Mérida International Airport ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog

johnnyrocketsMérida 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.

A real diner. Olga's in Marlton, NJ, now closed.

A real diner. Olga’s in Marlton, NJ, now closed.

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

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  1. I wish that my Spanish was at a sufficient level to have this discussion with many local Yucatecans -young, old, middle class, working class, professional- rather than presume that they either embrace or dislike the invasion of American chains (or expats, for that matter). I do notice that when shopping in the “big box” stores, the customers are overwhelmingly Yucatecan. I suspect the same will hold for P.F. Chang’s and iHOP. I don’t think for even a second that expats have anything to do with, as someone stated on a local forum, the Miami-ization of Mérida. It is the growing middle class with disposable income . There is still much charm to be found here, especially when driving and exploring the city beyond the Centro and Paseo de Montejo. There is also a huge population of people who will never see the inside of a Sam’s Club, much less P.F. Chang’s.

    • A lot of places I initially assumed would be expat enclaves are really supported mainly by local meridanos. Take Hennessy’s, for example. Local people seem to have really taken to it. Yes, we have a long way to go before the ruins are gringotized. IHOP is going to be a huge hit, no doubt. We lost our local IHOP a few years ago and I was astonished. I mean, there must be a huge profit margin on pancakes!

  2. Modernization is definitely a mixed bag. Part of what makes Mérida’s Centro so charming is the rather sad fact that no one had a dime to remodel for more than a hundred and fifty years. Now, of course, all those buildings are “charming,” “historic,” “cultural patrimony,” etc. But to get there they first had to pass through “run down,” “old-fashioned,” and “derelict.”

    Contrast that with Aguascalientes. While it certainly still has a nice chunk of historic architecture, it’s pretty clear that the economy there in the 20’s through the 60’s was strong enough to pay for relentless demolition of “old and tired” colonial buildings to create new wonders that many of us today would consider eyesores. Sadly, those eyesores also are more suitable for modern living, with amenities such as parking, garages, elevators, HVAC, etc.

    Mexicans (just like Americans) seem to like chain restaurants, and the progress they imply. Fortunately, those chains will likely never eliminate the taco stands and good independents either. However, some of the chains can occupy old buildings while still showing respect for their architectural integrity. Starbucks has done an excellent job of that both in the USA and Mexico. And I’ve seen many an Oxxo in a charming, colonial building, where the original architectural elements were preserved.

    But Mérida’s relatively wealthy expat population may also be a partial driver behind chains moving in. As noted by “Cholo,” many of these places are expensive for the native Mexicans. So they need to cater to wealthier Mexicans and also to the expats, whose spending power far outstrips their numbers.

    And this in my view is yet another charm of DF. First, most Gringos are afraid of it, so we are relatively few in number there. Second, it’s so friggin’ enormous, there’s no way (short of a full-scale invasion) that it could ever become “agringada.” Finally, the city government has clearly recognized the Centro Historico and similar places such as Coyoacán as assets worth preserving. At the same time, there’s plenty of newer areas, particularly to the south, that are fine for plastic-signed chains.

    It looks like I’d better hurry up and get back to Mérida before it turns into Cancún, minus the beach. When I last was there in 1993, the only chains were hotels, and I didn’t notice any Gringos besides myself and my friend.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we like the fact that Boston has managed to keep most chain restaurants subdued.

    • The same goes for Bridgeport, as far as architecture goes. Sixties urban renewal was underfunded, so they couldn’t demolish the outmoded department stores and bank buildings, which at the time I think reminded people of the unfortunate past. Thankfully, Victorian and 1920s architecture held no such baggage for the next generations and now they have been converted into movie theaters, playhouses and, most importantly, affordable housing. We have been pretty-much chain free only because the chains had no interested in a downtown with little foot traffic.

      The biggest change I’ve seen in the Centro came not in 2010 when Hennessey’s Irish Pub came in and was embraced by locals. It was when a couple of entrepreneurs reinvented the cucina economica and the cantina. Modern takes by chef owners at Cafe Creme, La Lupita and Bistro Cultural have offered above-average cuisine that’s affordable.

      So yeah, Kim, get down to Merida while it’s still in that sweet spot, balancing the old-world and the new money.

      • I love the idea of nouvelle comida economica. I’ll definitely have to check it out. If I can ever launch my road trip, I hope I can get as far as Mérida. I’d love to meet some of the expats there.

        • I do hope you come to Mérida. You’ll be amazed at the changes. I know I’m struck by how much has changed in the three years we’ve been traveling back and forth. You obviously have lots of friends all over the country, so you’ll feel the pull to visit lots of destinations. Start with the peninsula!

    • Oh my goodness Lee… you are opening a bag of worms today. On the most reminiscing-inducing day of the year you mention modernization and the encroachment of US franchise restaurants and stores. I have been accused of flaunting my 38 year perspective, but my views are hard-won. I think I’ve earned the right to be non-frightened. Decades back when everything was “Hecho en Mexico” we had the poorest selection you could imagine and the prices charged by our lordly shop owners were horribly high. They fixed prices and hoarded to drive profits up. Shortages of everything from TP to eggs occurred regularly. Once the national and international chains came to town, the old guard was deserted by almost all but the most dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. So no, I don’t feel sorry for San Francisco and Super Maz or any of the other former monopolists… And I do not think the trend towards “American-style” restaurants has been brought on primarily by the Gringo community. Mexicans with means travel and they use the internet and they watch Cable TV… their tastes have broadened and while they still love cochinita and panuchos, they love pizza and a good T-bone too. Mexico City is not the only city in Mexico that scares off the “settlers”— we have heat and mosquitoes!

      • I had no idea there was such tyranny behind the mom-and-pop stores. Thank you for such an interesting perspective, or should I say, thank you for flaunting your 38-year perspective!

      • Joanna,
        I love hearing your 38 year perspective. I remember when Super Bodega was a big hit on Prolongacion de Montejo and how poor the selection was in other stores – some dusty shelves too, until higher priced goods appeared suddenly the day before a big holiday or puente – among local monopolies.

        It wasn’t (and isn’t) really mom-and-pop tiendas who were to blame, unless mom-and-pop were rich families’ parents who had become fantastically wealthy through labor exploitation and massive property accumulation. I seen various numbers used, so this is just one* I’ve seen a bit more: at one time, *14 families owned 99% of the hundreds of haciendas and henequen land in Yucatan. And among those 14, there were really only a few major divisions.

        They were monopolist owners of local supermarkets, rather than little corner mom-and-pop tienditas. Government commissaries* (for lack of better word: govt {or union co-op?} package food store) and mercados had basics for reasonable prices, but there were only a handful of those — not always convenient or open. And they didn’t have everything you might want or need.

        The Merida back-story of very few, extremely wealthy casta divina families is being diluted by newer arrivals, for both good and bad. For many years, maybe since The War of the Castes ended early in the 20th century, these local power families have demanded a quiet “muy tranquilo” place to conduct their business. So far, “mas o menos tranquilo” is prevailing, but I wonder what more recent changes and possible dilution of their influence may bring.

        • Thanks for clarifying the state of those old monopolies. Sounds like cities up here, actually. Those “socially prominent” people from the “best” families can be more tyrannical, as you say, for better or worse, than corporate owners. Sounds like you’ve been in Mérida nearly as long as Joanna!

  3. Well, for one thing, “foreign brands” can come and go. We’ll see how long the latest crop works out.

    Wendy’s couldn’t make it. Carls Jr has lasted a few more years now and seems solid, being owned by the Burger King franchisee. Burger King is quite expensive by Mexican income standards. McDonalds on Montejo is awful poorly warmed dried-out food, etc, etc. Chili’s? Have you eaten at the one in Fiesta Americana? Ooof, nasty. How can they destroy frozen-pre-made food so completely? Inaccurate microwaving? The “American restaurants” are often nothing like those in America.

    Perhaps the people who are not cheering the arrival of two more overpriced corporate brands are those who don’t bother with a lot of online activity (*sacrilege*, I know!)? Everyone in every nation has their God-given right to over-priced frozen-processed-food chain restaurants. I don’t know that expats in Merida are celebrating those places or embracing them… It’s more like, “Oh dear, more corporate encroachment we see everywhere. Can we ever get to Cuba before it happens there!?” Perhaps it is newcomers to Merida? That’s a different story. They seem to be more thrilled than others.

    Anyway, expats are of many various strong opinions. The thing, I guess, that stirred me was the concept that all, or even many, expats are together as one mind or even as a unified “community.” Yes, everyone makes friends sooner or later, but the concept that one can say “Merida expats” followed by any verb (embrace, celebrate, etc) is most often fairly (very, mostly, usually) wrong.

    Expats, particularly those long-term in Merida, are a diverse and highly individualistic bunch. Here’s a strong opinion from a couple years back to illustrate: http://www.lawsonsyucatan.com/2010/06/18/the-real-merida/

    I love that he hates the concept of “The Real Merida,” which as far as I can tell began to spread about the time that blogging got going on Merida. There’s an online view of the world and then there is Reality, which is my other tiny nit, I guess, I wish to pick. Watching “the online view” begins to seem like one of those kindergarten games with everyone whispering a story into the same circle’s ears, round and round.

    None of this is meant as criticism of you. I find you entertaining and interesting. And every now and then, a posting inspires me to “enter the online world” a moment and have a say.

    See you at P.F. Changs? (no, but perhaps elsewhere, especially if you venture into The Real Mexico!) Haha! 😀

    ** (What a riot if it turns out to be the only edible Chinese food in Merida? Could easily happen.)

    • Me and all the other expats agree with you. I asked them and it was unanimous. You’re right that I’ve fallen into a trap by generalizing. People become expats for many different reasons and I’ve also taken issue with those who insist on a wrong and right way to live that life. We can get awfully precious about embracing a culture that, in reality, is getting globalized like everything else. I’ve pondered this on my blog, too, but your link to Mr. Lawson’s essay is better, and said by someone with much more authority. It was written just as we were beginning to contemplate our first visit, so obviously this is an issue that precedes our arrival. So don’t blame us for ruining the authentic culture of Merida!

      By the way, we’ve been eating breakfast at the Hacienda Montejo restaurant, right before the security check. Although the name isn’t familiar, the food is luke-warm and overpriced, just like the chains! I looked online and found it’s run by the same company that operates Johnny Rockets, TGI Friday’s and franchises too numerous to count. Before name-brand food courts, I remember the highway rest stops had a grim, generic cafeteria with steam table overflowing with salisbury steaks, lima beans and mashed potatoes. *Cringe!* So I guess food on the run was never all that great.

      But yes, let’s get real. The Centro is not the set of a movie that I’m starring in, and the people walking around aren’t extras, and most of these issues can’t be fully examined in a 600-word blog post. I’m just glad I said something to provoke a response from a reader I haven’t heard from in a while!

      • It seems IHOP is the “chain that went too far,” going by the interesting discourse on the Facemachine now. A number of non-celebrants and non-embracers seem to have arrived.

        I’ve been wondering if pressurized water is a cause of mall / chain store admiration? Does a slow dripping shower encourage a walk to the corner tienda, rather than a mad drive through even more maddening traffic?

        Do open windows cause mercado shopping, while frequent AC boosts cross-town traffic jaunts to big boxes? Does a lack of protectores cause theft, or do they permit it?
        Will UADY study this soon? Current-day anthropologists needed in Centro! Oh wait, that’s where they work already…

        Am I crazy? Oh, no more than most. Everyone has their “thing.” :-)

        • Hmm… that “no” was supposed to have a strikeout through it… Yes, crazier than most! :-)

          • I took the liberty of adding the strike-through. Feeling very powerful now.

            • Add a “like” button to your blog and you will have reached perfection! LOL, as they say.
              Thank you for adding the formatting! :-)

              • You should see a facebook “like” button at the bottom of each post. Feel free to click on it early and often. If you don’t see it, call me over, and I’ll like my posts for you.

        • Yes, IHOP is more iconic, more well-known, than that diner thing. Did you see on Facebook (I updated the post) what they’re charging for burgers? What will a stack of pancakes cost, and will the syrup be real maple?

    • I was underwhelmed by PF Changs but anyway… good to see you commenting Cholo. I have an interesting tidbit for you… contact me if you can

  4. Hey don’t forget about the two new DQs! (Dairy Queens) Luckily we do not do ‘fast food’! We are having a wonderful time here. Party tonight…only 7 days left. Time is flying..

    • How could I forget the Dairy Queen, especially the one on Parque Santa Lucia. I haven’t had a Blizzard in years, and people up here in Fairfield start lining up for theirs as early as March. Wish I could be at the party!

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