New York Times
By Azam Ahmed and Jim Yardley
February 14, 2016
Pope Francis stepped into the heartland of Mexican inequality on Sunday, presiding over an enormous outdoor Mass in the impoverished outskirts of the capital and urging the joyous crowd not to fall prey to the wealth, vanity and pride that can create “a society of the few, and for the few.”
By coming to Ecatepec, one of the country’s largest, poorest and most violent cities, the Latin American pope placed himself at the center of Mexico’s identity crisis. Nagging economic disparity has left nearly half of the country living in poverty while a mere sliver of society controls the rest — even as drug traffickers terrorize large parts of the nation.
Standing on a gigantic stage before several hundred thousand people, Francis told his listeners that the Lenten season, which began last week, is one of conversion, and that Mexico needed conversion. He asked Mexicans to turn their nation into “a land of opportunities, where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work, no need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”
Francis arrived in Mexico on Friday night, and on Saturday met President Enrique Peña Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City before addressing Mexico’s bishops. His trip to Ecatepec was barely 20 miles away, yet it delivered Francis to a different world, one emblematic of what he often calls “the peripheries,” the neglected places at the edges of wealth or political power.
“They take advantage of us with lies, while they sell the country bit by bit,” said Valdomero Guzmán Peros, 60, a resident of Ecatepec who rode his bicycle to the Mass, describing the government. “We are all hoping that the pope will bring a message to the powerful of our country that they must work for both the rich and the poor.”
The Mass marked the beginning of Francis’s tour of the Mexican peripheries, touching down in locales his predecessors largely skipped before his planned departure on Wednesday evening. Among other places, he will go to the southern border to meet with Mexico’s indigenous people, and to the north to address immigration.
In Ecatepec, violence by organized crime is on the rise even as chunks of the city are being transformed into luxurious shopping centers well out of reach of its residents. During his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis dedicated much time to working in slums that had many of the same problems.
While not the poorest of the cities and towns surrounding the capital, Ecatepec, population 1.7 million, is home to the largest number of people without access to health care and social services in the State of Mexico.
“Ecatepec gathers victims at the economic and urban level,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst in Mexico, “a place that symbolizes the devastation of the quality of life of most of its population. It is also a symptom of the way in which organized crime is slowly penetrating Mexico’s biggest cities and how this has resulted in a spike of murder rates, kidnapping and extortions.”
The crowds pulsed with energy early Sunday, walking miles down closed highways from across the region to attend. For the Mass, officials designated a giant open field, which had been covered in gravel and outfitted with more than 30 giant television screens and towering speakers to pump out the pontiff’s message. Families gathered in the heat, using blankets strung up on the fencing for shade.
In his homily, Francis warned against the “three temptations” of wealth, vanity and pride, and, in what could be interpreted as an oblique swipe at the Mexican elite, warned against societies in which the few enrich themselves and take the “bread” on the “toil of others.”
“This is the bread that a corrupt family or society gives its own children,” Francis said.
Upon his arrival, Francis traveled through a new development of tidy condominiums, as well as a megamall with stores like Starbucks, Sears and Burger King less than a mile from one of the country’s worst slums. Many Mexican commentators said the picture of prosperity that the government hoped would be validated by Francis’s presence was false.
Later in the day, Francis was again swept into the economic divide while visiting a hospital for children in Mexico City. There, he was joined by the first lady of Mexico and, according to the event itinerary, the son of the richest man in Mexico, Carlos Slim.
Along the route in Ecatepec, industrious street vendors created a bustling papal market, where hundreds of entrepreneurs spent the morning hawking plates, T-shirts and key chains bearing Francis’ image.
And yet even that commerce, to some degree, reflected Mexico’s split reality. More than 60 percent of Mexico’s economy remains informal, and workers say the burden of taxes and bureaucracy prevents them from joining the formal sector.
“I know these people are coming to ask for help, but who is there to help them?” asked Claudia Rodriguez Ayala, 46, a vendor selling sandwiches, water and cigarettes along the papal route. “Most feel if they come, they can get some manner of help through faith.”
As throngs of people marched past, she smiled and fished out a bottle of water from her cooler.
“Or at least lower taxes ordered by the president,” she said.
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