornaments are highly sought after, but in general, "It's a dying art."

Guillermo Gonzalez Mata didn't know what fate awaited his factory – or if it would even operate in the coming years – simply saying, "In our case, it all depends on the owner."

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter

Zapopan brewery battles beer giants

Story by : David Agren

Jesus Briseño never especially liked the watery mass-market beers sold in most Guadalajara bars. During trips abroad, he discovered craft beers, freshly-made ales, stouts and lagers that were packed with subtle, but interesting flavors and usually drawn from a keg. He later started making his own beer at home before studying to become a brew master in the United States. Nowadays he brews beer for Zapopan-based Cerveceria Minerva in small batches, putting it into kegs so customers can buy it by the pint in local bars and restaurants.

Small breweries like Cerveceria Minerva flourish in Canada and the United States, where a thirst for craft beers has created a sizeable market niche and stolen sales from large conventional producers. In Mexico, however, two large breweries, Grupo Modelo, the maker of Corona, Estrella and Modelo, and Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, which sells Sol, Indio and Tecate, dominate the market, forming a virtual duopoly, which the companies jealously protect. Furthermore, the country lacks a tradition of premium beer consumption; fewer than five microbreweries operate in the Republic. Most Mexican beers lack a distinctive flavor and are almost always sold in bottles.

'Our slogan is: 'Cerveza Minerva, it's not just a beer, it's culture,' ' Briseño said, adding the company hopes to gradually change the way Mexicans view beer. 'We're trying to establish a culture of drinking premium beers.'

Cerveceria Minerva jumped into the brewing fray somewhat quietly during the summer of 2003. A group of six owners, which included Briseño, opened Tierra de Malta, a brewpub on Avenida Ruben Dario, selling beer made on site.
'It used to sell a lot of beer,' Briseño recalled.

'But that's all that it sold.'

Deciding they were better brewers than restaurateurs, the group sold a stake in Tierra de Malta to Salute, a Mexico City chain, after one year in business, but kept the beer-making equipment in place. They later imported additional beer-making equipment, purchasing the assets of a distressed brewer in Philadelphia for a bargain, and set up a brewery in a Zapopan industrial park. The Salute location still produces some of Cerveceria Minerva's volume.

Although not the most successful of ventures, the restaurant proved a taste for craft beer existed in Guadalajara. Cerveceria Minerva now sells four different beers in approximately 20 Guadalajara-area restaurants and bars along with a few establishments in Mexico City and Queretaro.

It brews two beers year round: Viena, an amber lager and Colonial, a golden pale ale. It also makes a Dunkelweissen, a 'dark wheat beer,' which is exclusively sold at the Red Pub in Guadalajara, and four seasonal varieties. During the fall of 2005, it's offering Luna Llena (Full Moon), a cream stout, which Briseño described as 'like a Guinness, but not dry.'

Cerveceria Minervia uses premium ingredients, importing its hops and barley. Although Mexican malt is available, Briseño said the big two breweries have cornered the market. The Zapopan brewery also purifies its own water.

Sales growth has averaged 15 percent per month since the new brewery opened and Cerveceria Minerva recently unveiled plans for bottling its product. The first six packs should hit store shelves in February.

But convincing establishments to stock a new product isn't easy. Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma forge exclusivity agreements with many bars and restaurants. According to Alejandro Orozco, Cerveceria Minerva's sales director and a co-owner, the beer giants entice establishment owners into signing exclusivity agreements by offering tables and chairs, refrigerators, easy payment terms and sometimes cash.

'Our biggest problem has been exclusivity contracts,' Orozco said.

Alejandro Perez, manager of the Red Bar, pulls pints of Cerveza Minerva at his English-style pub, which also offers a wide selection of imported brews and, of course, Grupo Modelo products. He said Group Modelo representatives offered him a kickback worth 10 percent of the bar's beer sales if he signed an agreement, but he declined, saying most of his customers come looking for imports and microbrews.

Placing Cerveceria Minerva beers in retail outlets could also be difficult. The big two breweries also tie many stores to exclusivity contracts. Some retail chains offer poor payment terms. Femsa, the parent company of Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma and a large Coca-Cola bottler, owns Oxxo, one of Mexico'sdominantminent convenience store chains. Oxxo doesn't generally stock competitors' products.

Further complicating matters for Cerveceria Minerva, the federal Congress – at the urging of Mexico's two big breweries – will impose a new environmental tax on all non-returnable beer containers in the new year. The law doesn't affect soft drink and water bottlers that use similar containers. It could make Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma's products cheaper in comparison to the rash of inexpensive imports and craft beers flooding the Mexican market. The two large breweries already have networks for retrieving and washing bottles. If implemented, Orozco said the tax could drive up Cerveceria Minerva's retail prices by as much as 30 percent.

'It's not just a problem that affects us,' Orozco explained. 'It also affects all other foreign beers.'

Still, tax or no tax, Orozco said plans for bottling Cerveceria Minerva's products will proceed.

'You can keep growing into a new market – or just stay stuck,' he said.

And with any luck, the upstart brewer will survive the tax, the exclusivity contracts and the lack of beer appreciation and just maybe 'become a threat to the big guys.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter

16 December 2005

Zacatecas ‘Tomato King’ plagued by scandal


Story by : David Agren

Andres Bermudez left Zacatecas state as an impoverished field hand in 1974. He and his pregnant wife sneaked across the border, hiding in the trunk of a car. After a short stint working in a suitcase factory, Bermudez began laboring in the fields of northern California. His luck changed after he invented a device for planting tomatoes. The new contraption quickly became popular among growers, earning Bermudez the nickname, "The Tomato King." It also earned him a small fortune. He returned to his hometown of Jerez, Zacatecas in 2001 as a celebrity, a migrant made good from a spot lacking opportunities — a place where much of the population survives on remittances sent home from the United States. He capitalized on his notoriety, capturing the popular vote in the 2001 mayor's race, but was subsequently denied office by election officials, who ruled that he failed to meet the state's residency requirements. After successfully lobbying for a change in the law, he won again in 2004, this time running under the banner of Zacatecas' least popular political party.

"I'm not the king of tomatoes here," Bermudez humbly said during an interview at his wood-paneled office in Jerez city hall on a chilly December morning. "I'm the king of tomatoes in the (United States); I live like a king in the (United States), but not here."

Bermudez's electoral feat and his incredible rags-to-riches story captured international headlines. Observers hailed his triumph as an example of migrants flexing their political muscles in the communities they have long propped up through remittances. The Tomato King promised to turn Jerez, a sleepy burg of 60,000 in the Central Mexican highlands, into a mini America, a well-governed place teeming with prosperity and most importantly jobs. And in a threat to the old guard, he vowed to "Get the rats out of city hall." Somewhat bizarrely, he also promised visas for young workers heading to the United States and tomato-planting devices for poor campesinos (peasant farmers), who have been abandoning the countryside in droves.

But with notoriety came controversy and enemies. Several journalists and opposition city councilors allege Bermudez has engaged in corruption, nepotism, and lewd behavior and governed in an authoritarian style — like a king — intimidating opponents and employing thugish tactics. Emotions about Bermudez —a polemic figure — run high. Many Jerez residents preferred not to make on-the-record comments about the mayor.

"He's not better or worse than any of his predecessors," said Alfredo Saldaña, owner of the Hotel Jardin in the Jerez centro. "But he has a lot more enemies."

Three members of Jerez's city council went on a hunger strike three weeks ago, demanding the state government take action against the mayor. Members of a Jerez citizens' group along with local residents opposed to Bermudez later barricaded the front doors to city hall for four days.

"A hunger strike is an extreme method," conceded Adriana Marquez Sanchez, a city councilor from the Workers' Party (PT), who went four days without food before falling ill. "It's a shout, saying, 'Enough.' It's a call for justice."

Marquez and her fellow hunger strikers allege the mayor spends municipal money recklessly on his own expenses, paying for a costly personal cellular phone, a junket to Las Vegas, flights between Zacatecas and California for his family members and a vehicle. Additionally, they accuse the mayor of turning the municipal police into "his own security force."

Bermudez supporters, accompanied by municipal police officers wearing riot gear, removed the protestors by force on December 5, later prying open the doors to city hall with a crowbar. Four protestors were detained; several suffered injuries. Public security officials stood idly by. Employees of Canal 27, a Jerez television station, identified many of the barricade busters as municipal employees. The state human rights office opted against investigating the ruckus.

"The Bermudez supporters were paid to strike and attack us," Marquez contended. "The majority of (them) are employees who work inside city hall.

A visibly shaken Bermudez reclaimed his city hall office shortly after the protestors were dislodged. Surrounded by screaming supporters and a clown posing as a television reporter, the mayor broke down in tears. He later complained, "They won't leave me in peace," pounding a fist on his desk to emphasize the point.

Jerez journalist Silvia Vanegas Reveles ironically feels much the same way, having angered the Tomato King with her intrepid reporting. She first confronted Bermudez over allegations he offered prostitutes to potential voters during his two election campaigns. She also wrote stories questioning the Tomato King's fortune, quoting people who said Bermudez owed them money.

Bermudez filed a denuncia (complaint to the local prosecutor) on Mexican press freedom day against Vanegas, who reports for Imagen, a Zacatecas daily newspaper. The complaint demanded she reveal the names of the women, who alleged the Tomato King was trading prostitutes for their husbands' votes.

"Since then, they haven't left me in peace," she said, adding she began receiving threats around the same time.

Shortly after Jerez city hall reopened, Vanegas said several men, who were brandishing knives, threatened her. After pleading for several hours with the local prosecutor's office, she was finally able to register a complaint.

Although rough around the edges — he's known to urinate in public and speaks passable English peppered with off-color words — the Tomato King at first encounter seems more uncouth than threatening. A burly and gregarious fellow with a junior-high-school education, who virtually always wears black cowboy clothing, dark glass and thick gold jewelry, Bermudez regularly welcomes foreign journalists. His celebrity, improbable story and Robin Hood-style rhetoric generate incredible curiosity. He employs a competent media relations staff — something rare in Mexican politics.

Shortly after being introduced, the Tomato King suggested this single reporter get acquainted with a young executive assistant after inquiring about my marital status. But upon being told a few minutes later of an upcoming city council meeting, Bermudez's mood changed; he slammed his water bottle lid on his desk and uttered a profanity in Spanish.

He mostly shuns local reporters, who have uncovered unseemly details from his campaigns and administration. According to opposition councilors, the mayor ignores his critics and refuses to engage in dialogue. The Tomato King says the same things about his critics. He frequently brands them as "The rich people."

As Bermudez tells it, he returned to Mexico out of a love for his hometown; a desire to give something back to his people, who the Tomato King said, "See hope in me."

Since taking office, he initiated a bus service for students pursuing university studies 50 kilometers away in Zacatecas. He also tripled the number of scholarships given to needy students. And in a well-worn political stunt common to virtually every Mexican municipality, he passed out 700 backpacks to children and roofing materials and cement to home and business owners.

"These [previous] people spending [the municipality's] money, they didn't spend the money. They took it home," Bermudez said. "All this, I give it back."

He also views himself as a sort of pioneer, a migrant returning to unseat the old corrupt guard, which has presided over the demise of Zacatecas and sent hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing the state.

"My project is unprecedented. My project opens the back door," he said. "I'm the first one, but behind me ... how many? Thirty, 50, 100? That's why the government is scared."

Percentage wise, Zacatecas loses more of its population to migration than virtually any other Mexican state. More Zacatecanos live in the Los Angeles area than the state capital. Although a drought recently ravaged the semi-arid state, local hotel owner Alfredo Saldaña figured most people rode it out by depending on the generosity of relatives living abroad. Mexican migrants sent home more than 15 billion dollars last year, according to the Bank of Mexico. More than 400 million dollars of those remittances flowed into Zacatecas, which has a population of 1.3 million.

The remittances from the United States often fund municipal projects, giving migrants an increasingly influential voice in Zacatecas politics. Through a program dubbed "Tres por Uno (Three for One)," the federal, state and municipal governments match funds sent by migrants through clubs formed in the United States.

"If you see a new church in Mexico, U.S. money makes it," Bermudez explained, adding remittances were "the only way Mexico survives."

Critics though, including Marquez, said Bermudez showed little interest in Jerez prior to 2001, when he first ran for mayor under the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) banner. (He later won in 2004 as a National Action Party [PAN] candidate.) Additionally, she said fewer Tres por Uno projects have come to Jerez since he took over. According to Marquez, other than opening a cantina, Bermudez has never invested a dime in Jerez, one of the first towns where Tres por Uno was implemented.

And in the opinion of some of his critics, it's due to a lack of funds.

"Andres Bermudez is not rich," asserted Heriberto Caldeva Ruedes, a campesino and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) councilor, pointing to the people who came forward during the last election, claiming the Tomato King owed them money, as proof.

Like Bermudez, Caldeva spent more than two decades in the United States before returning. Nowadays he farms beans, corn and chilies.

"The scam he pulled on the Jerezanos and the way he got their votes was by saying he was going to bring a machine for planting tomatoes all over Jerez," Caldeva explained, adding the young people voted for Bermudez expecting, "He was going to get them visas to go to the United States."

According to the Associated Press, Bermudez left debts of more than 800,000 dollars in the United States. Bermudez acknowledged owing money in California, including back taxes, but attributed his financial hardship to spending so much time seeking office in Jerez.

Bermudez insists he lives a simple life in Jerez, driving a relatively new Chevrolet pickup and living in a modest home on the outskirts of town. His three children still reside in California.

"I don't make money here," he said. "I lose money. Every day I'm here I lose money."

Contrary to some recent headlines, Bermudez has no plans to leave Jerez anytime soon. His term expires in September 2007. He used a farming metaphor to emphasize his commitment, saying, "I planted a seed in the ground and I want to see it grow."

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.


07 December 2005

Tequila attracts academic study


BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

During the week, Agustín Arce, 27, teaches administration to high school students in Tequila, Jalisco. On the weekends, he studies the fiery spirit that made his hometown famous.

Last month, Arce and 14 classmates began delving into topics as diverse as tequila’s origins, its role in rural development and its growing influence on art, music and popular culture through a new continuing education program a t the Un i v e r s i t y o f Guadalajara (U de G). The program takes an academic approach to the subject, which most people only learn about in a bar and truly appreciate the next day.

“We think that people should know more about tequila — not only as a drink, but its origins, the (agave) plant and the process,” said Marcela García Bátiz, publicity director for U de G Virtual.

While a diploma program in tequila perhaps looks frivolous at first glance, numerous universities have offered courses investigating other alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and Scotch w h i s k y . A n d w i t h t e q u i l a reaching dizzying levels of popularity both at home and abroad, García Bátiz said it was a pertinent topic — especially in Jalisco, where residents take a special pride in the drink.


The state’s history in fomenting the popularity of tequila — along with mariachi music and charreria — makes Jalisco the most Mexican of the Republic’s states i n t h e ey e s o f l o c a l boosters. The state adorns its license plates with the image of an agave plant and its tourism secretariat coined the slogan “Jalisco is Mex i co . ”

The drink, which previously masqueraded under the names vino de tequila and mezcal de tequila , played an important part in Jalisco’s development. A special tequila tax funded the construction of the state legislature and the implementation of Guadalajara’s first public waterworks system. The nature of agave cultivation influenced the architecture of Jalisco’s haciendas. Since the passing of appellation of origin laws in the 1970s, only beverages made from blue agaves grown in Jalisco and designated regions of Guanajuato, M i c h o a c a n , Nay a r i t a n d Tamaulipas may use the tequila name.

“Tequila is a beverage that identifies Jalisco and Mexico in the entire world,” García Bátiz said.


It’s also “a very broad subject,” she said, which U de G researchers have studied for decades. Recent research has also focused on the agave plant, tequila’s principle ingredient.

Research points to some of the agave plant’s properties, which include insulin, possibly benefiting diabetics. Rural development officials are pitching miel de agave, or agave syrup, as a sweetener that is ideal for soft drinks. Increased miel de agave production could also provide another m a r k e t f o r a g ave growers, who in recent years have been receiving record low prices for their harvests.

The U de G course, officially titled “El Tequila, su cultura y su entorno,” enrolled an eclectic mix of teachers, foreign graduate students, tourism officials and journalists. All signed up for different reasons, but everyone expected to profit from the experience in some way.

“I live in Tequila, was born in Tequila, I’ve always worked in that community,” Arce explained, adding his knowledge of the beverage was previously somewhat limited. But as a teacher, he saw growing opportunities for his graduating students, equipped with an in depth knowledge of tequila, to find employment in his hometown’s burgeoning tourism industry. “I’m taking this course so I can pass on the information,” he said.


Sarita Gaytan, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, serendipitously found the course. She is spending several semesters in Jalisco researching her thesis, which explores tequila culture from a crossborder perspective. The course offered her the chance to gain a wealth of information, she said, as well as access experts from academia and the tequila industry.

“I’m interested in how commodity culture shapes ideas about national identity and citizenship,” she explained.

Along with teaching academic modules, the course organizers scheduled trips to a tequila distillery and a hacienda and also planned sessions with culinary experts.

The non-credit course runs until March, when García Bátiz said the university would decide whether or not to offer it again. It could eventually become part of a degree program, she added.


05 December 2005

Presidential candidates hook up for first time

Illustration by : J Cortaza

 Story by : David Agren

The country's three top presidential contenders outlined their economic platforms for delegates attending the American Chamber's annual convention in Mexico City last Tuesday, but undoubtedly many in the business-minded audience came looking for information from only one of the men: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the left-leaning frontrunner in the race for Los Pinos (the president's residence).

The American Chamber, an organization that represents more than 100 billion dollars of foreign investment in Mexico, organized the candidates' meeting to enlighten its members on the country's investment climate and future political landscape. The event marked the first time the three presidential aspirants spoke at the same event in the election campaign.

"We were excited to be the first to get all three [candidates] together," gushed Larry Rubin, CEO of the American Chamber, who is based in Mexico City. "It certainly wasn't easy."

And it certainly caught the attention of analysts. Jorge Fernandez Menendez grumbled in his Publico column that the leaders united for "Americans," instead of Mexicans, who will cast ballots next July. Rubin, however, pointed out that the American Chamber members make 85 percent of all foreign investments in Mexico. He added, "(The candidates) see foreign investment as important ... for their future governments."

With the country possibly lurching left, delegates pressed Lopez Obrador for answers. As the former Mexico City mayor led opinion polls throughout 2005, the Mexican stock market slumped and many companies, including Telmex, hedged their dollar-denominated debts.

Questions concerning energy sector reforms surfaced and staying consistent with his campaign rhetoric, Lopez Obrador ruled out the possibility of allowing private investment in both Pemex and the electricity market should he be elected.

"We're not going to ... privatize the electricity industry or the petroleum," he stated unequivocally, noting that the constitution forbids foreign involvement.

The PRD proposal calls for increased government investment in the petroleum industry and building new gasoline refineries. Pemex, though, funds much of the federal government's budget, leaving little money for exploration and maintenance. According to reports, Mexico could start importing petroleum within the next 10 years.

Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) staked out the most liberal position, saying the country needed foreign expertise. He proposed forming "strategic alliances in the industry."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow, the event moderator, observed in a question to Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that only Mexico and North Korea forbid private investment in the petroleum industry.
Madrazo, currently leading a struggling campaign, also proposed some liberalization in the energy sector. Both men advocated keeping government ownership of Pemex.

"There are so many opportunities in the energy sector," Rubin said, adding that Mexico is importing resources when much of the country's richness goes untapped.

"(Pemex) is in a vicious cycle that (it) can't correct."

On the whole, the PAN's Calderon called for the most ambitious structural reforms, which included a flat tax and a crackdown on piracy.

The PRI proposed some of the same things, but to a lesser degree.

Both parties signed business tycoon Carlos Slim's Chapultapec Pact, which advocates creating an optimal business climate and addressing health and security concerns. Lopez Obrador has balked at singing, though, saying the pact largely ignores the poor - the constituency his campaign champions.

Lopez Obrador, a political maverick whose exact policies were largely shrouded in mystery prior to the event, called for better tax collection, and opting out of some parts of NAFTA that dealt with agriculture.

But he acknowledged the need for continued foreign investment in Mexico, saying, "It can be a factor for the development of the country in other fields [other than petroleum and electricity]."

Other sectors needing reform include security, finance and labor, according to Rubin.

Most reform proposals have faltered during the first five years of President Vicente Fox's tenure; the president and congressional leaders have bickered frequently.

The American Chamber, a non-partisan organization, never endorses political candidates. Rubin said, "We can work with any candidate that is elected democratically."

The 88-year-old chamber represents approximately 2,000 companies in Mexico. Rubin estimated its Guadalajara branch, which turned 40 this year, serves 30 percent of the chamber's members.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

28 November 2005

PRI campaign limps into Guadalajara

By David Agren

Some Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) members brandished white rubber bracelets with the slogan "¡Unidos Venceremos!" emblazoned around the circumference;  a fashion statement similar to the previously popular Livestrong bands promoted by cyclist Lance Armstrong and worn by virtually every fresa kid in Guadalajara.

The bracelets faded in popularity over the past few months, becoming yesterday's style – not unlike PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo's designs on Mexico's top job.

The former PRI party president finished third in a recent poll conducted for Grupo Reforma, garnering 21 percent support – well behind the National Action Party's (PAN) Felipe Calderon and the Democratic Revolutionary Party's (PRD) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Even worse, 47 percent of respondents suspect Madrazo would abuse his power if elected; 38 percent viewed him as incompetent.

Not every Priista accepted the results; the PRI leadership challenged Grupo Reforma's methodology. Mario Rosales Anaya, a Guadalajara PRI booster, dismissed the results, saying, "Madrazo's going to get the momentum and climb in the polls."

He declined to explain how, but pointed out, "The PRI has the best national organization.

"We have support from all sectors of society."

Hampered by a rash of bad news, bitter internal bickering and last Monday's unfavorable poll, the PRI presidential campaign limped into Guadalajara Wednesday night. The momentum clearly elsewhere. Madrazo's sordid reputation for hardball politics and less than ethical campaigning preceded him.

In Tabasco state, he allegedly spent more than 50 times the legal limit in the 1995 governor's race, besting Lopez Obrador. Madrazo lost the last PRI primary for the national contest, but later became party president, perhaps the next best thing. As the PRI boss he ousted potential rivals, always conducting party business with an eye towards capturing the party's presidential nomination. Most infamously, he back stabbed the teachers' union president and PRI vice president Elba Esther Gordillo, branding her a traitor after she proposed working cooperatively with President Vicente Fox. In the PRI primary campaign, rival Arturo Montiel – the choice of an anti-Madrazo faction – accused Madrazo of leaking information that suggested Montiel and his family profited handsomely during Montiel's tenure as State of Mexico governor.

None of the past unpleasantness surfaced during the Guadalajara rally; an event attended by an eclectic mix of PRI faithful: businessmen in crisp suits, union members wearing T-shirts identifying their affiliations and even Huichol Indians in traditional white and pink costumes. In short, a cross-section of society, the PRI's traditional constituency. And most importantly for Madrazo, virtually all were loyalists anxious to catch of glimpse of their gallo (go-to guy). So many people showed up, late arrivals stood in the aisles after pushing past an overwhelmed security team, which had tried to keep them out of the hotel ballroom.

Not surprisingly, with such a friendly crowd in attendance, Madrazo delivered a vague message short on policy proposals. For the most part, he stated the obvious – lines like: "The PRI is a party that 100 percent wants Mexico to grow."

Or the equally generic, "There's no long term plan for the campo (countryside)."

He never detailed what exactly the PRI would offer the campo.

Madrazo spoke calmly, invoking little emotion from the crowd. The odd group of women would periodically interrupt the 45-minute speech, chanting campy support slogans like, "Roberto, amigo, (insert town name) es contigo (is with you)."

The candidate, an awkward grin on his face throughout the entire event, responded with clumsy waves, clenching a fist after fully extending his arm.

Perhaps offering a brief glimpse into his governing style – and confirming the fears expressed in the Grupo Reforma poll – he stated: "The public doesn't want change. … They want a strong president."

The Guadalajara event steered clear of controversy. Madrazo never mentioned his rivals from other parties or the poll directly, but conceded, "It's the most competitive contest in the history of the Republic."

As for party unity, he insisted, "Along with [former PRI presidential aspirants] Arturo Montiel and Everardo Moreno, together, we're going to win in 2006."

Supporters mobbed Madrazo after his speech; a cheesy pop track – a specially-made campaign theme song – looped endlessly. The party looked united – and some rabid partisans sported white wristbands to prove it.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

14 November 2005

Ochoa backs public course


BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
November 14, 2005

In a city park filled with mechanical rides, a go-kart track and fading athletic facilities, Guadalajara golf star Lorena Ochoa and her management team envision their field of dreams. Theirs is a plan that would not only provide a place for aspiring golfers and weekend duffers to practice their chosen sport, but would also help pioneer a new concept in Mexico: the public golf course.

"Lorena Ochoa has as a goal … to make golf more popular," said Rodrigo Suárez Gilly, a partner in Ochoa Sports Management, an organization that represents the golfer's business interests. "The only way to make the sport of golf more popular is to invite people to play."

Golf, a game accessible to the masses north of the border, remains out of reach for the average Mexican. According to Ochoa Sports Management, fewer than 20,000 Mexicans play golf. Besides the high equipment costs, virtually no public courses exist. Some private clubs allow public access during certain hours, but the green fees are often steep. Additionally, potential players usually require an invitation to enter a club.

The Ochoa Sports Management proposal would "make the sport less expensive," Suárez said. "It's having public places so that people go play not necessarily as members."


To achieve their objective, Ochoa Sports Management expects to leverage the popularity of Ochoa, one of the nation's best-known female athletes, whose sporting success has been making headlines in Guadalajara for more than a decade. She won five world junior titles before receiving a scholarship to the University of Arizona.

Ochoa dominated the college ranks, finishing atop the leader board 12 times in three years. Since turning professional, she has won more than US3 million in prize money. She currently ranks fourth on the LPGA money list.

"All the sports in this country have grown when they had a sports figure," Suárez explained, pointing to Chihuahua native and National Basketball Association journeyman Eduardo Najera as an athlete who enhanced his sport's stature here after achieving success abroad.

"If you don't have a figure, people are not interested."

As an initial target group, Ochoa Sports Management is targeting a younger, sportsminded demographic; people familiar with golf and Lorena Ochoa but who have never picked up a nine iron. And to make the game even more accessible, the group is eyeing Parque Ávila Camacho for their course, an easily-accessible tract of land near the Guadalajara-Zapopan municipal boundary, a chip shot away from the exclusive Guadalajara Country Club, where Ochoa learned to play.

Other plots of land surrounding the Jalisco capital piqued their curiosity, but a long journey to the suburbs would drive up the cost for potential golfers.

"The idea is that someone can play 18 holes for US20," Suárez said.

Guadalajara public officials, however, have so far been cool to the idea. Still, Ochoa Sports Management wants civic involvement.

"It's not a profitable investment for a private company to install a public golf course," Suárez explained. "It might be something profitable in the long term."


Private clubs have sprung up all across the country over the past 25 years. Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas have become popular golf destinations. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has designed 12 courses in Mexico. Many of the new developments don't permit non-members to tee it up or freeze out potential players with high prices.

"Hardly anyone has the chance to play golf," said Gustavo Pérez García, an 18-year-old golfer, who plays at the Chapala Country Club in San Nicolas de Ibarra, Jalisco.

Pérez previously worked as a caddy at the club, which allowed him an opportunity to access the nine-hole course. Nowadays, a group of members sponsor him, providing Pérez the chance to practice and participate in tournaments when not working at the country club.

"It's a lack of money that keeps people from playing," he explained, adding that few of his neighborhood friends, who grew near the golf club, have ever tried the sport.

Published in the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

06 November 2005

Wal-Mart eyes Patzcuaro (Mexico)

Patzcuaro pier

Story by : David Agren

Patzcuaro, Michoacan taxi driver Alfredo Molina Aranjo kicked his cab's tires and showed off the new floor mats he purchased at Wal-Mart for his impeccably-maintained vehicle. He drives 40 miles "every eight days" to Morelia to shop in the mega-chain's Supercenter, preferring the lower prices and wider selection.
"I always find things there that I can't get here," he said.

He naturally welcomed the prospect of Wal-Mart putting one of its Bodega Aurrera outlets in Patzcuaro, a municipality of 66,000, which maintains a colonial atmosphere, largely untouched by neon lights and tacky strip malls.

"It's a good idea to have a supermarket here," he stated, adding many of his fellow cab drivers - and the majority of the town's population - would like to see Wal-Mart set up shop.

"A lot of people like the idea - except for the shop owners."

In a move similar to last year's opening of a Bodega Aurrera outlet in the shadow of the massive Teotihuacan pyramids north of Mexico City in San Juan de Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, Wal-Mart is eyeing another landmark location, which has a unique history and impressive attractions, but lacks a large supermarket.

The proposed development, planned for a vacant lot on the road between the town center and the docks serving Lake Patzcuaro - site of Janitzio Island, a tourist magnet and hotbed of indigenous Purepecha culture - unsettles many local merchants, who fear the discount retailer could drive them out of business and spoil the municipality's character.

"They say they're going to create [150] jobs, but a lot of people are going to be laid off," said Hugo Reyes, who owns a hardware store on Patzcuaro's Plaza Chica.

Unemployment plagues Patzcuaro - and much of Michoacan, which has lost a large portion of its population to migration. Tourism drives the local economy; thousands of visitors descend on the town for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities each fall. Mexico's tourism secretariat declared Patzcuaro a "Pueblo Magico" - mainly due to the town's remarkably preserved architecture and strong Purepecha influence. Cobblestone roads crisscross the town and most of its buildings sport red-tile roofs.

A large number of artisans also populate Patzcuaro.

"Small business, this is how we survive," Reyes explained.

"Patzcuaro has no industry; no big source of income."

But the lure of lower prices in nearby Morelia already pulls sales out of Patzcuaro. Many merchants interviewed - including some who oppose the new Bodega Aurrera outlet - acknowledged buying items at Wal-Mart.

"I sometimes go to Wal-Mart in Morelia," said Magdalena Monroy, a pharmacy owner, who supports the chain's expansion into Patzcuaro.

"Me, I want it, but other people don't because it's going to shrink their sales."

As for her pharmacy's future prospects, she boldly stated, "I'm not afraid of anything."

Guadalupe Alba, a vendor, who sells homemade shawls and traditional clothing in one of Patzcuaro's markets, expressed some trepidation of Wal-Mart's impending arrival.

"It's a foreign company that's taking Mexican money out of the country," she said, adding that she never shops in Wal-Mart's stores.

Arkansas-based Wal-Mart conquered the Mexican market in less than two decades, quickly becoming the nation's largest retailer with 747 outlets, which operate under seven brand names. It also employs more than 100,000 people, making it Mexico's largest private employer. It sold 13 billion dollars worth of merchandise in Mexico last year. According to a recent Publico article, the chain recently unveiled plans to open scaled-down stores, which would compete with abarroteras, small neighborhood mom-and-pop shops.

Wal-Mart counters some of the criticism leveled against it on its Web site, saying the chain buys from local suppliers. A Mural article published last week noted that Wal-Mart agreed to stock 90 products from small and medium-sized Michoacan businesses.

Attempts to obtain comments from a Wal-Mart spokesman in Mexico City were unsuccessful.

Although facing a leviathan-sized company, Alba predicted the proposed store would never open, saying, "We won't allow it," but according to reports, Wal-Mart has already put its plans into motion.

Jorge Molina Garcia, Patzcuaro's director of urban development, said Wal-Mart's plans are being reviewed at the legal level, but declined to offer an opinion on how the store would impact the town. He added that Wal-Mart's plans would have to conform to the Pueblo Magico's strict building regulations, which regulate the architectural style of new buildings.

Alfredo Molina Aranjo, peering through a gap in the wall surrounding the proposed Bodega Aurrera site, scoffed at the suggestion the store would ruin Patzcuaro's colonial charm.

"It would put in a nice building," he said.

"If anything, this would improve things."

Published in the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

02 November 2005

Halloween muscles in on Patzcuaro holiday tradition


BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
October 31, 2005

PATZCUARO, Michoacan - Caesar López, 13, carved a jack-o'-lantern from a chilacayote gourd and brought it to Patzcuaro's Plaza Grande each night during the weeks preceding Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Once there, instead of accumulating candy by calling out "trick or treat" as his counterparts north of the border might do, he collected money by asking bystanders, "Give me something for my chilacayote."

And many did. On a good night, said Caesar, he made up to 20 pesos with his gourd jack-o'-lantern.

When asked to explain the difference between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, he responded innocently, "It's the same thing."

Over the past 20 years, Halloween influences have crept into Patzcuaro, a colonial city where the indigenous Purepecha build impressive Dia de los Muertos altars and hold nighttime grave-site vigils to honor their deceased loved ones.

Although vestiges of Dia de los Muertos abound, many local stores now adorn their premises with images of pumpkins, black cats and bats. In Patzcuaro's seasonal Dia de los Muertos market, virtually every stall offered Halloween items for sale: pumpkin-shaped sweets and witches' hats occupied spots next to sugar skulls and pan de muerto, a popular holiday bread. A few stalls almost exclusively stocked Halloween merchandise something that irritated a few longtime vendors who sell only traditional Dia de los Muertos supplies.

"Probably 50 percent of the things here are for Halloween," said vendor Jesús García, who works alongside his grandmother, a 47-year veteran of the market.

He complained that the city government, which regulates the market, doesn't enforce the rules, which García said only allows vendors to sell traditional items.

Veronica Adame, a vendor in the market who sells chocolateshaped pumpkins along with chocolate popsicles featuring images of popular cartoon characters like Sponge Bob, Shrek and Mickey Mouse, defended her inventory selection, saying many customers come looking for nontraditional items.

"They're usually looking more for skulls, but many (customers) are also searching for pumpkins," she explained.

"The kids ask for it," added Juan Carlos García, another vendor selling Halloween items.

The advent of foreign television programming and the large number of migrants returning from time abroad in the United States are the most probable sources of Halloween's growing popularity in Mexico. The pagan holiday also has great appeal to Mexican children, who are usually left out of traditional Dia de los Muertos celebrations, said Shawn Haley, a Canadian anthropologist who has studied the Mexican holiday.

"Halloween in Mexico is becoming a way to involve the children," he explained in an interview from his office at Red Deer College, in Red Deer, Alberta.

"Up until this point, Dia de los Muertos festivities didn't involve children a whole lot."

In some towns where Haley researched, parents initiated Halloween activities in order to include their children in Dia de los Muertos.

Jorge Tapia, a pharmaceutical company representative from Morelia who was visiting Patzcuaro on business, planned to celebrate both holidays. He bought sugar skulls emblazoned with the names of his wife and infant son for an altar in his home, but he also planned to dress his son in a skeleton costume for a Halloween party.

"I like to take the best of both (events)," he explained.

Despite the arrival of Halloween, Dia de los Muertos still thrives in smaller towns, to the point of becoming an important part of their regional economies. Michoacan tourism officials estimate more than 100,000 tourists will visit the state for Dia de los Muertos festivities with the majority heading to Patzcuaro and nearby Janitzio Island. Approximately 30 percent of the tourists will come from foreign countries.

Looking into the future, Haley predicts "a heavy tourist influence" will keep many Dia de los Muertos traditions strong, but will also change the holiday.

"(Dia de los Muertos) going to become a bit more like our Christmas, with less solid beliefs," he said. "But I think everyone's going to still do it."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

21 October 2005

Ice cream pioneer still going strong

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
October 21, 2005

Several years ago, Adolf Horn, the former U.S. consul general in Guadalajara in the early 1960s, obtained a Cuban passport, allowing him to travel to his birthplace as a citizen of the island nation, which is presently off limits to U.S. citizens.
Horn originally applied to the U.S. Treasury Department, which approves U.S. citizens' dealings with Cuba, for permission to travel, wanting to check on the remains of his father and two sisters. Fed up with waiting, he phoned the Cuban embassy, which promptly issued him a passport.

"As far as Cuba's concerned, I'm a citizen," he explained.

Besides having the unusual distinction of being a former U.S. diplomat with a Cuban passport, Horn is also probably one of the few to launch a successful food service company in a foreign country upon retirement. The 94-year-old founded Helado's Bing, a chain of ice cream parlors, after finishing his term as consul general in Guadalajara. He also started the American Chamber of Commerce branch in Guadalajara in 1965, running it until 2002.

"There were very few Americans here who could take the position," he said, explaining why he stayed so long.


Along the way, he's become an icon in the local community, garnering respect from Jalisco's business and political elite. He counts prominent politicians from all sides as friends, including President Vicente Fox. Countless entrepreneurs and political aspirants most recently, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial aspirant Raymundo Gómez Flores seek his advice. Former president Ernesto Zedillo awarded Horn the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2000 the highest honor Mexico can bestow on a foreigner. Even a street in a Guadalajara suburb was named after him.

Although long involved in civic activities, Horn became famous for the ice cream shops that bear his late wife's nickname.

He scooped his first ice cream cone on Friday, Sept. 10, 1965, at a location near Guadalajara's Los Arcos. Helados Bing originally offered 17 flavors of ice cream made on site, selling it in a setting similar to U.S. chain Baskin Robbins.

"At the time, there wasn't anything [like this]. All they sold was ice cream made in a bucket," he explained.

Business instantly took off perhaps, Horn suggested, out of curiosity.

"All these Mexicans wanted to see this crazy thing the Horns were doing," he said laughingly, adding that by Sunday afternoon, the store had sold out of ice cream.


Helados Bing had opened 14 stores by the early 1980s, when Horn decided to step back, wanting to spend more time with his wife, Lena, who helped him run the business. Coca-Cola initially showed an interest in purchasing his chain, but the 1982 bank nationalization scared the soft-drink giant off. The company's Mexican president José Luis González who initiated the Amigos de Fox fundraising program later bought Helados Bing in 1983, but kept Horn involved.

The chain continued to flourish, implementing a successful franchise system, until González sold it along with the Holanda brand to Unilever in 1997.

Helados Bing has reportedly stumbled in recent years. Its presence in Mexico City has shrunk and, according to a recent Milenio article, some franchisees in the capital have expressed displeasure with the chain's direction.


Horn, though, wastes little time worrying about his former business; he's now involved with Helados Dophy, a competitor founded by González and named for Horn's diminutive Cuban nickname.

He offered some observations, however, on Helados Bing's reported problems. He said Unilever, upon buying the chain, dismissed a lot of talented people who knew how to operate an ice cream business and franchise system in Mexico. Many of the former employees went to work for Helados Dolphy.

"They changed the ice cream," Horn added. "Our ice cream was made from cream."

Although removed from the day-to-day operations of Helados Dophy, Horn still regularly goes to his office in the company's headquarters, wearing his trademark short-sleeve shirt and thin bow tie.

"I'm just here as a father confessor," he said modestly of his role.

Still, he shows few signs of slowing down, saying, "It would be great to live another 20 years to see how Mexico developed."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

The great liquor scam


Be wary of establishments that serve liquor from unlabeled bottles.

 Story by : David Agren

Investigators from Mexico's consumer protection agency (Profeco) fanned out across the Republic in the lead up to the Fiestas Patrias celebrations in September, searching for illegal liquor, which in many cases is sold to consumers as something other than what it really is.

The agency found 30 percent of the alcoholic beverages it purchased were either adulterated products or drinks not conforming with federal regulations. In many cases, unscrupulous bars and vendors passed off cane alcohol or aguardiente de agave (distilled agave drinks) as tequila in violation of the famed drink's appellation of origin regulations, which mandate that only beverages made from blue agave in five states can bear the tequila name.

"When a bottle is shown on a supermarket display or is exhibited in a bar or restaurant, normally we haven't found any problems with adulteration," said Jose Rodrigo Roque, a deputy prosecutor with Profeco in Mexico City.

Problems appear, however, when the customer either can't see the bottles or when purchasing a beverage that lacks a proper label. Illicit beverages, according to Profeco, are served most often in night clubs, places offering barra libre promotions (unlimited national drinks for a fixed price) and all-inclusive resorts, which often cater to foreign tourists.

"There we feel we have a problem because you don't really know if it's an authentic product," Roque explained.

Compounding the problem, some bars fill used bottles, which have a label, with an adulterated product. The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) has initiated a program that collects old bottles for destruction, in an effort to curb the practice.
Besides selling illegal liquor in nightclubs and resorts, roadside vendors near tequila-producing town's hawk knock-off beverages in garafonitos (little jugs) for cheap prices.

"The alcohol they normally sell isn't dangerous, but we say it shouldn't be consumed," Roque explained. "It's an alcohol that is normally sold for chemical or pharmaceutical purposes. Additionally, its quality is extremely poor."

Bertha Becerra, spokeswoman for the Guadalajara-based CRT, said in many instances, the roadside vendors bottle cane alcohol, but call it tequila.

"If there's not a proper label, it's not tequila," she said, adding the CRT lists all of its approved brands on its Web site. "In this sense, it's nothing more than consumer deception."

A three-day Profeco sweep in eight Jalisco municipalities turned up 65 unregistered liquor brands, resulting in 28,691 liters of booze being discarded. It also discovered 35 brands that improperly used the tequila name. Roque said Profeco has pressed charges in 80 percent of the cases where it found illicit liquor sales or misuse of the tequila name. The CRT authorizes distillers to produce and market tequila beverages and makes the rules for its production.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

17 October 2005

Chocolatier has social vision for new venture

Cruz Guerrero

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

October 17, 2005

Mike McKenna, while inaugurating his growing company's new chocolate-making kitchen in Jalpa, Guanajuato, earlier this month, pointed to an odd source of inspiration: a nearby church with four walls and no roof. Its congregation celebrated mass under a tree for seven years before finally erecting the walls. The building still lacks a roof thirteen years later.

Someone started passing around a straw hat after hearing the story and by the end of the evening the assembled crowd had raised more than 3,000 pesos (US280). The municipal government promised to match the donations. The crew that constructed McKenna's kitchen will finish the job in the coming months.

"Twenty years is long enough waiting for Jesus to give them an answer," McKenna said laughingly, after the hat made its way around the grounds.

Although the story amused the assembled crowd, who nibbled on handmade truffles and artisan cheeses from Queretaro and sipped Texas wines imported by a San Miguel grape grower, McKenna's girlfriend Barbara Hartinger gently reminded him during the middle of his anecdote: "We're here to talk about chocolate."

María Elena Morena, McKenna's first employee, cut the ribbon, officially opening Sensual Chocolatiers' 500 square-meter facility.

The new kitchen, built on a hectare of land 20 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, includes environmentally-friendly designs, gardens and three pet burros. More than 4,000 agave plants surround the building. Twenty beds of herbs yield lavender, rosemary, sage, chilies and mint key ingredients in McKenna's eclectic creations. Sensual Chocolatiers also recycles its gray and black waters for irrigation purposes.

"I wanted this place to be 100-percent environmentally friendly," McKenna said proudly.

He also wanted to create jobs in an area with few employment opportunities.

"One of the reasons I came to Jalpa is because there's a lot of poverty," he explained.

His company now employs thirty people – most from the nearby area. Between two and five job seekers arrive at the kitchen each day. Some carry machetes to ward off snakes while trekking across the countryside.

"They come over these mountains in all directions," McKenna said. "There's a lot of walking in the Jalpa Valley."

An unconventional workplace, employees often christen the truffles they create and participate in hiring decisions. Employee-inspired truffles include: "Rosa Mexicana," a mixture of dark chocolate ganache spiced with cinnamon, almond and coffee and dipped in dark chocolate; and "Catalina," a combination of caramel brittle and coconut.

GROWING STEADILY In addition to the church with no roof, McKenna draws inspiration from the kitchen's bucolic setting and expects it will provide the same for his employees.

"These surroundings are for the people who work here," he explained. "This place will probably be closed to the public eventually" in order to maintain tough hygienic standards.

The kitchen's construction also created jobs, but McKenna, thinking in the long term, hired many of the same locals, who initially cleared rocks from the property. In the process, the men learned a skill. McKenna, a mason by trade, now considers many of them masters.

But McKenna situated his business in Jalpa for more reasons than altruism. The local women, he noticed, were especially adept at rolling masa, or tortilla dough: a skill similar to parts of the truffle-marking process.

Although the company is enjoying success nowadays, growth came slowly for Sensual Chocolatiers. Five years ago, McKenna, who has no profession confectionery training, sold his truffles from a tray in the San Miguel de Allende Public Library, making US12 a day.

Morena, who was working in McKenna's housing complex, joined him early on, forgoing a paycheck for the first year of operations. It took McKenna two years to perfect his first batch of recipes, which now incorporate Mexican staples like guava, chilies and agave and unique pairings like white chocolate with lemon and rosemary.

Through word of mouth advertising and a promotional assist from the municipal government, the business slowly started to expand.

Sensual Chocolatiers now produces approximately 6,000 truffles a week, selling the small indulgences through retail outlets in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Ajijic, Jalisco and directly to wholesale customers. The local municipality, the Guanajuato state government and Los Pinos (the president's residence) now gift Sensual Chocolates' truffles to visiting dignitaries.

The Canadian expatriate aspires to greater things though.

"My goal is to franchise in the United States," he said, adding that he's fielded inquiries from the as far way as Hawaii and the Middle East.

"If we can do that then we've got the capability of expanding four fold."

And even more importantly to McKenna, it would create more jobs.

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

15 October 2005

A shoe fetishist’s dream


Leon, Mexico offers a bargain-hunter’s cornucopia of footwear


Rows of cowboy boots in every conceivable colour and kind of leather stretched as far as the eye could see at the Bota de Oro (Golden Boot) in Leon, Mexico. The neighbouring store was peddling handbags for $4 U.S. each. And around the corner, an athletic shoe store sold knockoff Chuck Taylor sneakers under the “Everlife” brand with the name “Tuck Michael” and familiar star stamped on the ankle.

Many Mexicans — and a growing number of tourists — indulge their incurable footwear fetishes in Leon, an unremarkable industrial city 380 kilometres northwest of Mexico City famous for one thing: shoe manufacturing. A shoe-shopper’s dream, more than 5,000 stores operate in Leon, offering everything from leopard-print stilettos to canary yellow cowboy boots. Shoe stores fill entire malls, both shabby and chic. And where the shoe shops end, the leather stores begin, stocking an endless selection of jackets, belts and bags — all sold for jaw-dropping prices. A leather belt goes for less than $10 U.S.

“I’m drowning in shoes!” exclaimed my friend Nadine Lawrence, as we navigated narrow aisles of one of the countless “malls” in the aptly named Zona Piel (Leather Zone), a slightly rundown retailing district. She initially wanted to avoid the temptation of Leon, but couldn’t resist, hoping to find a pair of white cowboy boots to take back to her native NewZealand — along with whatever else caught her fancy and would fit in her suitcase. I went searching for sandals to replace the aging pair I bought in Leon in 2002. We weren’t disappointed, although we pored over a seemingly endless assortment of similar-looking merchandise in our quests.

Most stores crammed a respectable selection of footwear into impossibly small spaces Few provided any amenities — like a comfortable spot to try on shoes. Or a sock for the shoppers wearing sandals, offering only a hideous plastic bag to slip over a bare foot. While no one would confuse Leon with a fashion capital — it offers few avant-garde styles — pleasant surprises abound. Like the surprising number of shoes that fit Nadine’s Size 6 feet. Or the baby blue stilettos she plucked from a cluttered display for $30 U.S.

“I can see these growing on me,” she said, taking forever to choose the blue pair over the yellow ones. “What else do these go with?”

I picked up a pair of mule-style leather sandals for $20 U.S., the same price I paid for a similar pair in 2002. Finding white cowboy boots made from normal leather — not ostrich, crocodile or snakeskin — was less easy. But the Golden Boot came through, with the desired model for just $60 U.S. After an entire afternoon of shopping — checking out at least 200 stores — we left exhausted, seeing only a fraction of Leon’s shoe bounty.

From the Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 2005

13 October 2005

Jalisco pays homage to Virgin of Zapopan

Virgin of Zapopan parade

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

October 13, 2005

José María Romo, 86, needed a miracle. He broke his lower leg playing soccer in 1941; the bones jutted out through his skin. The injury wouldn't heal properly so his doctor recommended amputating his foot. Romo prayed to the Virgin of Zapopan, asking for intervention.

Today, 64 years later, Romo proudly rolls up his pant leg to show where his doctor wanted to cut.

"I received a miracle," he says. "They didn't cut off my foot."

While most Mexicans observe Día de la Raza on Oct. 12, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, much of Jalisco pays homage to the Virgin of Zapopan, watching her return to her suburban Guadalajara home after touring each parish in the local diocese. The Catholic icon perhaps ranks nearly as high in stature for Jalisco residents as the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, a figure deeply entrenched in the national mythology. Each year, more than one million people line an eight-kilometer-parade route, running from Guadalajara's main cathedral to the suburban Zapopan Basilica, taking in colorful indigenous dances and giving thanks for past blessings.

"There's no other event of this kind anywhere else in the republic," Romo said.

Romo grabbed a curbside spot for the early-morning festivities near the Guadalajara-Zapopan border at 6 a.m., but many in the crowd arrived much earlier. With the event regularly drawing so many spectators, many Guadalajara-area businesses close for the day. Most students receive the day off.

Some onlookers like Romo, who marched in the event for eight years as one of the virgin's guards, come to express gratitude or to ask for intervention.

Others venture out for the pageantry.

"We really like the dances," said María Magdalena Hernández, who brought her two sons to the event. "It's a tradition."


Indigenous dancers from across the region, clad in typical costumes, preceded the virgin. Boys, wearing masks and brandishing whips, cleared a path, keeping the overflow crowds off of the route. For more than two hours, drums thumped, metal shoes clanked and whips cracked.

With a massive crowd in attendance, hundreds of vendors set up puestos (stands), hawking everything from food to religious trinkets and photos of the virgin. Product sample wrappers littered the parade route. Tshirt vendor Memo Gutiérrez claimed a prime location at 10 p.m. the night before, calling the annual parade one of his best sales days.


The Virgin of Zapopan dates back to the 1540s, when the Spanish arrived in Jalisco. Originally fashioned from corn, the Spanish used the icon, which resembles the Virgin Mary, to pacify rebellious indigenous communities. The virgin allegedly healed the sick, leading the indigenous population to embrace her.

The legend grew after the Virgin of Zapopan, then residing in a specially-built cathedral in the city of the same name, visited nearby Guadalajara, which was under the grip of a terrible plague in the 1720s. The plague disappeared shortly thereafter.

More recently, adherents say the virgin arrested a 10-year decline in Lake Chapala's water level in the 1950s.

Pilgrims from as far away as Guanajuato and Zacatecas regularly travel to Zapopan, looking for intervention. Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the Virgin of Zapopan's home in 1979.

After an endless stream of dancers moved on and to calls of, "Viva Maria," the 20-inch virgin made her appearance, riding under glass on a flower-laden float and accompanied by guards in colonial Spanish costumes.

Tears welled up in José María Romo's eyes as the virgin slowly passed by.

"I feel immense gratitude," he said softly, dabbing his face with a handkerchief.

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition, October 13, 2005.

10 October 2005

Mexico ends soccer futility

Chivas fans

By David Agren

Mexico's under-17 soccer squad capped an improbable run last Sunday in Lima, Peru, winning the World Cup for its age group. It marked the first time the futbol-mad country claimed a world championship in the sport. Mural, a Guadalajara newspaper, summed up the accomplishment by saying in the lead paragraph of its Monday story: "(It) put an end to 75 years of mediocrity in Mexican soccer."

Making the win even more remarkable, the Mexican teenagers defeated defending champion and perennial soccer power Brazil 3-0 in the final.

The team's run captivated the nation's imagination and drew immense media attention. Some newspaper articles dubbed the young players, "Ninos Heroes," (Boy Heroes) a reference to the six cadets who died defending Mexico City's Chapultapec Castle against invading U.S. troops in 1848. Televisa broke away from its normal professional soccer coverage to beam in highlights of the Mexican squad's games. Jubilant fans crowded the Minerva glorieta in Guadalajara and the Angel de la Indpendencia monument in Mexico City after the win. Supporters also turned out en masse at Mexico City's airport to welcome back the team. The victorious teenagers later visited Los Pinos (the president's residence).

Mexico's victory bodes well for two of Guadalajara's professional squads, which haven't won a championship since 1997. Chivas and Atlas own the rights to nine of the 20 Under 17 squad members. Some legendary European clubs though, including Real Madrid and Chelsea, have expressed an interest in several of the young players.

Previous to this win, Mexico's biggest accomplishment was winning the 1999 Confederations Cup, a tournament for each continent's champion. The team, though, has mostly disappointed, despite usually having a high world ranking. Most recently, the men's team lost a 2002 World Cup elimination match to their northern arch rivals, the United States.

28 September 2005

Nationalized oil? Surely we jest?

Nationalized oil? Surely we jest?
Calgary Herald
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Page: A16
Section: The Editorial Page
Byline: David Agren
Source: For The Calgary Herald

Less than a year after Ottawa sold its remaining Petro-Canada shares, the prospect of nationalizing the oil industry has reappeared. A Leger Marketing poll, partly conducted before hurricane Katrina struck, found 49 per cent of Canadians in favour.

For a cautionary tale of nationalization run amok, look south. Way south to Mexico, where energy nationalization spawned an unruly monopoly saddled with a crushing debt, inefficiencies, an unscrupulous union and a shameful environmental record. Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) surely stands out as exhibit A in the case against government intervention in the petroleum industry.

Pemex is on the brink of insolvency, according to its director, with debts of nearly $50 billion. Company officials admitted after a spate of pipeline ruptures last winter that 68 per cent of its ducts need repair. Thieves -- often abetted by insiders -- heisted an estimated $1.8 billion per year worth of combustibles from the company between 1998 and 2002, taking the loot from refineries, storage facilities and clandestine pipeline connections.

Mexico's consumer protection agency found Pemex franchised gas stations (the only brand in Mexico) shortchange their customers by about $2 billion a year. Mexico's environmental protection agency named Pemex Mexico's worst polluter in 2000.

Many of its problems stem from its massive tax bill. Pemex pays more than 60 per cent of its gross revenues to the Mexican government. Its taxes account for more than one-third of all government revenues. The heavy tax burden impairs its ability to explore for new reserves and maintain its crumbling infrastructure. According to columnist Fred Rosen of The Herald Mexico, one projection said without a sustained investment in exploration and maintenance, Mexico, now the world's sixth biggest petroleum producer, could become an oil importer within a decade.
To provide more money for exploration and infrastructure, the Mexican congress slashed Pemex's tax bill earlier this summer, but President Vicente Fox vetoed the proposed change, saying the revenue shortfall would prevent him from balancing his budget (one of the few legacies he expects to leave after completing an unremarkable presidential term).

The company has long been a political football no politician dares to radically overhaul. Fox proposed modest reforms early in his administration, but ran into intransigent legislators, who balked at the prospect of foreign ownership in Pemex.

The Mexican constitution forbids foreigners from owning or exploiting the country's natural resources. Opportunistic politicians -- most recently populist presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- have long leveraged the fear of foreigners taking over the Mexican oil
industry, coining slogans like, "La patria no se vende" (the homeland's not for sale).

Attempts to improve the company's poor governance have also fallen short. Fox proposed appointing four industry titans to its board in 2001, including Telmex impresario Carlos Slim, Latin America's richest man, who recently called for allowing private investment in Pemex. Opposition lawmakers forced the president to back down. Until Fox ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, ending its 71-year hammer lock on power, Pemex and its union allegedly bankrolled much of the PRI's mischief. In the last federal election, Pemex's former director and the Oil Workers' Union allegedly funneled more than $200 million into the failed PRI campaign in a scandal dubbed Pemexgate.

The powerful union protects a bloated workforce of more than 125,000 employees. In previous years, it would blackmail the government into offering generous wages and benefits, threatening violent strikes if its demands weren't met. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning article on the Mexican
justice system, Washington Post reporter Kevin Sullivan profiled a regional union kingpin, whose power a local academic compared to "a medieval court where the king sits there, people line up to see him, and he makes all the decisions."

Union bosses often dictate hiring; nepotism is rife.

While most Mexicans hate corruption, the prospect of foreign (read: U.S.) interests exploiting their resources is unacceptable. The country still marks Expropriation Day on March 18, a reminder of the day in 1938 when then-president Lazaro Cardenas expelled foreign companies from the industry. U.S. lawmakers have tried to link immigration reform to privatization, but Mexican politicians dismissed the proposal out of hand.

An uncompetitive oil monopoly held hostage by an unscrupulous union and grandstanding politicians: Is this what Canadians want?

Calgarian David Agren is a journalist working in Mexico.

20 September 2005

Bobsled dreams on display at 'push' event


BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico

GUADALAJARA, Jalisco. Bobsled pilot Carlos Aranda, standing in a set position behind his sled's push bar at the top of the push track, yelled in a questioning tone, "Preparados (are you ready)?"

Brakeman Roberto Lauderdale responded, "Listo (ready)!" Then, with a mighty push, the pair,competing as Mexico I, charged down the 80meter run, stopping the clock at 4.09 seconds before Lauderdale slammed on the brakes.

Their exploits captured top spot on the first day of competition last weekend in "push," a form of bobsledding, which simulates the quick starts necessary for a good run. And, in a toogood-to-be-true story line, they won the race, dubbed the New Mix Cup, on their home track.

In an odd feat, Mexico hosted a winter sports championship – in a city that saw snow only once in the last century. Athletes from five countries converged on Guadalajara's Unidad Deportiva Revolucion, where the newly inaugurated push track drew high praise from athletes used to practicing on ice.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said Lyndon Rush, a Canadian pilot (bobsled driver), who placed third in the two-man event.

"It's not the same [as on ice], but it's totally good for training."

Although far from the center of the bobsledding universe, the Mexican team's stature has grown immensely in recent years, thanks to the efforts of three-time Olympian Roberto Tames, 41, who has pioneered the sport, growing it from minnow status to respectability.


Fellow competitors and bobsledding officials admire not only his persistence, but also his piloting skills.

"He's a good driver," Rush said. "He always makes it down the track safe."

Respect, though, came slowly for Tames. After the 1988 Calgary Games, the Jamaican team captured immense attention, inspiring the movie "Cool Runnings." But nowadays, Mexico, led by Tames who along with his three brothers finished ahead of the Jamaicans in 1988 outclasses its Caribbean rivals by a wide margin.

"Unfortunately, Jamaica has not been developing … they may not even have a sled on the World Cup circuit this year and therefore, not in the Olympics," said David Kurtz, vice president of international affairs for Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobaganning (FIBT).

"Roberto, because of his perseverance, has stayed with it," he added.

Tames' determination and dedication to the sport is legendary. Lacking cash and a sponsor, he drove a borrowed 1978 El Camino from Guadalajara to Calgary. Even though a tire blew out, the water pump quit and the heater didn't work, he arrived in time for an America's Cup race. The trip landed him on the front page of the Calgary Sun and several news organizations, including the Washington Post and the Associated Press, published features on Tames and his crew.

His passion for bobsledding, though, cost him his marriage. After retiring in the mid-1990s, his crew urged him to return, to his wife's displeasure. She gave him an ultimatum: bobsled or their marriage. He chose bobsled.

Tames and Roberto Lauderdale later competed in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games in the twoman event, besting only the U.S. Virgin Islands and Trinidad and Tobago for 35th place in the 37sled event.

Despite the low placing, Tames wanted another shot at the Olympics. He knew, however, he needed a better training facility. So he pitched the FIBT on bringing the world push championships to Guadalajara two years ago and succeeded.

"Roberto has exercised worldwide leadership," Kurtz said. "He's a real asset to the bobsled program in the world."

The Jalisco state government also stepped up, contributing 632,771 pesos (US60,000) towards building the push track in a gully shaded by tall trees in a Guadalajara park. The Guadalajara municipal government, FIBT and 12 corporate sponsors also provided funds and equipment.

Kurtz, the No. 2 person in the FIBT, ranked Guadalajara's push track as the best in the world.

"They have other push tracks in Split, Croatia, the Netherlands and in Germany and none of them compare to this facility," he said.

The competition, however, lacked many of the sport's powerhouse teams, making it a twocountry duel between Canada, an emerging power in bobsled, and Mexico.

"This is an Olympic year and you have coaches that are very, very nervous about sending their top athletes to Mexico, or anywhere really that's not in their strict program," Kurtz explained.

"When the rest of the athletes get their results and see what took place here, next time there's an event here it will be jam packed," he said.


For his part, Tames expressed satisfaction with the competition and his team's results.

"Mexico's level has increased. It's going to help us promote the sport and qualify for the Olympics," he said after leading his four-man team to a second place finish 0.11 seconds behind Canada. In their last showdown, the Canadians won by 0.30 seconds and also bested Mexico in the two-man event.

"Having this track has really helped us," he said.

Carlos Aranda, who teaches kindergarten when not training and competing, echoed Tames' sentiments, adding after capturing the Saturday event, "The truth is we thought we could win because we've been training a lot.

"The Canadians are physically imposing … but fortunately we were in our house and we did our best to win."

The next day, in a tense showdown for the world push championship title, Aranda and Lauderdale needed to beat the Canadians' time of 4.14. Despite their best efforts, they fell short by a mere one-hundredth of a second.

"Almost," Aranda said after finishing the run. "We'll win next time."

The Mexican team departs in October for training sessions with the Russian team, before embarking on the World Cup season.

Despite receiving a favorable prediction from Kurtz, who said Mexico could threaten for a spot in the top 10 in the upcoming Turin Games, Aranda's goals are somewhat modest.

"My main goal is to qualify," he said, adding US40,000 in sponsorship money would allow the team to better prepare.

"For a country like us, it's difficult to qualify mainly because we don't have the economic resources to go to as many competitions as we want to.

"But we're putting our hearts into making it."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

18 September 2005

Mexico's union blues frustrate expat entrepreneur in Chapala


'The thing that bothered me most ... for a whole hour, they were talking about money.' Rony Clygnet, proprietor La Petite Belgique

 Story by : David Agren

Rony Clygnet fulfilled a dream in March, opening La Petite Belgique, a small restaurant in the Chapala centro adorned with photos of the king and queen of his native Belgium and red, yellow and black flags. His restaurant served Belgian waffles topped with bananas and chocolate sauce, baked apples or strawberries and whipped cream, providing Lakeside residents an authentic taste of Antwerp, his hometown. Within a few months, his business had grown as customers came from all over Lakeside for the waffles, cheerful service and reasonable prices. He averaged 40 customers per day by early September and employed one person.

But a sindicato (union) official from an outfit affiliated with the Jalisco Federation of Workers also paid a visit, demanding Clygnet sign up with the organization and pay a 4,000-peso fee. He also threatened to close La Petite Belgique unless Clygnet cooperated.

Clygnet initially refused. Two months later, the sindicato obtained a demanda (subpoena) against his restaurant, telling him to appear at its Guadalajara office. He balked at the demanda – which listed someone else as the owner – saying, "I've got a business to run." The Belgian entrepreneur pleaded his case to public security officials and the police, but they initially showed little interest in confronting the sindicato.

After failing to appear in Guadalajara, the union shuttered his restaurant on September 9, padlocking the front screen and spray painting it with the letters, "H/A," for huelga (strike in Spanish – an action taken without consulting La Petite Belgique's lone employee.)

Sindicatos wield immense power in Mexico. By law virtually every business must affiliate itself with a sindicato. While in most countries the workers make the decision to join a union, in Mexico, the business owner chooses the sindicato. In the absence of a choice, the sindicato can dragoon a business and its employees into its organization.

Clygnet knew little about Mexico's labor laws when he opened his shop in March. The experience though prompted second thoughts about whether it was the right decision.

"If I had known this beforehand, I might not have started the business," he said.

Generally speaking, Clygnet has no problems with unions. He was a card-carrying member of Sabena's (Belgium's defunct national airline) union for 14 years. To Clygnet's surprise, in conversations with various sindicato officials, the subject of his employee's welfare never surfaced.

"The thing that bothered me most ... for a whole hour, they were talking about money," he explained. "I said, 'You've been here an hour and you've said nothing about working conditions or my employee.' "

Martha Diaz Lopez, Clygnet's employee, wants nothing to do with the sindicato.

"I'm not lacking anything," the mother of six daughters said, acknowledging some fear that a strike could throw her out of a job, causing financial hardship.

"The sindicato doesn't do any thing for workers," said Eugenia Larrinaga Canberra, manager of the Chapala delegation of the Chamber of Commerce. "It's all money, money, money."

Mexican unions gained much of their power by supporting the long- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Union organizers have long marshaled large numbers of voters for the party. Former Mexican Workers' Confederation (CTM) president Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine endorsed PRI presidential aspirant Robert Madrazo earlier this summer on the eve of the sindicato leader's passing. Editorial cartoonists mocked his gesture as a deathbed endorsement, fulfilling his organization's role as a PRI booster.

President Vicente Fox has proposed reforming Mexico's labor laws during his five years in office, but opposition politicians have refused to cooperate.

Legal murkiness governing sindicato activities also complicates matters for many small business owners.

According to Larrinaga, sindicatos may not sign up family businesses or companies with fewer than three employees. La Petite Belgique employs only one person, but Clygnet said a sindicato official told him that once a demanda was issued, it couldn't be reversed.

Hector Vega, a Guadalajara-based accountant, recommends business owners sign up with a "sindicato blanco" (white union), an organization registered with the federal Labor Secretariat that allows entrepreneurs to comply with the law for a nominal fee.

"(A sindicato blanco) won't bother you (later) for money," he explained.

He compared signing up with a sindicato blanco to getting a vaccination.

"Vaccinate yourself ... do it before another union gets their foot in the door.

"The vaccination is a poison against a (more lethal) poison. It's the lesser of two evils."

Some business owners have staved off signing with a sindicato, including Paul Leming, co-owner of Agua Katya, a self-serve water store in Chapala, who has also skirmished with organizers over the past three years. During past visits to his store, organizers dropped off blank contracts, demanding he enroll and pay 500 pesos.

"It's a scam," he said succinctly, while taking a break from his water business.

"It's a three-ring circus and in every ring, you're paying."

Although not affiliated with any sindicato, Leming has paid a sindicato on several occasions, when dealing with disgruntled employees demanding severance pay. In one instance, an employee stole his delivery truck, crashing it in Ajijic last April. Leming paid a sindicato official 500 pesos for advising him on how to fire the employee, who under Mexican law could have demanded a severance package.

Later on the same day the sindicato locked up Clygnet's restaurant Ñ after a loud confrontation in front of many witnesses – a senior CTM official in Guadalajara allowed the business to reopen, although the strike continued. The official also ordered Clygnet to appear in Guadalajara on September 22 to sign up. Clygnet, however, discovered the order to appear was a diversionary tactic so the sindicato could again shut down his business.

Clygnet fought back after he "saw papers [that said] they were going to shut me down."

He wrote to Jalisco Governor Francisco Ramirez Acu–a, who dispatched an inspector from the state's social benefits agency last week to assess the situation. Clygnet and several other business owners also plan Ñ in conjunction with Chapala's municipal government Ñ to establish a hotline for people wishing to register a complaint against the sindicato.

In large part, besides pride and a love of Mexico, Clygnet persists because of Diaz, who he said, "Might be out of a job," due to the actions of a union.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

13 September 2005

Traditional mariachi lives on in Jalisco

Mariachi Tradicional Azteca

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico

COCULA, Jalisco Before playing a gig with his group Mariachi Tradicional Azteca, Joaquín Arredondo dons an outfit of a loose-fitting white cotton shirt and matching pants, a rustic blanket slung over his left shoulder, a palm-leaf sombrero, and faded sandals. Once dressed, he hoists his guitarrón, a fat guitar-like bass instrument, and is ready to give audiences a taste of Mexico's famed mariachi music in its original form.

"Traditional mariachi is the essence of Jalisco," the third-generation musician said after playing at a recent festival in Cocula in the western state of Jalisco. "It's how mariachi was at the end of the 1800s."

His music and clothing differ little from pioneering group Mariachi de Justo Villa, a Cocula quartet that town residents say thrust mariachi music into the national consciousness 100 years ago, when it played a concert at former president Porfirio Diaz's birthday party in Mexico City's Castillo Chapultepec. Cocula, the self-proclaimed "cradle of mariachi," celebrated the anniversary of the famous gig earlier this month with a parade and concerts at which many of the artists played the traditional style in conjunction with Guadalajara's 12th Mariachi and Charreria Festival.

Mariachi has evolved considerably since the Spanish arrived in Cocula in 1532. Traditional mariachis preserve the genre's roots, drawing inspiration from a time when campesinos, or peasant farmers, "harvested corn and played music" in the countryside beyond the listening distance of hacienda owners, who preferred chamber music and other European imports.

The first mariachis wore typical clothes and sang about their lives in the countryside, playing a rustic style of music that featured some of the same shouting as today's groups, but lacking the attention-grabbing trumpets, orchestral-sounding violins and, most noticeably, garish charro cowboy suits.

Traditional mariachi originally featured three instruments: the violin, vihuela and guittarón, and the groups that played them were typically quartets. Mariachi Tradicional Azteca has eight members, all of whom sing in addition to playing a stringed instrument. Arredondo acknowledged the difference, but said, "It's the quality that's important … not the quantity" of musicians.


Arredondo and his fellow group members play mostly in festivals like Cocula's, but like their modern counterparts decked out in fancy threads, Mariachi Tradicional Azteca also performs its share of serenades, conquistas and mañanitas. Yet it plays a largely unknown genre.

"People here don't really know what it is," he explained. "In only the last five years, people have started to know it."

The Guadalajara mariachi festival now stages traditional concerts during the first few days of its annual event. Arredondo while grateful for the interest complained that organizers have excluded groups like his from the large galas in Guadalajara's legendary Teatro Degollado, relegating traditional mariachi to lesser venues in the Jalisco capital and the surrounding areas.

In Cocula, however, locals lined a parade route, cheering the traditional groups, who marched past the town's numerous birria restaurants with their contemporary peers.


The town, 50 kilometers south of Guadalajara on the highway to the Costa Alegre, takes credit for spreading mariachi beyond Western Mexico and not just through Mariachi de Justo Villa's exploits. Juan Hernández, a migrant from the town, helped make Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi the premiere mariachi destination in the country after he brought traditional-style bands from Cocula to serenade patrons at Tenampa, his Garibaldi cantina.

Cocula also claims responsibility for several key advances from the early days of mariachi, including the invention of both the guitarrón and the vihuela, a small 12-string guitar with gut strings, by indigenous locals. (Another version of the story says the vihuela comes from Germany and that the indigenous played a similar instrument made from an armadillo shell).

According to Elizabeth Balcazár, director of the Museo del Mariachi in Cocula, the conquering Spanish found an indigenous population with music skills upon arriving in Jalisco. The indigenous Coca later incorporated European instruments like the violin into their music, creating a unique fusion - now known as traditional mariachi.

Although the music defines Mexico in the minds of many, the word "mariachi" reputedly comes from the French word mariage and was coined during the reign of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, after the occupiers saw peones playing at weddings. Many historians and musicians dispute that account, however.

"Mariachi was called mariachi before the French arrived," said Francisco Gómez, a music teacher at the Guadalajara campus of Tec de Monterrey, adding the word mariachi most likely comes from the Nahuatl language.

The population of southern Jalisco didn't care much for the French, and so acerbic lyrics about the occupiers abound in many old mariachi songs. But while they were occasionally political, these older songs usually focused on everyday life, unlike modern ballads, which gush with feelings of love and are accompanied by forceful instruments and yells.

"The older music is more poetic, it's less aggressive," said José Luis Arellano Rodríguez, music director of Mariachi Tradicional Azteca and a psychologist by profession.

"Authentic music is much softer."

New technology hastened some of mariachi's biggest changes, radically changing its sound. In one example, a Mexico City radio station owner introduced the trumpet, hoping to create a more forceful sound for his broadcasts.

For uncertain reasons, "commercial mariachis" as members of Mariachi Tradicional Azteca dub their modern counterparts traded their simple campesino clothes for charro suits. According to one account, Porfirio Diaz ordered a group to change clothes prior to a gig for a visiting dignitary. Another version says the owner of the Televisa network provided charro suits for mariachis appearing on television.

The change in clothing grates some traditional mariachi musicians.

"This signifies poverty," Arredondo said, pointing to his cotton shirt. "The charro suit is a symbol of the rich."

Despite his preference for the traditional style, Arredondo, a self-described "hired gun," dons a charro suit two nights a week for performances with a commercial group, but admitted, "Modern mariachi doesn't have much importance for me."

But the traditional style captivates the 45-year-old father of two, who said, "For me, it's a drug."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.