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Even Scavengers Are Worse Off : Hardship Trickles Down to Mexico’s Poorest Areas

Times Staff Writer

While claiming to understand neither the causes nor cures for Mexico’s economic ills, Ernesto Flores, professional scavenger, has come to know that even his highly marginal livelihood has been hurt by the crisis.

As Flores has scoured outlying garbage dumps for things to sell in recent months, he has noticed that there are fewer discarded auto parts and bottles, almost no mattress springs.

“It seems that people are selling these things themselves or keeping them and not throwing them away,” he lamented.

He has also noticed stronger competition from amateurs. “More kids out here,” Flores said. “They pick up anything and take it home.”

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Mexicans such as Flores who are destitute and with seemingly no margin for any further drop in their standard of living are being squeezed by the country’s economic calamities. In Nezahualcoyotl, a squatters’ warren-like city of 3 million outside Mexico City, the poorest have to scrimp even more.

“Meat? I’m lucky if I can buy beans,” said Flores, 52, a father of four. “As it was, I could only afford bone and gristle.”

The economic problems that make Flores’ life more difficult than usual are many and complex.

In order to curb inflation and contribute to payment of Mexico’s $96-billion foreign debt, the government has reduced state spending. That means fewer jobs, fewer public works programs and decreased subsidies for food.

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The private economy is also sluggish. In 1984, Mexico’s gross national product grew by 3.5% but has slowed now. Price increases have outstripped wage boosts during the last three years. Food production lags behind population growth.

For the poor, this all adds up to a trickle-down of hardship.

A recent study by the National Nutrition Institute estimated that 45% of the Mexican population lacks regular access to protein foods such as milk and meat. A survey by the National Consumer Institute said that 70% of low-income Mexicans have curtailed purchases of meat, fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs and rice.

In Neza, as Nezahualcoyotl is known in Mexican slang, the reality of the statistics is easily apparent.

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Construction, Decay

The community abuts Mexico City on the east, at the edge of marshes and landfills. The city’s paved, if barren, boulevards and dirt side streets are bordered by cinder-block homes in various stages of both construction and decay.

Neighborhoods are blocked by piles of garbage and potholes full of smelly green water. In the municipal market, children vie with dogs for scraps of fallen fruit and tortillas.

Even the better-off in Neza--meaning anyone with a steady salary--are finding their incomes painfully inadequate.

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Alicia Garcia is a baby sitter who makes about 22,000 pesos a month, the equivalent of about $60. A widow, she pays 8,000 pesos monthly rent and, with the rest, she must maintain herself and three children.

Meat Once a Week

In the last 12 months, the prices of common cuts of meat have risen from about 400 pesos to 600 pesos a pound. Last year, Garcia often served meat three times a week; this year, once is all.

“It’s more bone than meat,” she said. “And before, when you bought a chicken, the butcher used to throw in the giblets for free. Now, he charges for that by the pound.”

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Garcia also rations milk for her children by diluting it with water or mixing it with rice.

Jose Maria Hidalgo, a taxi driver who claims a “more-or-less” living wage, has been building an addition to his home--for 10 years.

“I hope I can afford the roof before I die,” he said.

Housemaid Josefina Pereira recently fought a losing battle with school officials over the need to buy uniforms for her four children. She wanted, instead, to dress them in hand-me-downs.

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‘We Are Worse Off’

“It’s a rule, they say, to use uniforms. They don’t want anyone to look better or worse than anyone else,” she complained. “Well, I face reality. We are worse off.”

Many families make ends meet by combining incomes from a series of odd jobs.

“More mothers are taking in clothing to sew and sending their children out in the streets to work. It’s bad because many children turn to crime,” said Maria Juana Hernandez, a director of a government nutrition center here.

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Random street jobs are commonplace in Mexico City. Known as mil usos (one thousand uses), they include everything from shining shoes to breathing fire (fueled by a mouthful of gasoline) for the entertainment of drivers waiting at intersections. Scavenger Flores’ oldest son sells lollipops car-to-car.

It comes as little surprise that, in a country where the state directs much of the economic activity, the government is blamed for hard times.

Government Blamed

“They rob and steal and leave us with nothing,” complained Margarito Estrella, a sidewalk fruit vendor in Neza, referring to Mexico’s legendary official corruption.

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“We Mexicans are to blame,” said a butcher at the market. “We put up with the government.”

Such criticism has grown in the last few years, increasing pressure on the government to look for quick solutions.

But it is not likely that there will be much improvement soon. Higher prices for Mexico’s leading export, oil, would help. Government spending could loosen and the debt as a percentage of the country’s earnings from abroad would shrink.

Oil Bonanza Unlikely

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But an oil bonanza is unlikely. Many economists instead expect the price of petroleum to continue to decline, further aggravating the economy.

Some politicians believe that relieving Mexico of its debt would help. Mexico is expected to seek easier terms and fresh development money next year.

Even if they are short on details, many Neza residents have heard of the country’s foreign debt problem and generally blame the government.

“I certainly didn’t borrow the money,” quipped baby sitter Alicia Garcia.

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