Not arthritic knees, shrinking hairlines or buzzing hearing aids seem to keep the politically correct expats living in San Miguel from raising a little leftist ruckus now and again, just like in the old days.
Barely two weeks ago a debate erupted on the Civil List, the internet sounding board for expats in San Miguel, over the proposed opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in the town’s historic center, a few blocks away from the main square.

McDonald’s on and off the grill.

On Wednesday a protest march was convened in front of the proposed restaurant by the Steering Committee Protejamos de Centro Historico de SMA (sic), which on the Civil List claimed to have collected about 800 signatures from people opposing the project.

The anemic turnout–about 15 gringos, four Mexicans and one Irish setter of unknown nationality–was upstaged by a raucous religious procession, whose exact theme I could not determine but which meandered by at just about the same time. It included about a dozen dancers in full-feathered Indian attire, four people carrying a small statue of a saint in a glass case, a flat-bed truck with additional costumed participants, followed by a drum-and-brass ensemble that detonated periodically. It was not much of a contest.

As its name suggests, the anti-McDonald’s group waves the banner of historic preservation, a sacred cause not likely to attract much, if any opposition. San Miguel’s colonial beauty and history are its chief assets; to undermine them would be suicidal, both culturally and economically.

Yet as you read the furious arguments against the restaurant what starts to transpire are not so much historic or aesthetic concerns but the old anti-capitalist, anti-corporate refrains from American lefties for whom “McDonald’s” is a bloody shirt, along with “Wal-mart” and a few others corporate demons.

Colonial lattes in San Miguel.

It’s not what harm a McDonald’s restaurant could do to the appearance or feel of the historic center of San Miguel–likely very little, to judge by the tastefully done Starbuck’s restaurant across the street–but what McDonald’s has come to symbolize, by the sounds of it, a vision of the anti-Christ.

According to some of the comments on the Civil List, a McDonald’s burger indeed contains the ingredients of an eventual apocalypse: Globs of grease and cholesterol; exploitation of Mexican workers; rapacity by transnational–read “American”–corporations; too much salt in one’s diet; inhumane treatment of animals; rampant obesity; tainted meat; disregard for Mexico’s cultural values; unhappy cattle; imperialism; landfills crammed with styrofoam; greed; depletion of the world’s water resources. The list sounds like a trailer for a movie about Mayan predictions of the end of the world–exactly a year from now.  

Yet as some of the Civil List litigants noted, franchise joints are not anything new to San Miguel. In addition to Starbuck’s, which prospers thanks mainly to a young Mexican clientele, within a few blocks of San Miguel’s main square one can find Harry’s New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar, in addition to Century 21, Re/Max and Coldwell Banker real estate franchises. Before that we had a dingy Dunkin Donuts store right on the main square and a Subway sandwich shop up the street, both of which are now defunct.

If the municipal aesthetic police continues to do its work, there’s nothing to worry about the defacement of the historic center. Harry’s, Starbucks et. al. thrive behind discreet and carefully restored facades. If anything, Starbuck’s ought to get an award for its sensitive and tasteful renovation of a colonial building, both inside and out.

But behind the balls-and-strikes in this debate lies an attitude that effectively infantilizes Mexicans and assumes they need foreign guidance and counseling so they can make the “right” decision about siting a McDonald’s in their own downtown.

Shouldn’t we trust the workings of the San Miguel’s historic preservation authorities to make their own decisions? Shouldn’t Mexican consumers be able to decide by themselves whether they want to eat at a McDonald’s restaurant without foreigners lecturing about the evils of greasy hamburgers or what San Miguel’s colonial center should look like?

The quick death of the Subway sandwich shop showed that local consumers can spot overpriced, tasteless mush when they bite into it. On the other hand the success of the McDonald’s in the shopping center on the edge of town presents a nightmarish precedent for those opposed to a restaurant downtown: It’s not that we may have a McDonald’s downtown but that Mexicans may like it, just as they–and a good number of Americans–like the nearby Starbucks.

The project downtown already has been approved and disapproved by the municipal government, and now opponents say the mayor has expressed her opposition to it, so they have “won” this “struggle.”

American radicals in exile should back off, let the Mexicans play this one out according to their own lights–and stick to possibly less annoying pastimes like, say, quilting, bird-watching, taking photographs and writing blogs.

4 thoughts on “McAttack

  1. Thank you for this posting. Since we're only there for a couple of months in the winter, Rick and I are “out of the loop”, so to speak. Information like this is important, and brings us closer – at least in spirit – to SMA.I heartily agree with everything you said, and love the way you worded it. Thank you for your expressing your “right on” views so beautifully.


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