I made it to Monterrey, a city of 1.1 MM people ringed by high, jagged mountains that rise abruptly out of the plain about 200 miles south of Laredo Texas. Monterrey was the center of the Mexican steel industry and had large smelting plants at one time – I saw a couple of large abandoned factories which could well have been smelting operations on the outskirts of the City.
Steel production capacity is massively oversupplied globally – the Chinese play a major role in this but are loathe to shut old school smelting companies in their North due to the unemployment this will cause; many of these are State Owned Enterprises that the World Bank estimates may employ up to 23% of Chinese workers. A similar condition appears in Europe too – cutting loose all these workers would generate social instability so the can is mostly kicked down the road. America went through a wrenching restructuring of its steel industry about 40 years ago; you might remember the “rust belt” moniker given to the cluster of cities in the Midwest that hosted steel making, when the industry was going through wrenching changes. America’s current mini mills, which smelt only recycled steel, are now very competitive.
Monterrey’s economy now is driven by the production of agricultural products, brewing, air conditioning equipment, truck trailers and glassware and is tightly bound to the U.S., with $1.4 BN in sales there, largely because of NAFTA, which has raised millions of Mexicans out of poverty. The city has almost doubled in size since the free trade agreement was passed 30 years ago.
Downtown Monterrey extends along the dry-ish Santa Caterina river, and is dotted here and there with some extremely modern skyscrapers – very Latin – ones that would never get built in the U.S. due to weather, capital requirements, more restrictive building codes and, more importantly, a Latin verve that is lacking further North. The hostel I am staying at is in the old quarter, which has been dutifully preserved from the bulk of new construction.
The city’s suburbs extend like white, woven mats up the sides of the mountains, with scores of identical modest housing units, each with a black water tank, solar panels and the obligatory satellite dish. The country has made great strides, with a majority of rural and urban areas having access to treated water and some form of sewage management. For many grandparents of the suburb dwellers here, these houses would be their first experience of a dwelling with plumbing, electricity and a kitchen with an oven, sink and fridge.
Driving the freeway which extends through a long, narrow city center to get out of town, I am confronted by a complex set of on and off ramps, interchanges and flyovers, whose angles and curves would do a stunt driver proud. Like a tangled set of cords run up and down either side of the river. The Google Maps lady and I do our best. She calls out street names very steadily, pronouncing them like a Midwesterner in an introductory Spanish class, crushing them under her flat, broad accent, with a literalness that slows her down significantly. In the end, it takes me 4 attempts to get where we need to go; her reaction time is good but reads out some of the names so slowly and tonelessly that I miss the ramp or exit she is indicating before I understand what she is saying.
I am editing this while sitting in a fine cafe down the street from my hostel in Puebla, South of Mexico City. The spot is frequented by sophisticated, and urbane looking Mexicans with sharp hairstyles and handsome clothes. Sun is streaming in the window from the cobbled street, an occasional car slips by. Mobile phones are deftly attended to, a fellow is knocking back his double espresso. Three slim, young women are conversing quietly while they have breakfast. The coffee is excellent and fine Mexico folks music is playing in the background. The barista, wearing a fashionable wool hat – we would call this a toque in Canada – even though it is t shirt weather. Mind you, I am in my shabby hoodie, so who am I to wonder about weather-appropriate clothing? This hoodie would not be allowed by any of my style council (Jennifer, Lexie, Liam) if they were here, they would be scandalized. Actually, they are often scandalized by my clothing choices.