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McDonald’s loses a round to Oaxacan cultural pride

The absurdly picturesque city of Oaxaca, Mexico, isn’t the type of place that cultivates a knee-jerk, down-with-Wall-Street, death-to-Disney brand of anti-Americanism. Straddling two mountain ranges, a long bus ride south from Mexico City, Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka) revels in its physical isolation, native traditions and 21st century cosmopolitanism.

Gringo hippies flocked there in the summer of 1970 to groove to a spectacular solar eclipse, wrap themselves in brilliant-hued serapes and smoke the local weed, boosting the global profile of this Mesoamerican Florence.

In peak tourist season, sandaled and Bermuda-shorted European and U.S. tourists roam the colonial streets, browse the high-quality museums and chill at the numerous outdoor cafes surrounding the 473-year-old zocalo, the colonnaded central plaza. While poverty and hardship remain acute, especially in the outlying villages, international tourism and trade have helped Oaxaca move into the new century with its charm and character largely intact.

So there’s reason to ponder the recent decision by Oaxaca’s municipal president to block McDonald’s from opening a restaurant in a former shoe store at the zocalo’s eastern edge. After a year of protests and debate that drew international press coverage, Oaxaca voted in December to bar the fast-food leviathan from the heart of the city’s historic center, which was designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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For the time being, McDonald’s will have to make do with the 8-year-old restaurant it operates on Oaxaca’s outskirts next to a Sam’s Club and a Sears, plus the roughly 230 other outlets it has opened in Mexico since 1985. Oaxaca will have to get along without the 70 jobs McDonald’s would have added to the local economy.

To some residents, the decision signals a backward, provincial mind-set. A slim majority of locals supported the restaurant, provided that McDonald’s respected the antique building’s architectural integrity (i.e., no golden arches).

But in putting its sense of cultural patrimony ahead of quick profit, Oaxaca illustrates a principle that many U.S. cities have failed to grasp. Instead of blindly following whatever happens to be the latest urban-renewal fad, Oaxaca is attempting to preserve the qualities that make it one of a kind.

By recognizing that history and cultural authenticity are valuable commercial assets, not to be squandered, Oaxaca has demonstrated more creative capitalist thinking than, say, the beleaguered burg of Niagara Falls, N.Y., which is trying to save its desolate downtown by opening a gambling casino. How many other American cities, instead of polishing their natural amenities, have tried to resuscitate their civic centers by throwing up casinos, soulless convention centers and faux-landmark sports stadiums? Did it take a team of cultural visionaries to transform Manhattan’s Times Square from a tawdry peep-show archipelago into a bland tourist emporium lined with many of the same record stores and fast-food outlets you’d spot at a Sherman Oaks strip mall?

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Not insignificantly, the man leading the opposition to McDonald’s was painter Francisco Toledo, a Oaxaca native and arguably Mexico’s greatest living artist. Steeped in indigenous imagery and native folklore, Toledo’s work thrives in the interface between the primitive and the modern, borders that aren’t nearly as rigid as the often-simplistic debate over globalization suggests.

What’s the difference, I asked Toledo by phone last week, between the Oaxacan city center and Barcelona, Paris or some other tourist mecca where McDonald’s has already set up camp? “The difference is that I live in the historic center of Oaxaca,” he said with a laugh. “I believe it’s a personal thing.”

Toledo said he was surprised by the rejection of the proposed McDonald’s. Big Mac is powerful, and its menu of instant gratification, he acknowledges, is popular among young Mexicans. (Visit L.A.'s excellent Oaxacan restaurants and you’re likely to see parents and grandparents ordering traditional chicken with mole sauce, and a side dish of chapulines -- deep-fried grasshoppers -- while their chunkier offspring scarf down hamburgers and fries.)

A quiet but firm stance

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Oaxaca’s tactics in opposing the new burger barn reflected its cultural self-assurance. No irate farmer drove a tractor through a storefront window, as happened in France. No protesters battled with police, as in the resort city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, over Costco’s plan to level an old spa-casino and a grove of ancient trees to build a warehouse.

Instead, during the peaceful, months-long campaign, opponents covered the proposed locale with “No McZocalo” signs and handed out traditional Oaxacan tamales, examples of the region’s distinctive cuisine. In public meetings, officials wisely used the occasion to solicit residents’ input on the zocalo’s future development.

Toledo isn’t against globalization per se. After all, he spent a year living in Santa Monica awhile back, and his own career has reaped the benefits of cross-border exchange. Although he won’t touch a Happy Meal, he’s a big fan of Chinese and Indian food. Successive waves of immigrants -- “Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Filipinos and blacks” -- have enriched Oaxacan culture, Toledo says, creating a “mezcla,” a mix, that is “very special and distinctive.”

What worries Toledo and other Oaxacan artists and intellectuals is a type of modernization that the maestro calls “commercializacion salvaje” -- a reckless disregard for the unique and irreplaceable. It’s not only Oaxaca’s 16th century Spanish-colonial facades that are at risk, Toledo says. The region’s water supply is imperiled. Its mountain-encircled air is brown and gritty from car and bus fumes. Its indigenous languages are slowly vanishing. (The state of Oaxaca, which surrounds the provincial capital, is home to 15 of the country’s 56 ethno-linguistic groups.) “For Americans who have known Oaxaca for a long time, this [destruction] is like a sacrilege,” Toledo says.

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As McDonald’s corporate troubles suggest -- the company recently announced it is closing 175 outlets amid flat sales, falling profits and free-falling stock prices -- once a decline starts, it may be hard to stop. You never know what’s going to happen when the fat hits the fire.

Fortunately, throughout its post-Columbian history, Oaxaca has gracefully straddled a fault line between different values systems. The Lincoln-esque statesman Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first Indian president, was born in Oaxaca state. So was Porfirio Diaz, the 20th century strongman who opened Mexico up to the multinationals.

It was Diaz, ironically, who uttered the famous lament: “Poor Mexico! So far from God, and so close to the United States.” In saying no to McDonald’s, Oaxaca isn’t turning its back on its northern neighbor. It’s simply pointing out that the recipe for globalization ought to have more than one ingredient.

Reed Johnson can be reached at reed.johnson@latimes.com.

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