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The Nafta Generation

They are Mexico´s largest and most imprtant youth wave since the 1920s. And they don´t like the status quo.

The camera zooms in on Salma Hayek, who smolders on cue. "I don't care what you say or promise," the Mexican actress, star of the movie Fools Rush In, growls. "For years you treated me as if I were under your boot heel. I'm leaving you for someone who will never hang up on me." A tempestuous scene from an upcoming epic? No, it's Hayek's pitch for Avantel, one of Mexico's new long-distance-telephone competitors--and an oblique slam at the old economic establishment. The object of Hayek's scorn is the former telephone monopoly, Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex)--a behemoth Mexicans have long reviled under their breath for a history of indifferent service and steep rates. But as a pillar of the formerly state-dominated economy, Telmex never endured such complaints in public.

Hayek, 28, the first celebrity to vent that pent-up consumer spleen on national television, has credible credentials for the job. A native of Coatzacoalcos, she is well known in Mexican entertainment circles as a strong-minded individualist who is willing to trash the rules and thumb her nose at Mexico's autocratic elite--a rebel without an ideological cause. Six years ago, as one of the country's most attractive young soap-opera stars, Hayek got fed up with the banal scripts ground out by the television giant Televisa. The TV company has close ties with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.), which has ruled Mexico for the past 68 years. She walked out. In the past, a move like that would end an actor's career. But Hayek bolted to Hollywood, something few Mexican actresses dare, and is today one of the world's fastest-rising film stars. As for the P.R.I., she's not fond of it either. "I'm not impressed with any party in Mexico," Hayek told TIME. "That's what makes me and my generation different: we don't believe in anyone until they show us they deserve it."

Hayek is more than an opinionated starlet. She is a leading member of Mexico's NAFTA generation, the young, independent-minded and numerically huge generation ages 18 to 29 that will be shaping the future of Mexico--starting this year. Named after the groundbreaking North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. baby-boom generation is just emerging as the largest and most important youth wave Mexico has seen since the 1920s. Almost 60% of the country's 95 million people are now under age 25, and more than a third of registered voters are under 30. The boomer bulge is likely to extend over the next decade; its political clout will begin to register this July 6, when voters go to the polls in elections for the lower house of the legislature, the mayoralty of Mexico City, and hundreds of other state and local offices. In this election, unlike those of the past, boomers' votes will matter--or at least so the government says. President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon has promised that the upcoming vote will be free, fair and untainted--and many people, for once, believe him.

As a result, Zedillo's own party, the P.R.I., has reason to be worried. The NAFTA generation is more disaffected by the country's old political ways than any in memory. It is prematurely jaded by the political corruption that keeps blackening Mexico's image. And it is unhappy at the seemingly endless sense of economic crisis; because of it, the NAFTA generation has an unemployment rate twice as high as that of the rest of the population. The generation harbors the next phalanx of technically proficient Mexican yuppies, but it also embraces more poverty than any other Mexican generation. In an alcove beside one of Mexico City's busiest metro stops, Insurgentes, a growing community of homeless and jobless young men live on old mattresses and sofas. "So many guys our age, and there's no work," says an 18-year-old named Luis.

In a recent poll of Mexicans ages 18 to 24, only 1% said they trust the government. "Disgust, nonconformity, it's all there," says Guillermo Martinez, 24, "youth reporter" for the national Radio Red network. "I don't see the current system surviving us."

That statement is looking less like braggadocio every day. In the last presidential election, three years ago, more than half of voters ages 18 to 29 opted for Mexico's opposition parties for the first time; for students it was 65%. The trend is likely to continue in July's midterm balloting. The NAFTA generation is also much readier to break with entrenched economic and cultural traditions--in part because the famed trade agreement has undermined many of those cozy arrangements of the past. Today's young Mexicans shun the ubiquitous public-sector bureaucracy to stake their careers in private-sector organizations or take the risk of founding their own business. They want realism instead of nationalist ideology in their movies and music. Surveys show that they prize honesty, competence and pragmatism over knee-jerk anti-Americanism and more abstract ideals like national sovereignty and lockstep political thinking. "It's going to be very hard to fool this generation," says political scientist Sergio Aguayo, head of the electoral watchdog Civic Alliance.

But will the new generation of Mexicans have something better to offer? They are just beginning to find their feet--and haven't yet found their sense of direction. In that sense they're more like their grunge-attired U.S. counterparts, Generation X. A good label for Mexico's youth might be Generation Dos XX, after the popular Mexican beer.

If they are looking for role models, Mexico's young generation think they have found one in Hayek. During her visit last month to the Guadalajara Film Festival, a crowd of young women followed the actress at every turn. One of those trailing in Hayek's wake was Rosalva Orozco, 24, just out of college, who passed up a cushy government job to be a cub reporter at a small Guadalajara radio station. Orozco says her decision was due in part to Hayek's influence. "I look at her and I see choices my mother never saw," she said. "I can do something with my life in Mexico beyond the P.R.I. or Televisa or all the other stodgy things."

That attitude, amplified by the NAFTA generation's numbers, is causing concern all the way up to the presidential palace. Fully aware of the demographic trend, Zedillo has appointed a new youth czar, Luis Sanchez Gomez, to build bridges to the younger vote. Sanchez has changed the name of his government agency from the turgid General Directorate for Attention to Youth to Causa Joven (Youth Cause); he has also updated its social-services agenda to include issues like AIDS prevention and career training for women. Zedillo has put a string of colleges and universities on the presidential itinerary of almost every hinterland visit he makes this year. On the road, the reserved professional economist dives into crowds of students like a wannabe rock star.

So far, the moshing isn't doing much good. Political analysts say the NAFTA generation's disenchanted vote was a big factor in a spate of P.R.I. state and local electoral losses over the past two years. Last month the P.R.I. was stunned in civic balloting in the central state of Morelos outside Mexico City. Twentysomething voters helped thirtysomething candidates from the conservative National Action Party (P.A.N.) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (P.R.D.) take more than half the state's municipal and legislative seats. Their victory added to speculation that in July the P.R.I. could for the first time lose its majority in the lower house of the legislature as well as the powerful Mexico City mayor's office.

The NAFTA generation's enthusiasm for change--any change--has pragmatic roots. It isn't just that they bear the brunt of the 1994 peso crisis. Since they were kids in the 1980s, they have known spasms of prosperity interrupted by one economic disaster after another. During the same period, Mexico has been more open to outside influences than ever before, giving the younger generation access to different standards and values by which to measure the old order. What's more, Mexicans entering today's job market cannot count on the authoritarian patronage of a state-dominated economy to shape their future. Whatever else the government has done in the past decade, its privatization campaign has eliminated hundreds of thousands of sinecures. Says Pablo Raphael, 27, a novice restaurateur whose hip El Octavo Dia is a favorite Mexico City hangout for the younger set: "We're the crisis generation."

Given their jobless rate--and the fact that a million additional young Mexicans flood the workforce each year--that self-image won't change soon. Even when they find work, members of the NAFTA generation, according to a recent survey by the University of Guadalajara, are more likely to remain loyal to the political opposition.

It's tempting to liken the NAFTA generation to its angry predecessor, the generation of 1968. That politically active group, which saw hundreds of its members massacred by government forces in the capital's Tlatelolco Plaza on the eve of the Olympic Games, was eventually co-opted by the P.R.I. The most prominent members of that generation, such as Zedillo and former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, got Ivy League Ph.D.s and became the ruling technocrats of the '90s.

Members of the NAFTA generation, like Guadalajara lawyer Cristina Organista, 25, look back on the achievements of their predecessors with cynicism. The 1994 peso crisis--Mexico's worst economic contraction in 60 years--canceled her dream of graduate study in the U.S. "My family's aspirations went from sending me abroad to simply saving our house," she says. Organista was part of the electoral force that swept the opposition P.A.N. into power two years ago in Guadalajara's Jalisco state. "The youth vote had an enormous impact," recalls Jorge Zepeda, editor of the Guadalajara daily Siglo 21.

Neither opposition party can feel smug about their future chances just yet, however. The NAFTA generation is a tough voting bloc to charm. Waiting her turn to shoot pool at a hall in Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, computer saleswoman Fabiola Mosqueira, 22, says she hasn't a clue who she'll vote for in July. "The P.R.D. is a lot of old hippies I don't like being around," she says, "and the P.A.N. is a bunch of conservatives who want to keep me from wearing a miniskirt."

Again unlike its predecessors, the NAFTA generation shuns activism. That reluctance to get involved in the political process it complains about may, in the long run, be one of its biggest disabilities. "I do worry about how black we make the horizon look sometimes," says Martinez, "especially since we don't have many answers of our own." Aside from a demonstration against economic policy last October, one of the few marches young Mexico City residents have joined over the past year was one that protested a change of music format at one of their favorite radio stations.

But individually, rather than in clumps, younger Mexicans are more definite about what they don't like--the public sector, for example. The traditional place to start a career in Mexico was always inside the P.R.I.-led bureaucracy. Now, says Gerardo Guerra, 27, a Guadalajara native, "I wouldn't work in the government, not with its corruption problems." Guerra went straight from American University in Guadalajara to a managerial job with U.S.-based Procter & Gamble, then got a master's degree in management at Yale University. Rather than crunch numbers at the Treasury Ministry as Zedillo's generation did, Guerra joined the financial department at privately owned cement giant Cemex in Monterrey. "I'm not going to ask the government to give me what it once gave my parents," he says. "We just want a system that works and works fairly, and we still don't have that."

Higher education in Mexico has always revolved around the gargantuan state-controlled and tuition-free National Autonomous University of Mexico (unam). But today's students tend to deride overcrowded, antiquated unam as a socialist-era anachronism, a place to prepare for anti-American cafe chatter, not a 21st century career. More and more students are trying to get scholarships to attend private colleges like the Technological Institute of Monterrey, known as El Tec, with its gleaming office towers, environmentally correct bins for three kinds of recyclable garbage, and banks of personal computers in the hallways. "We're not so tied up in nationalist ideals that get you nowhere," says Mario Oviedo, a 21-year-old Tec economics student. "We're less frightened of confronting the outside world."

They are also bolder about leaving the nest. Even the generation of 1968 lived at home until marriage, but the life-style of the NAFTA generation has created a whole new real estate unit in Mexico: the stu-dio apartment. NAFTA generation members are more mobile than their predecessors. While impoverished campesinos migrate to slums or the U.S. for work, middle-class children leave their families in Guadalajara to work in industrial centers like Monterrey, as Guerra did. Those cities have seen new youth enclaves sprout up. In Monterrey especially, once one of Mexico's most buttoned-down towns, rap dance clubs and computer shops-cum-coffee bars are the leading new spots to see and be seen.

The watchword is self-reliance. Even affluent young Mexicans are more likely to start their own business than take the helm of the family firm. With three young cousins, 21-year-old Diego Ordax set up a one-stop-shop computer store in Mexico City; it is doing well, he says, thanks to "customers like us." With Mexico's banks still reeling from the peso crash, Ordax got the capital for his start-up from relatives--one reason why 77% of young Mexicans say they still believe in the family, even if they prefer not to live within its traditional confines. The flux in attitudes and life-styles is causing headaches and challenges for at least one group beyond politicians--marketing executives. Today's Mexican youth are living in a commercial world that is more open than any faced in earlier times. But they are not easy prey. "We're more global," notes Alfredo Leal, 22, another Tec economics major. "We have Internet access and a thousand times more information." That's why Avantel, a consortium headed by the U.S. firm MCI, tapped Hayek as a spokesperson. The company says she has raised its name recognition in Mexico from 3% in 1995 to 75% today. Avantel is still working to get a foothold in the market Telmex has long dominated, but, says Patricia Maciel, 24, who co-writes Hayek's scripts, "My grandparents aren't going to give up Telmex, but I will."

Maciel thinks she knows what her generation craves from the world of commerce: "You have to be honest and direct with us. This is a far more pragmatic, even cynical age group than Mexico has ever seen." It is also demanding more open discussion of topics that were long taboo in Mexico's conservative media. AIDS, for example, is the third leading killer of Mexicans under 35, and so the young generation is demanding a franker discussion of sex. Mexico's traditionally prim soap operas are starting to respond. The upstart network TV Azteca last year aired a soap called Nada Personal (Nothing Personal), which put Mexico's first nude love scene on the small screen. "We don't have the luxury of hiding reality away anymore," says Nada Personal star Ana Colchero.

The same yen for realism is filtering into Mexican movie production, previously the last refuge of the saccharin romantic epic. New directors like 33-year-old Carlos Marcovich are undermining convention with such offbeat films as his soon-to-be-released Quien Diablos Es Juliet? (Who the Hell Is Juliet?). The film, which features Hayek in a cameo role, follows two young women, Mexican and Cuban, who face their countries' more sensitive realities and taboos as they join in search of their fathers.

On the pop-music front, Mexicans are turning away from frothy Menudo-style acts to the tough tones that come from roquero (rock) groups like Los Jaguares and grungy trova (troubadour) artists like Fernando Delgadillo. Some have brought punk and gangsta nihilism south of the U.S. border, like Tijuana No and the rap band Molotov. But, as in most things, the fans' numbers rule: the Miami-based, Spanish-language mtv Latin America has developed programs such as Afuera (Outside) that showcase trendsetting Mexican artists, something the network has not done for any other Latin market.

Is the NAFTA generation finding more than diversion in its new status as a demographic balance point? Fernanda Gallego, a 24-year-old Jalisco government counsel who heads Youth Development, one of the numerous nonpartisan civic forums sprouting up in every Mexican city and university these days, isn't sure. Says she: "Every time I hear public officials shout about defending our national sovereignty, I shake my head, because I know their corruption and mistakes have compromised my country's sovereignty as much as any gringo has."

The best grounds for optimism about the path that the NAFTA generation will take are still on the margins, where young people like Gallego are struggling to inject new values--old values, actually--into the society they are about to inherit. An example is Profeco, the federal small-claims court that most Mexicans agree is the only branch of their judicial system that functions properly and efficiently. One reason for the agency's success is the young, uncorrupted corps of public attorneys--average age: 29--who handle the consumer-complaint and civil-damages cases. They have become one of the few sources of redress for many citizens. Bertha Arteaga, 28, is one who found the appeal of such meaningful work irresistible. She fled the Agrarian Reform Ministry to join up and tackle cases involving unscrupulous tourist hotels. "Here," she says, "I feel that I'm actually righting wrongs." Says Fernando Lerdo, Profeco's chief and a former university professor: "They're showing Mexicans that the public-service concept of looking after people is doable here."

No one knows better than the NAFTA generation how badly the country needs it.

--With reporting by Daniel Dombey/Mon-terrey and Paul Sherman/Mexico City