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Originally published March 18, 2012 at 11:13 PM | Page modified March 18, 2012 at 11:13 PM

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Middle class is booming in a changing Mexico

A new image of the overscheduled soccer parent shopping at Costco is emerging.

The Washington Post

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The truth is Mexico would be even WORSE if it wasn't for all the money that is being... MORE
You go to the capital & richest City in ANY country, and it will seem nice. Try... MORE
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QUERÉTARO, Mexico — A wary but tenacious middle class is fast becoming the majority in Mexico, breaking down the rich-poor divide in a 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 Wal-Marts, 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 new stereotype is no longer an illegal immigrant hustling for day labor outside a Home Depot in Phoenix. The new Mexican is the overscheduled soccer dad shopping for a barbecue grill at a Home Depot in booming cities like Querétaro.

And Mexico's growing economic center will be decisive in the presidential election in July, say political analysts from all three major parties.

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 Cancún.

In Querétaro, 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, welcoming waves of aspiring Mexican families drawn by jobs and safe neighborhoods.

Some of the newcomers have fled the drug violence of cities farther north, such as Monterrey, where middle-class Mexicans feel increasingly vulnerable to kidnappers, extortionists and random killings.

By comparison, Querétaro 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 Querétaro where you can clearly see the new Mexico of 60-hour work weeks, Costco 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 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.

Hard to measure

Counting the middle class in Mexico (population 114 million) is not a straightforward calculation, as it is in the United States.

In the developing world, in countries such as India, China or Mexico, scholars argue, the middle class can be defined by what its members consume, and so a Mexican home-owning household with a new refrigerator, a car and a couple of cellphones is considered middle-class, even if the combined salaries of the members of the household would make them miserably poor in the U.S.

Another measure is perception: You are middle-class if you think you are middle-class. A February survey of Mexicans by the independent pollster Jorge Buendia reports that 65 percent of respondents consider themselves in the middle (27 percent described themselves as lower class, and only 2 percent copped to upper-class status).

"If you just look in someone's wallet, Mexico is not growing that fast," said Willy Azarcoya, founder of a small marketing-research firm here, referring to Mexico's steady but unspectacular annual GDP growth of 2 or 3 percent.

"But people think they can achieve things now, and that is the difference," Azarcoya said. "It is an attitude adjustment."

Azarcoya acknowledged that Mexico still harbors a huge number of poor — between a fourth and half the population, depending on the measures. Poverty ticked upward slightly after the 2008 global recession, but Mexico's middle-class march is back on track, and the broader trajectory shows a steady climb out of mass poverty.

The number of credit cards in circulation nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2009, according to Mexico's Central Bank, but debt leaves many Mexicans sensing that their foothold in the middle class is slippery.

"You may be middle class, but you still feel poor," said Oscar Marquez, a 33-year-old father who has worked 10 years for Telcel, the phone giant controlled by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, ranked by Forbes as the world's richest man.

A good salary at Telcel is about $1,000 to $1,500 a month, Marquez said, enough for today but maybe not tomorrow.

"We live well, but it's living well day to day."

"Opportunities here"

Azarcoya's morning routine is not unusual. He gets up early. His wife works. Women represent 45 percent of the labor force. He drives the kids through rush-hour traffic to two private schools. There are now more than 20 million cars on Mexican roads, up from 4 million in 1980. He reads emails on his iPhone while gulping a yogurt for breakfast.

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

While families are shrinking, education levels are growing. Since 1980, the number of Mexicans receiving a university education has tripled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Private for-profit universities with relatively affordable tuitions are flourishing — such as TecMilenio, with 40 campuses across Mexico that offer students the option of taking classes via the Internet.

"Those of us in the middle are the engine for progress in this country," said Gabriel Paulin, 30, who lives in a new subdivision in Querétaro. "The rich? They've already got it made," he said.

Paulin went to college, got an MBA and moved back to Querétaro as a sales manager at a company that makes industrial disinfectants for Mexican agribusiness, mostly farms that export to the United States. Parked outside was his new Mitsubishi pickup. He said a salary for his position is about $31,000 a year.

"There are good opportunities here," he said. "There's no reason to go abroad in search of a better life."

Although blue-collar Mexicans may continue to look north for manual-labor opportunities, a growing pool of professional and service workers see few reasons to go abroad, researchers say. They see a road to getting ahead right at home.

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