Mérida is celebrating the arrival of P.F. Chang’s and California Pizza Kitchen in a new section of Plaza Altabrisa called City Hall. Starbucks inhabits one of the Paseo’s historic mansions, a stone’s throw from the Walmart. Burger King presides over one of the Centro’s most historically significant buildings near the main square. I’ve accepted long ago that this is the reality of our world today, and why shouldn’t a city of a million people have the latest of everything? A few years ago, it seemed more expats were chagrined at any signs of corporate steamrollering, but today this touch of the familiar is embraced, from what I gauge on social media. And if I can have a Taco Bell in my neighborhood in Connecticut, why can’t Meridanos have a TGI Fridays in theirs? We can’t preserve the old Mérida in amber.
But then there’s this. An Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonator opening a 1950s-diner-themed Johnny Rockets at the Mérida International Airport? Yes, there is already a Burger King there, so I’m not claiming that any kind of cultural purity has been breached. At the airport entrance, a jaguar sculpture, symbol of the Mesoamerican wilderness, was replaced by two plexiglass X’s, the symbol of a multinational beer company. Banners advertising the gleaming Country Towers and the Jack Nicklaus golf course (why is there so much English going on here?) greet you when you get past Immigration. You could almost believe the airplane went in a circle and landed back in the States.
Sometimes I joke around, coming up with absurd and crass ideas to further mold Mérida to suit the culture I grew up with. The arrival of Johnny Rockets is strangely close to one of my twisted evil concepts. I grew up with New Jersey diners in the 1970s, which where I lived was basically the ’50s with longer haircuts. They were typically very plain, not slick, self-conscious tourist traps. I chalked it up to my perversely dark humor that if we transplanted one, it would do very well in the Centro. Imagine gum-chewing waitresses with high beehives. (How do you say “kiss my grits” in Spanish?) Now Johnny Rockets, which I’ve only ever seen in north-of-the-border airports, went ahead and built a kind-of diner in Mérida. They’ve been in Mexico for years and they’re expanding. Fine. Anything that brings jobs to Yucatán is fine by me. I guess I can’t expect a cochinita pibil to be lifted from the ground by Maya women in huipiles right as I arrive.
Carl’s Jr. and Chili’s is making a go of it in Mérida, so why not Dunkin Donuts? Someone once told me that someone did try to bring that franchise down here, but it failed. But Krispy Kreme is in Cancun, and from what I see online it’s a big deal when someone hauls down a dozen doughnuts. For me, I’d prefer to embrace the local culture and have a croissant at Café Creme or Bistro Cultural, which aren’t very Mexican either, but are at least locally owned and keeps the money in the local economy.
In the ’70s I watched my nice little downtown die because people abandoned the Smart Shoppe, a dowdy little dress store a friend of my grandmother’s owned, for chains at the Searstown Mall. A malt shop I could walk to withered and was replaced by Orange Julius several miles up the highway and across an endless parking lot. My uncle’s store, Lake Stationery, never had a chance but hung on for years trying to sell off old decaying stock. We used to buy his moldy school supplies out of family loyalty, while other kids went back to school each fall with the latest Trapper Keepers from K-Mart. At Stainton’s Department Store, I once shared the elevator with the owner. That won’t happen at Macy’s. Admittedly, the chains were cheaper and more up-to-date, but now it’s next to impossible to start your own business in your own town, competing with malls and franchises, and you don’t transact business with your neighbor anymore. We made this bargain years ago and there’s no going back and it pains me to see this pattern repeated in the Centro.
Update: Sunday night, Johnny Rockets was busy, despite these prices: $79 pesos, or $6, for a milkshake, burgers for $130, or about 10 bucks US.
Photo: Diario de Yucatán