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Dispatch From Cancún: Developing Paradise in the Suicide Capital

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Reyna Martinez Osorio Orizaba stands regally on the third-floor balcony of Reyna's Bar, the pub and brothel that she spent her adult life building, and points to the new paradise rising out of Cancun's shrinking jungle and former ejidos (communal lands). "That's the Mayan Paradise housing project," says Osorio, a 44-year-old mother of two and grandmother. "I built Reyna's so that my son Ruben would not suffer what I did when I was a child: having to walk 2 kilometers for water to bring back so we could boil the herbs that we ate for dinner every day."

Osorio migrated to Cancun 10 years ago from the Orizaba Valley in Veracruz. A fierce, 5-foot-2 former sex worker, she planned on giving Ruben the keys to her castle, the brothel bearing her name. She built Reyna's near the shanty towns and new mini-cities of massive, low-income, privately-owned housing projects like the Mayan Paradise. Local politicians and police pressured her and other sex workers to move, because authorities felt she and her colleagues were conducting business too close to Kilometro Cero--the invisible, but definitive border separating the storied hotel zone of tourist Cancun from the chaotic city of almost a million people that houses most of the tourism workers, including those that make Cancun one of the Caribbean's hubs of sex tourism.

"We [the sex workers] organized ourselves, fought the authorities and got them to help establish this complex of sexual service businesses on the margins of the city. When he turned 26, I let Ruben start managing Reyna's some evenings. I thought that he could handle himself and be strong as I taught him to be," Osario explains. "I didn't want him to live in my hell."

Unfortunately for Osorio and, especially, for her son, the line separating paradise and hell in Cancun is blurred. The city is the suicide capital of Mexico. That's a subject that's not likely to come up as thousands of people from almost 200 countries gather here over the next two weeks for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change (known as COP 16). This, despite the fact that the climate injustices that they're supposed to be confronting lead to the poverty, droughts, floods and other disasters that drive people like Osorio to migrate here, including those who take their lives when they arrive.

Ruben had promised to never hit his wife, and to kill himself if he did. After breaking that promise, the 28 year old got drunk, tied an electrical chord to his stucco ceiling, wrapped it around his neck and fell to his knees, killing himself in front of his then 4-year-old daughter. He was among more than 100 people in Cancun who have taken their lives each year since 2007.

"How could this happen?" his mother pondered, staring down as if searching for answers in the empty white table where we were sitting in her empty bar (she says the economic crisis has brought business down by at least 60 percent). "I thought he could handle himself. I was wrong. It got to him--all the women, the drugs, the alcohol."

Explanations as to why so many Cancun residents can't "handle it" vary. Tabloids like El Peso regularly run scintillating stories with front page headlines like "Tragedia Amorosa" (Love Tragedy) and "Alambre al Cuello" (Wire to the Neck). Many of the articles also run color pictures, like the one of Ruben lying dead on his knees in his apartment. Neighbors' explanations add local color (e.g. "He was cursed") to the tragedies.

Reports in television news and in more the serious journals quote "experts" linking the high suicide rate to the ancient cult of Ixtab, the Mayan goddess of suicide. Ixtab is often depicted in murals and on ancient vases suspended in the sky with a noose around her neck. She symbolizes the high calling that was suicide among the Maya of a previous era; the noose reaches up to the heavens.

But the families of victims, and the psychologists, social workers and activists who work with them, look to something decidedly more terrestrial than the tragic heroism of goddesses. They describe a complex, contemporary variation on an equally ancient theme of the rich exploiting the poor. Ruben and others committing suicide on the non-tourist side of Kilometro Cero are doing so, those interviewed say, for a number of reasons centered around the new nature of poverty in Mexico and in the world.

Life on the Mayan Rivieria

"There are people who live and vacation on that side of paradise," says Evelyn Parra, one of Mexico's leading suicidologists and the director of psychological services for the city's family development agency. "And then there are those who work on that side of paradise--and live on this side," she adds, pointing outside her office to the small, sweltering room crowded with people waiting for appointments.

Asked about popular explanations for the city's high suicide rate, Parra looks up at the fast-growing lists of recent suicides and attempted suicides pinned on a wall next to her desk. She smiles and responds, "Oh yes, the Mayan goddess stories. Yes, we hear this story a lot. In history there may have been a goddess of suicide and Mayans did consider suicide an honor, but there is no cult now. The reasons for suicide are not just cultural but economic, personal and very complex. And it's not the Mayans killing themselves. It's migrants, poor people who came here for their dreams."

Osorio is among hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who have pursued prosperity--and survival--among the faux pyramids, artificial white beaches and turquoise-blue waters of what tourism boosters have termed the "Mayan Riviera." But their migrant dreams are haunted by the more black and white, rich and poor world of global economics, and by the effects of the environmental disaster world leaders have gathered here to debate.

Today's Cancun was built in early 1970's under the leadership of then Mexican President Luis Echeverria, with the idea of creating the country's premiere tourist destination--a new model for tourism development. It succeeded as a high-end tourism hub, and it did provide a model for Mexico and other parts of the world. But Cancun also succeeded in establishing what urbanists and geologists like Peter Weise called the "self destruction model of tourism development."

The self-destructive model, according to Weise and others, begins when a remote, ecologically attractive area with low population density is identified as a potential hub for elite tourists--those willing to pay handsomely for privacy, isolation and unspoilt and beautiful environments. Rapid population growth and urbanization follows when, as in Cancun, large numbers of middle class tourists follow the more wealthy trend-setters. The need for more hotels, more entertainment venues, more development pushes the region into ecological imbalances that lead to the kind urban and environmental collapse found here today.

At the heart of it all is an economy and way of life dependent on cheap labor (the average Cancun worker makes less than $200 per month). That labor most often takes the form of migrant workers from other, poorer Mexican states like Tabasco. Local experts say that climate change-induced floods in Tabasco last September are pushing new waves of migrants to Cancun. Like Ruben, many of these migrant workers will experience crushing loneliness and isolation shortly after arriving.

Behind the ready smiles and friendly broken-English voices of maids, busboys and prostitutes on both sides of Kilometro Cero is the siren's song of alienation and loneliness. The climate change experts, leaders and protesters packing Cancun's hotels over the next two weeks will likely not visit the other side of Kilometro Cero as they discuss and debate the fact that climate change is projected to force a billion of the world's people to migrate out of their homelands and into cities like Cancun by 2050.

If they listen closely to music in the restaurants and hotels, visitors may hear a very popular song, Ruben's favorite. They may hear the tragedy in the plaintive pianos and wailing violins and angry guitars and tragic lyrics (e.g. "their souls united in eternity to give life to this sad song of love") in the "Triste Cancion de Amor" (Sad Song of Love) played by workers.

"Most of those who are killing themselves are migrants," says Parra. "They leave because their ways of life, their social networks are destroyed by economic change and natural disasters. They often kill themselves because they come to a place where there are no social networks, no networks of support or services."

Parra told me that in Mexico City the typical person has an average of 12 friends and relations; in Cancun, the ratio is three or four friends per person. She calls Cancun "one of the loneliest cities in Mexico."

When the Building Stops

The highest concentration of this migrant loneliness--and suicide--is centered in the city's many new 13-foot by 26-foot cinder condominios--block rooms sold for about $25,000 by people like Janeth Paola.

Paola migrated here with her husband, Antonio de Los Angeles Chi, from Campeche. She has sold many people their first homes in the gigantic, privately-run Villas Otoch Paraiso, a low-income housing complex that's as big as a small Mexican town. Like the hotels on the other side of Kilometro Cero, the Paraiso (paradise) has Mayan street names and Mayan themed architecture. "I've helped many people who would otherwise be unable to afford these homes, people who come from the countryside and even nearby shantytowns and have moved up," Paola says from her own stucco-walled apartment.

Paola says her family's fortunes rose with the high-occupancy rates of the housing complexes that now carpet former coconut fields and ejidos. "Even though we missed our family in Campeche, things were going well. Rooms were filling up. Before the crisis, Antonio had a steady job as a driver for Maya Caribe buses. "

But as Mexico's swine flu scare and the global economic crisis combined to bring hotel vacancy to its highest rate ever (a remarkable 78 percent), Paolo began noticing how many apartments were being vacated too. Entire blocks of the Paraiso were emptying out. The ghost town feel is worsened by the piles of rock and sand, the fencing and the cement bags that developers left fallow as new construction stopped.

"Antonio started a transportation business with a friend in order to make more money," Paola explains. "The business didn't go well, his partner didn't live up to promises and we ended up going into deep debt. That's when something went wrong."

On his birthday last July, Antonio started drinking at 10 a.m. and didn't stop until that evening. "He was very drunk and decided to go in our bedroom. I thought he was sleeping when I heard that awful noise. I rushed in and found him with a hammock strung around his neck."

Now, in addition to her primary mission of supporting and raising her daughter alone, Paola has had to deal with the watchful and often wrongful eyes of the larger public.

"My main image of Antonio is of him listening to Pedro Infante, Los Tigres del Norte and Cornelio Reyna [classic Mexican norteno and ranchera singers], dancing on the bed with our daughter," says Paola. "But the newspapers said horrible things and then people repeated them and made up their own stories."

She recalls reports both in tabloids and in more serious papers filled with lies and gossip. "They said that we would hit each other physically or that I was sleeping with other men. They even said I was sleeping with my compadre [godfather of her daughter]. It hurts me deeply to hear and read this."

Suicidologist Parra has criticized the local media both for spreading these sorts of rumors and for "planting seeds" of suicide in people's minds, with big frontpage pictures of people hanging themselves with hammocks.

Suicides in Cancun are altering the image of the once storied home of the Mayas. And for those living in Mexico's suicide capital, the view of life is being altered as well. "Paradise is different things for different people," says Paola. "I used to think it was reaching a level of comfort from work, having money. Now I realize paradise can only come from God."

This article was originally published on ColorLines.

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