It's Sunday afternoon in this city's giant Perisur Mall. Families are strolling along the promenades in Adidas warm-up suits and Reebok sneakers, looking at windows displaying the latest U.S. imports.
Some are sipping Cokes from McDonald's paper cups. Others munch on Cheerios, while children run in and out of video-game arcades. Loudspeakers are blaring a Willie Nelson song.Is Mexico going American? Questions of national identity are at the core of Mexico's debate over the North American free-trade agreement, which, if approved by the U.S. Congress, could become effective as early as Jan. 1.
Many are not happy with the idea of an American-looking Mexico and fear the country will end up being an appendage of the United States if the Nafta is approved.
To explain what is wrong about Mexico's forging closer ties to the United States, they cite scenes like the weekend shopping at the Perisur Mall.
"Mexican families used to get together on Sundays at home with their grandparents, uncles and cousins," says Guadalupe Loaeza, a writer and social critic. "Today they are going to the malls.
"We are importing an American way of life that is destroying our best traditions, such as close family ties," she said. "And we are not getting much in return."
These are not trivial issues in Mexico, where people remind visitors constantly about the loss of half their territory to the United States in the 19th century.
Ever since the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution, politics, literature and the arts have been dominated by anti-American rhetoric.
But there is some evidence that growing U.S. influence has begun to reverse that trend.
A poll last year by the monthly magazine Este Pais said 51 percent of the Mexican people have a favorable opinion of the United States, up from 37 percent in 1988.
Although U.S. influence has been felt in Mexico for decades, most agree that it has become more visible since President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office in 1988.
Mr. Salinas opened the doors to U.S. goods in an effort to drive down domestic prices and to make Mexican industries more competitive.
The flow of U.S. products soon turned into an avalanche. Mexico City's supermarkets were flooded with U.S. cereals, canned vegetables, detergents and almost any product available in the United States.
Mr. Salinas later authorized U.S. companies to open franchises in Mexico. Large neon signs of McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway and Domino's Pizza began to pop up along the main streets of Mexican cities.
Carlos Monsivais, one of Mexico's most respected left-of-center social analysts, said U.S. influence is going far beyond consumption habits.
Last year, he noticed for the first time that much of Mexico City was celebrating Halloween, which was until recently a relatively unknown celebration here. He saw children and some grown-ups wearing costumes on the streets in his neighborhood and was invited to join them.
While Halloween is gaining fans, Mexico's traditional Nov. 2 Day of the Dead celebration is disappearing so quickly that the government has had to step in to keep it alive with state-sponsored activities.
"Mexico's traditions are increasingly concentrated in the museums," Mr. Monsivais said. "When the government and anthropologists have to step in to protect the Day of the Dead, you know it's pretty much over."
Even Mexico's Spanish language is suffering from the "Americanization" rage. The use of "Spanglish" - an improvised combination of Spanish and English - is general in northern border towns.
While it is less common in the capital, one already can hear middle-class teen-agers on Mexico City streets interjecting phrases like "Give me a
break!" in an otherwise all-Spanish conversation. The culprit: cable television, seen at home by growing numbers of Mexicans.
But some deeply entrenched Mexican traditions, such as long working days with nearly three-hour lunches, seem to be alive and virtually untouched by U.S. influence.
Mr. Monsivais says he is not too worried about the long-term impact of U.S. influence - he believes Mexico will end up absorbing it.
"We will manage to Mexicanize it," Monsivais said. "This country has endured several cycles of Americanization and continues to be a clearly recognizable society despite it."