Country is no longer dominated by the very rich and poor

By William Booth & Nick Miroff WASHINGTON POST
12:01 a.m., March 25, 2012
Updated 7:21 p.m. , March 24, 2012

QUERETARO, Mexico — A wary but tenacious middle class is fast becoming the majority in Mexico, breaking down the rich-poor divide in a profound demographic transformation that has far-reaching implications here and in the United States.

Although many Mexicans and their neighbors to the north still imagine a country of downtrodden masses dominated by a wealthy elite, the swelling ranks of the middle class are crowding new Walmarts, driving Nissan sedans and maxing out their Banamex credit cards.

“As hard as it is for many of us to accept, Mexico is now a middle-class country, which means we don’t have any excuse anymore. We have to start acting like a middle-class country,” said Luis de la Calle, an economist, former undersecretary of trade in the Mexican government and the co-author of a new report called “Mexico: A Middle Class Society, Poor No More, Developed Not Yet.”

The stereotype is no longer an undocumented immigrant hustling for day labor outside a Home Depot in Phoenix. The new Mexican is the overscheduled soccer dad shopping for a barbecue grill inside a Home Depot in booming Mexican cities like Queretaro.

When President Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party won in 2006, it was the middle class that gave him a wafer-thin victory. And in the presidential election in July, Mexico’s growing economic center will again be decisive, say political analysts from all three major parties.

The Mexican middle class is divided among the major political parties. Its members are socially moderate but fiscally conservative, cynical about political promises and fearful that recent gains could be lost in a financial crisis or social upheaval — the kind that buffeted Mexico in the 1990s.

“The middle class in this country doesn’t want to lose what it’s gained,” said Gabriel Paulin, 30, living in a mod condo in a new subdivision in Queretaro. On his coffee table: a Spanish-language copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” — essential reading for the striving class — alongside a boxed DVD set of the “Mad Men” television series.

Mexico’s middle class thrives here in the country’s central highlands, in buzzing industrial cities that bear little resemblance to the violent border towns of the Rio Grande or tourist magnets such as Cancun.

In Queretaro, a sunny, fastidious state capital of a million residents two hours north of Mexico City, new subdivisions and industrial parks are sprouting across the cactus lands.

Some of the newcomers have fled the drug violence of cities farther north. By comparison, Queretaro is a haven of relative calm. The homicide rate here is on par with Wisconsin — about 3.2 per 100,000 residents.

It is in sunny Queretaro where you can clearly see the new Mexico of 60-hour workweeks, Costco box stores and private English-language academies churning out bilingual 14-year-olds. It is the Mexico where the top 50 names for newborns include a lot of American-sounding names such as Vanessa and Jonathan, where people pay $5 for movie tickets at the cineplex and the public tennis courts have a waiting list. And it is the Mexico where NAFTA dreams came true, where billions in foreign investment have fostered a flourishing aircraft-manufacturing industry anchored by companies such as Bombardier Aerospace, General Electric and Siemens.

The signs of Mexico’s surging middle class include:

• Smaller families — Lower fertility rates are a hallmark of any growing middle class. In 1960, Mexico’s fertility rate was 7.3 children per woman, according to the World Bank. Today it’s 2.3, slightly above the U.S. rate of 2.1.

• Higher education — Since 1980, the number of Mexicans receiving a university education has tripled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.