Burger King in Downtown Oaxaca: Tell Me it Isn’t So

For a decade, famed Oaxacan chef Esperanza Chavarria Blando operated Restaurante Quickly, a traditional Mexican eatery a block away from the Zócalo on Macedonia Alcalá, the high-traffic pedestrian walkway. Not only lauded in most Mexico travelogues, Quickly was patronized by local merchants, bank employees, street vendors and artists, including on occasion Oaxaca´s current native son, famed artist Francisco Toledo who a few years ago spear-headed the successful opposition to McDonalds opening in the Zócalo.

Without apparent opposition, in mid-September, 2005, Burger King unveiled its signage at M. Alcalá 100B, the former Quickly locale, after having seemingly clandestinely completed its renovation of the premises. A week earlier there was no clue that the fast-food giant was set to open.

The landlord, a Oaxacan gentleman of means with other downtown holdings, had been increasing Ms. Chavarria’s rent, significantly. The last straw was the demand for a 5000 peso per month increase to take effect in January, 2004. She could no longer afford to stay in business…the late nineties earthquake and 9/11 had already taken their toll, and continuously raising menu prices was neither what she wanted nor figured the market could bear.

Word on the street was with Quickly gone, the landlord was now looking to double the previous rent. After several months, Apetito, a sterile fast-food establishment opened. I never saw many people in the place, for good reason. During the summer of 2005 it closed its doors, presumably as a result of a lack of business and the landlord misreading the extent to which his yearning for top dollar would pay dividends. A couple of months later voilá, The Whopper appeared.

So what happened? Should we not be looking to protect the entire Centro Histórico? Is the Anador Turística that much less preservation-worthy than the Zócalo? Were Burger King and the landlord in cahoots, to the extent that they kept the plan secret? Was Mr. Toledo out of town? Surely the landlord must feel that since Oaxaca, a tourist mecca in part because of its old-world quaintness and ambience, has enabled him to lead a comfortable lifestyle, he accordingly owes a duty to preserve even what the State and City have apparently not mandated as a priority? Apparently not.

There’s enough blame to go around. I don’t fault Burger King, my own leftist anti-capitalist politics having evaporated decades ago. It’s greed winning out over altruism and pride in one’s city, together with a lackadaisical, to be generous, government. There is a solution, even though it would mean yet another layer of bureaucracy…but this one well worth the cost and effort. Every business that proposes opening its doors in the Centro Histórico ought to submit an application to the municipality answering a simple question: is there a parent company, affiliate, subsidiary or franchise either American owned or otherwise with multi-national or extra-Mexico interests? All negative responses would result in rubber stamping. Otherwise the request would go to a sitting panel comprised of a broad diversity of individuals. Without a unanimous decision, public hearings would be held.

Sam’s Club, Pizza Hut, Sears and the rest have a place in our city, and to that extent the area outside the downtown core known as Plaza del Valle provides an important function. But if what’s happening now is not checked, tourist dollars will evaporate and we won’t have patrons with funds to support such enterprise, anywhere. The next time we pass by a downtown building under renovation or construction, we should worry that Wal-Mart might be set to open.

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