I am from Cancun and I Hate it
I was born and raised in Cancún, México until I was fifteen. Yeah, I know; I lived where you vacation. No, I did not go to the beach every day. No, I did not live near the beach.
Every year I came back to visit, I saw there was one more all-inclusive resort at the end of the Hotel Zone. Two years ago, on a car ride with my mom and dad, we drove through the Hotel Zone Avenue, reaching the outskirts, where the new resorts and residential areas were being built. Before I made a controversial comment, my mom stepped in.
"See all these new developments. They will bring SO much employment to Cancún!" she said.
I raised my eyebrows, did not move my cheeks, and sighed. Through the window on my right, my mom pointed out the resorts under construction, named their owners, and gave an approximate guess of the number of rooms. It is part of her job to know that since she has worked for the tourism industry for thirty years.
As she listed them all, I mentally lowered the volume of her voice and looked out the opposite window, where there were still some mangroves and native palm trees kissing the sun. I hoped she did not notice.
Cancún was home to virgin mangroves as recently as fifty years ago. They have been constantly raped by roads, resorts, apartments and money; my mom calls it “development.” Currently, the dead mangroves are public pits for the workers who die constructing the new five-star resorts. Some get electrocuted, others fall from fifty feet up, and still others never make it home—kidnapped or even killed by Narcos after a twelve-hour hour workday.
Such a place is the new area of Cancún called Playa Mujeres. It is the new Hotel Zone, and a pure tax haven, too, with elegant service. A beachfront paradise. My mom says it is "what anyone would die for." A year ago, several construction workers went missing there. Apparently, the owners of the property owed the Narcos some money. The workers’ bodies were found weeks later near the dead mangroves, smashed by leftover concrete. They were removed before the resorts were inaugurated.
You might wonder why development in Cancún bothers me so much. My answer is quite complex. I did not know any of the workers who died. I am not a biology fan who knows by heart the mangroves' characteristics (though I wish I knew more). I have not worked for the tourism industry at Cancún. I just remember my childhood years, when there were more public beach accesses and so many green mangroves that some crossed the streets, connecting the Nichupté lagoon with the ocean, making a turquoise canal where alligators and sharks met.
When my mother saw the beginning of the new all-inclusive resorts, which went from fifty to a thousand rooms in a year, she said, “Oh, they will never stop; for the resorts, it is never enough.”
You were right, Mom; they have not stopped.
My parents moved back recently to Cancún, from Panama City, Panama, and every weekend we make video calls. My mother never forgets to update me on the new developments in Cancún.
"There is a new area with some massive resorts; luxury is abundant there, you have to visit when you come, the beach is way better than in the old Cancun with the trashy tourists," my mom said.
"I am dying to go, Mom. You have no idea," I answered her with sarcasm.
She knows that my eyes will burn after seeing that once-untouched areas now have foreign palm trees, paved roads and all-inclusive resorts. She knows I want to come back. She knows I will never change her mind, and she will never change mine.
When I was younger and went to the beach with my family, I liked to get into the hotel pools through the beach. We would jump the fence from the beach and act normal. "We blend in really easily with the tourists. Thank God we are white, and we are pretty. You girls enjoy the pool," my mom would say.
As we washed out the sand in our bathing suits and swam and jumped in the pool, there were times I noticed how bodyguards kicked out the people without the resort's bracelet, people who had darker skin than me. The bodyguards grabbed them aggressively and shouted at them.
"Of course, they are going to kick them out. Who dares them to get in like that? They cannot get into the pool wearing shirts and shorts," my mother used to say. I never said a thing. But now, I feel conflicted about the bodyguards’ behavior. Although, I guess it’s their job, right? It is their job to improve the tourists’ view, to get rid of the locals who enjoy the beach in front of the resort. It is their job since they are locals, too, and Cancun’s employment depends on tourism, stereotypes and tips. All hanging by a white thread.
Cancún overflows with all-inclusive experiences. All-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, and all-you-can-waste.
During my childhood, I went to an all-inclusive resort at least once a month since my mom received free day passes or courtesies to stay overnight. I did not see it as a problem to have restaurants with plenty of food, customer service 24/7, night shows and a private beach. I did not consider that these types of resorts have smashed local restaurants, shops and artisans since tourists lock themselves inside. I did not realize the tons of food wasted by all of the beautiful buffets. I did not know the folded dove-like towels on top of beds were a pain in the ass for the maids who had to make them hundreds of times every day.
I went to the night shows of who knows what Mexican culture; it could be Mayan, Jacalteco, Mam, Kanjobale, or maybe Mixe, Zapoteca or Huasteco from up north. In the end, I did not know or care which was which. It seemed like the organizers cared even less. It's as if they had always planned to appropriate their patterns, their dresses, music, and dances; let's folklore these nations for the sake of tourism, while the maids of these nations get raped by tourists on Spring Break.
My mom calls me every time I post about a missing girl in Cancun on Facebook.
"It is a terrible image you are giving to your foreign friends, Mariana, and you do not even know her," she always claims.
"I will share it anyways, Mom," I tell her.
"Well, send it to a direct chat, not on Facebook where everybody can see it,” my mom says. “What will they think of Cancún? Mexico does not have a great international image towards missing people and crime, and you come with this to fuck it up more."
"Mom, if I go missing in Cancún, would you share it? Wouldn't you want my picture to flood the internet so you can have the slightest hope to find me?"
Women in Cancún, and people in general, rarely go missing in the Hotel Zone. When it does happen, my mom panics and is scared a major news outlet will publish a story about it. I share it on my social media, and she gets mad about it. She always emphasizes that Cancún’s public image is vital, and that, well, that her job revolves around that. Which it does. Thanks to a significant influx of tourists, my mom has a job, and I could go somewhere else to college, somewhere far away to complain about the realities that Cancún locals face.
While writing this extended rant, I keep thinking about how Cancún might be tourism and tequila, but that is not all of it, and that is one of the few things that my mom and I agree on. Cancún is not just all-inclusive resorts and overpriced Mexican food. Cancún is a young city-town whose name means vipers' nest.
Cancún is the Parque de las Palapas. My mom loves to take my sister and me there. It is one of our favorite places to eat, a park where around forty street food vendors gather from 10 a.m. until midnight. Here, you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner—all from homemade recipes that families have been successfully selling for 25 years. You can find warm churros, massive tacos, fried quesadillas, grilled corn on a stick with mayonnaise, fresh cheese lime and chili, fried sweet plantains, fresh Mexican nieves, and crunchy Mexican crepes called marquesitas, among others.
Cancún is all the families on a Sunday morning at Playa Delfines—one of the public beaches—eating homemade tuna sandwiches by the shoreline, grabbing them with fingers sticky from sunscreen. My mom prefers to wrap our sandwiches in aluminum foil, so the sand does not get inside them, nor sunscreen in our tastebuds, but it happens anyway.
In May 2021, I visited Cancún for a month. I saw a place that keeps building resorts in the roots of the last mangroves while there is no money for clean water for the locals. A place that tries to drown the crime ongoing in and outside the Hotel Zone for the sake of tourism. It is a place that folklores the indigenous nations in shows but ignores the maids from those nations working in their resorts. My mom gets annoyed if I comment about it, maybe because she knows it's true or because she and I can do nothing about it.
She came in the nineties with my dad when Cancún was an emerging development project. I was born here thanks to Cancún’s potential. I left thanks to its world-famous tourism. And yes, I still go to all-inclusive resorts with my mom. We judge the tourists who grab mountains of food at the buffets, knowing they will maybe eat half of it. We stay for hours, talking with the maids about how annoying it is to fold the dove-like towels. We do not stay at the night shows anymore; we prefer to drive downtown to the Parque de Las Palapas and eat Mexican ice cream with warm cinnamon sugar-coated churros.