When President Obama visited Mexico in May, he spoke a few words of Spanish, praised the paintings of Frida Kahlo and quoted author Octavio Paz. Then he hit his key message: “Because of the sacrifices of generations, a majority of Mexicans now call themselves middle class, with a quality of life that your parents and grandparents could only dream of.” The words conjured up an image of a Mexico transformed from the campesinos of the early twentieth century to a rising power for the new millennium. Mexico’s “new middle class” is also a big theme for its new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who wants his neighbors to think of Mexico as more than just a place of beautiful beaches and violent crime. Obama’s speech dovetailed neatly with Pena Nieto’s agenda, but it has sparked a national debate here, about what makes someone middle class in Mexico, and whether the middle class are really thriving or just surviving. After a disappointing first-quarter— Mexico’s economy grew just .8%, the worst performance since the end of 2009, that debate has renewed urgency.
Among the residents of the Mexican capital, from its cinderblock slums to its Bohemian bookshop-cafes to its plush financial district, there is little consensus. Brenda Venega, a student, defines middle class as someone earning more than 8,000 pesos ($640) per month; she falls into that box thanks to her parents. Marisol Granados, a waitress in a cafe, insisted there was no middle class, only have and have nots, and that she was part of the latter. Computer repair shop owner Victor Serna says the middle class have privileges that set them apart from the rest, and he was in of the poor majority. “The middle class is smaller all the time and the gap is growing,” says Jose Lopez, a health administration worker. “Jobs are paid less while prices go up.”