The Woolworth on Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City is hard to miss. Its curved stone facade and bright red lettering feel nostalgic and out-of-place, as if plucked from a 1970s movie and plopped straight onto one of Mexico City’s busiest streets.
I’d never been to a Woolworth’s before moving to Mexico City. I knew vaguely of the chain’s U.S. cultural significance as a pioneer in department store retailing, and as the location of the 1960 Greensboro and 1963 Jackson sit-ins, critical pieces of the American civil rights movement. But beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect from “the world’s most famous five-and-dime,” which closed its doors in the U.S. in 1997, the year I was born.
Despite that, the Woolworth on Insurgentes feels familiar, with its soft pop on the loudspeaker, interrupted occasionally by advertisements that announce, “Woolworth es para ti”, Woolworth is for you. On a Saturday, the store is crowded, and patrons float between the packed islands of children’s clothes, perfume, candy and school supplies that criss-cross its two floors, accented by bright green signs announcing the “Baratón” sale. It’s the kind of place where you could buy KN-95 masks at a “preciazo,” try on shoes, and, according to a sign behind the cash registers, receive remittances from the U.S.
It’s a store that feels both distinctly Mexican and distinctly American—and that’s because it is. In 1997, Woolworth Mexicana was acquired by Grupo Comercial Control, joining forces with its primary competitor in Mexico, the department store Del Sol. While Woolworth’s name and brand identity has remained intact, the two stores operate in tandem, sharing a website and publicity.
U.S.-born stores like Woolworth in Mexico are reminders of how often pieces of one country are sewn into the other, how identities blend and shift, both interconnected and distinct.
And this phenomenon goes both ways: While we often talk about U.S. investment in Mexico, in 2016 the Mexico Institute linked more than 123,000 U.S. jobs to Mexican investment in the U.S., citing Bimbo Bakeries as a prime example. On the Bimbo Bakeries USA website, the company fittingly notes, “Not everyone is familiar with the Bimbo Bakeries USA name. However, everyone in the U.S. has likely enjoyed at least one of our many products at one time or another.” And here’s where American consumers should hold on to their English muffins: Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, which entered the U.S. market in 1994, is behind American staples including Thomas’, Oroweat and Sara Lee.
These everyday, breakfast-table links between Mexico and the U.S. are the ones that fascinate me most. They’re links that are ignored in the one-dimensional way Mexico is often painted in the U.S., despite their political, economic and social backstories and implications.
Back in Mexico City, two blocks away from the Woolworth on Insurgentes stands Sears, which first opened on that corner in 1947. When I walk through its doors, I’m surrounded by the smell of Sears, a mix of perfume and Levi’s and new washing machines that transports me to my dingey hometown Sears, where I spent hours killing time during middle school. But this store—like all Sears stores in Mexico—is 100 percent Mexican, owned by billionaire Carlos Slim’s Grupo Carso.
Walk fifteen minutes east of the Sears and Woolworth on Insurgentes and you might stumble upon a Radio Shack, another relic of mall glory days in the U.S. Mexico’s Grupo Gigante acquired Radio Shack México in 2015, and the chain has experienced relative success compared to its American counterpart.
The examples of this projection, blending and reimagining of American and Mexican retail identities don’t stop here. But while the globalization of brands and markets brings a sense of connectedness and opportunity, it can also be a double-sided coin, with low-wage workers and local businesses getting the short end of the stick. Big brands talk about social responsibility in both countries, but translating talk into action is a universal sticking point. Similarly, in March 2020, Sears Mexico was the subject of intense (and well deserved) criticism after launching a publicity campaign that featured white models posing disinterestedly next to Indigenous women from Chiapas. The incident showed, once again, that just as brands cross borders, so too do classism and racism in their advertising practices. The Sears advertisements that dot Mexico City’s streets still feature white models, as does most all advertising. It’s another reason, I’m sure, I feel a familiarity with these brands—I can see myself in them.
Meanwhile, the pandemic, which shows no sign of stopping in Mexico City, has been devastating for brick-and-mortar retail around the world and accelerated the transition to online shopping. So it’s not clear how long stores like Woolworth, Sears and Radio Shack will remain standing as monuments of nostalgia and globalization.
For as long as they do, I’ll think of their aisles as strange, complex meeting places between Mexico and the U.S.—a reflection of our connected realities, which, just like the stores themselves, contain a little bit of everything.