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Mexico's intense urbanization spurs social, economic trends

Mexico is wrapping up its once-a-decade population count, when census workers fan out across the country, knocking on doors from posh Mexico City neighborhoods to sleepy coastal communities. Demographers expect the data will reveal just how pronounced the country's urbanization has become.

They never intended to stay, but in the three years since Rogelio and Lourdes Mendoza arrived in the capital looking for work, they've found no reason to return to their farming village 300 miles away.

Why would they?

"The city offers opportunity," said Rogelio, 31. "The countryside died a long time ago."

Amid the harried crowds near the city's main downtown square, the couple peddle gum, newspapers, candy, cigarettes, "anything and everything to put food on the table" for their two children, Hortensia and Domingo, said Lourdes, 30, who also works as a maid.

The Mendozas, originally from the state of Veracruz, where they worked in the coffee industry, represent the changing makeup of Mexico. Nearly 30 percent of the country's population is now concentrated in just five metropolitan zones: the Mexico City area, nearby Toluca, Puebla-Tlaxcala, Monterrey and Guadalajara.

Although the emptying of the countryside began decades ago, historian Jean Meyer said urbanization continues to intensify because of job creation resulting from economic globalization and Mexico's entry into the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada.

"It's been a slow, steady process that's changed the face of the country," Meyer said.

According to the latest demographic data, more Mexicans are living in cities today than ever before, and the country's major urban centers are swelling.

Mexico has 11 urban areas with a million people or more, according to 2009 estimates. A twelfth urban area, Mérida, has just less than a million.

The demographic shift has major implications for Mexico as it celebrates its bicentennial. The iconic nature of the countryside in Mexican history – people of the land and for the land – no longer holds true and hasn't for some time. The rallying cry during the Mexican Revolution beginning in 1910 – "land and liberty" – is now little more than a distant echo.

Swollen urban centers breed new problems. The rapid growth of megacities like the Mexico City area – with a population of more than 21 million – puts stresses on the environment that city governments are hard-pressed to contend with.

For example, even with a "green plan" to tackle air quality and environmental issues, Mexico City's environmental agency reports that about 200,000 cars are added to the city's congested streets each year, making it exceedingly difficult to manage the growth.

As Mexico's population becomes more urbanized, it also is becoming older – a demographic shift that may change the dynamics of migration, albeit slowly. As Mexico grays, the pressure for people to head north will lessen, according to demographic and immigration experts.

"If the economy stays strong, long-term, 10, 12 years from now, Mexico will be able to absorb more workers," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "In a sense, both Mexico and the United States will be able to compete with one another for the same number of workers."

As far as migration patterns are concerned, "the biggest thing coming down the road is that fertility is falling in Mexico," said Nestor Rodríguez, a sociology professor and immigration expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mexican families are smaller than ever before. Government statistics show the birth rate has fallen 38 percent, to about 18 births per 1,000 people in 2010, down from about 29 births just 20 years ago. A survey last year showed that Mexican women now have 2.2 children on average.

"If you think that the problem now is Mexican migration, the problem is going to be that there won't be enough" migration to satisfy the U.S. demand for workers, Rodríguez said.

Mexico is still young but aging rapidly. Half of the country's 103.3 million people are 26 years old or younger, but that figure has risen from 1990, when the median age for men was 19 and for women was 20.

The generation that is between the ages of 14 and 34 today is "coming of age in an era in which job creation has fallen way behind," said Daniel Lund, president of the Mexico City-based market studies provider Mund Group.

"If they are from the solid middle class, they have a lot of fear of never reaching the economic comforts of their parents," he said. "They are also worried about being able to fulfill the promise of social mobility."

This group is also largely over-prepared for the jobs available to them in Mexico and as a result is disproportionately self-employed, according to Veronica Montes de Oca, investigator with the Institute of Social Investigations at the National Autonomous University, Mexico's largest public university.

Rubén Olivarez Martínez, from Durango, earned a degree as a systems engineer but wanted to work in theater and made his way to the country's cultural heart – Mexico City – in 2002.

Now 30, Olivarez is resigned to working freelance jobs in television and theater. He is applying for a full-time job with the National Theater Company, but competition is stiff.

"I'm just looking for that economic security," he said.

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