Books
9:36 am
Mon December 15, 2008

Yucatan in an Era of Globalization, edited by Eric N. Baklanoff and Edward H. Moseley

This is a volume of eight heavily researched, scholarly essays on various aspects of life and commerce in one of the thirty-one states of the Republic of Mexico. It is not, on the face of it, something I would review in this space. After all, how many readers would have a serious enough interest in the state of Yucatan to read such a book?

This is a volume of eight heavily researched, scholarly essays on various aspects of life and commerce in one of the thirty-one states of the Republic of Mexico. It is not, on the face of it, something I would review in this space. After all, how many readers would have a serious enough interest in the state of Yucatan to read such a book?

On the other hand, Ed Moseley, who died in 2005, was for a long time the hugely admired Director of International Programs at Alabama and a friend, and Eric Baklanoff, Professor of Economics Emeritus, is a kind of institution at UA, and the book is from our own university press, so why not? This is the kind of book university presses are supposed to publish. And, just as there are no small parts, only small actors, so there are no boring subjects, only subjects handled badly. I have learned more about Yucatan than I ever expected to know, and that is not a bad thing.

Yucatan, like Cuba, has been of interest to Alabama politicians and business leaders, as well as academics, for some time. It is not far from Mobile to Merida or Havana, as the crow flies. Moseley's essay, "From Tallapoosa to Tixkokob: Two Communities Share Globalization," is a comparative study of two towns, both affected by recent changes. Russell Mills of Alexander City can compete in the textile and apparel business only by going to a brand name, JERZEES, and having the assembly work done, by labor even cheaper than Alabama labor, in Yucatan. It is, for the time being at least, a win-win situation.

Other essays, most especially Baklanoff's "Yucatan: Mexico's Other Maquiladora Frontier," discuss other aspects of this phenomenon. Mexico for decades had an inward-looking, protectionist economy. It was a catastrophe. For a few decades now, fabricating plants have been established along the U.S. border, with special dispensations for import duties, foreign ownership and so on. Now there will be a second region of maquiladoras, reachable from the U.S. not by truck, but by air or ship.

But ships must have ports, so another essay, "The Evolving Port Landscape of Progresso" is about the expansion of the Yucatan port, Progresso, because without facilities to handle large container ships, the cheap labor of Yucatan is unreachable.

For the time, this is working and prosperity is rising. An area that once grew only fiber for binder twine has become part of the international economy. Is this a good thing? What about indigenous cultures and a way of life that goes back over a thousand years?

Two different kinds of internationalization are taking place on the Yucatan peninsula. One is the high-end, sun and sand tourism of Cancun and Cozumel. The natives of Yucatan, descendants of the Maya, have found employment in these resort areas and there has been an effect on native culture, although aside from the paychecks, not much of it is good. Men commute to Cancun from their villages and return for two days a week to tend their corn crops. With the money they earn the families buy things they need, and things they have never needed, and if they buy televisions, they learn to need things they never even knew existed.

Besides resort work, however, there is a movement to spread eco-cultural tourism, to tourists interested in the culture of the Mayans, ancient and living, and the actual natural world of the peninsula. This would have a culturally small imprint, but it is not at all certain it will catch on.

The Yucatan Peninsula, largely isolated from the rest of Mexico, has proven to be a fine laboratory for this kind of longitudinal study. In 1980, Moseley and Edward Terry edited Yucatan: A World Apart, and now we have this volume. It will be interesting to see what globalization has done to Yucatan if there is a third volume in 25 more years.

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