Mexico economic reality doesn't fit 'Aztec Tiger' narrative

Despite claims of a growing middle class and increased jobs, poverty is rising and the poor 'don't see any difference'

MEXICO CITY — For the last decade Victoria Alvarez Flores worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, 51 weeks a year at a Mexico City laundromat. Her round-trip commute from a town just outside the city added another four and a half hours to an already long day. The pay was modest, the benefits nonexistent, but at least she had a job. That is, until the owner sold the business.

On Oct. 27 the laundromat closed, marking Alvarez's first day of unemployment. It was her 54th birthday.

Alvarez’s situation is not uncommon. In the past year Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — along with much of the international media — has emphasized the growth of the Mexican middle class and portrayed the country as an economic success story, an Aztec Tiger. The reality, however, is quite different.

“The Mexican economy is going through a recession right now,” said Gerardo Esquivel, a professor at the Center for Economic Studies at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. “The numbers that have been mentioned in terms of the growth of the middle class have been grossly exaggerated. There is not a clear definition of what middle class is.”

Esquivel also indicated that the number of new jobs this year will be closer to 400,000 than to the projected 700,000. Additionally, a study by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) showed that the number of Mexicans living in poverty increased from 49.5 million to 53.2 million between 2008 and 2012.

“Today the word is survive. Not live, but survive,” Alvarez said. “They say a lot of things, but the truth is that we don’t see any difference, nothing real … It’s very difficult for all who live day to day.”

“If we buy tortillas we can’t buy beans,” she added, metaphorically.

The oldest of nine, Alvarez grew up in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, a working-class area southeast of Mexico City. Her father was a bricklayer, and her mother took care of Victoria and her eight siblings. Her father made a modest income, but it was enough to occasionally take the family to lucha libre wrestling, soccer matches and Chapultepec park.

“We had fun,” she recalled. “In our own way, within our limits.”

After completing only a year of middle school, Alvarez started working at age 14. Over the next few decades she worked a variety of jobs, including stints at a Dr. Scholl’s factory, a bakery that made food for airlines, a bodega in Mexico City’s central market, and a laundromat. After four years of working for an abusive boss at the laundromat she left the job and spent the next two years doing whatever she could to survive and provide for her three children, whom she raised alone.

In 2003 Alvarez had an offer to work 12-hour overnight shifts selling tortas for 1,400 pesos ($128, adjusted for inflation) a month, but she turned it down. Instead, she took a job at a laundromat in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of La Escandón, where she worked until last month.

A grueling workweek

Alvarez now lives with her brothers Daniel and Mario Santos in a small home in Chalco, in the state of Mexico. They moved to Chalco 19 years ago to save on rent after their father died. Daniel works as a chauffeur, and Mario Santos works day to day at an industrial waste dump.

While working at the laundromat, Alvarez was usually out the door by 6 a.m. or earlier. Like so many others who live in and around this city of nearly 20 million, she had a daily commute that took more than two hours in each direction and involved multiple forms of public transportation.

“The truth is, many times I’m still sleeping,” she said.

She and Daniel would first take a bus to Pantitlán, a main transportation hub in the eastern part of the city. On more than one occasion, men armed with pistols boarded the bus and stole passengers’ money and cell phones.

“Luckily, they weren’t aggressive with me,” Alvarez said. “But there are instances in which shots were fired.”

At Pantitlán, she transferred to the metro, which overflows with people during rush hour.

“I just hope I’m able to get on,” she said, laughing.

After arriving at the laundromat a little after 8 a.m., “late as always, since the first day,” Alvarez spent the next 10 hours washing clothes and drying them in two large gas-powered dryers that heat the place in the winter but make it uncomfortably hot in the summer. She often worked alone, watching telenovelas or soccer on a small television with poor reception.

The laundromat charged 60 pesos (around $4.70) to wash and dry three kilograms of clothing. Most days were busy. Alvarez said she handled an average of 20 customers and 25 to 30 three-kilogram loads each day — meaning the owner covered her weekly salary in just over a day.

She spent 30 pesos ($2.35) a day on transportation and another 50 pesos ($3.90) on lunch — in all, a quarter of her daily earnings.

Her day did not end when she arrived home a little after 8 p.m. Each night she made dinner for herself and her brothers, cooking whatever they had in the house.

“We like to eat soup, rice, everyone likes beans,” she said. “In our house there’s never a shortage of beans.”

After dinner she washed the dishes, showered and sometimes watched TV while knitting. She was in bed by 11:30 p.m. most nights, and up at 5 a.m. the next morning to do it all over again.

Although Alvarez didn’t have to go to the laundromat on Sundays, she still worked a full day: washing clothes, buying food at the market and preparing a meal for her brothers and her three kids (now 32, 30 and 29) and seven grandkids, who come to the house each Sunday.

An uncertain future

Victoria Alvarez Flores worries about the future but tries to stay optimistic.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

By some measures Alvarez was doing better than many Mexicans before she lost her job. Despite working and commuting 85 hours a week, she had a steady income. Over the course of the last decade her salary gradually increased from 2,000 pesos ($231, adjusted for inflation) a month to 8,000 pesos ($620). In a country where 60 percent of workers are in the informal economy and the minimum wage is 65 pesos ($5.10) a day — the equivalent of 1,560 pesos a month — it could be argued that she was relatively well off. Still, she struggled to make ends meet, and now, unemployed, she is not sure what she is going to do.

The first day after she stopped working, her birthday, Alvarez planned to sleep in late.

“After 10 years of coming and going, coming and going, I think that’s fair,” she said. “The next day I’ll see what I will do.”

She heard of an opportunity to work in another laundromat, but it was even farther away and would have paid only 600 pesos a week, just higher than her starting salary a decade ago. To cover all of her necessities — rent, utilities, food, personal expenses — she said she needs to find a job that pays her at least 1,000 pesos a week.

She knows it will be difficult, in part because of the stagnant Mexican economy, but also because of her age.

“I’m already 54, and unfortunately, here, when you are 36, 38 years old, nobody wants to hire you,” Alvarez said. “But it’s not going to be impossible. Something will come up. And in case nothing does …  I’ll sell tacos on the corner,” she added, laughing.

According to María Luisa González Marín, professor at the Economic Research Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), “If you lose your job when you’re 45 or 50 years old, it’s very unlikely that a formal, established business will give you a job. You have to enter into the informal economy.”

The situation is more difficult still for Mexican women, whose work, according to González Marín, is more likely to be considered superfluous. However, she added, women, like Alvarez, are increasingly becoming the principal wage earners. At the same time, “women earn less for doing the same job, working the same hours — everything the same, including having the same training.”

Alvarez is aware of the challenges and uncertainty that lie ahead. Yet she remains optimistic.

“I live today and now, nothing else,” she said. “Maybe I’m wrong — maybe I’m wrong for not thinking about the future. But I say, bueno, the future will come. I already lived the past, and what do I remember now? You have to live in the present. That’s my philosophy of life. You have to live in the present and enjoy it as much as you can.”

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