MAYRA PATRICIA V'AZQUEZ LICONA clambers up a stack of 40-pound sugar bags to snag a loaf of bread. On Saturdays, Myra earns about 20,000 pesos (US$6.70) for a six-hour shift behind the counter in her Aunt Araceli's tiny abarrote - the Mexican equivalent of a Seven-Eleven store shoehorned into an area no bigger than a walk-in closet. But Mayra plans to scale more than sugar bags in her life. Pushing her obsidian-black hair aside, the buoyant just-turned-17-year-old says firmly, ``I don't want to live the low life.''
Mayra is grateful for her job, her only source of income. But she knows too well that many of her friends have dropped out of school and spend seven days a week in this type of job.
``More than anything, my parents have told me to study,'' she explains. ``Study, and get a career.''
Fewer than 2 of every 10children who start first grade in Mexico make it through college. Almost half don't reach the sixth grade. In a country where half the population of 82 million lives in poverty, and where no laws mandate school attendance, many children start working young just to help put food on the table.
Mayra's mother, Paula, only completed first grade. ``My father didn't think school was for girls,'' she says. Paula sells tortillas door to door three days a week.
Mayra's father, Isidro, is a private waiter, serving at business meetings and parties. Recently, he started a business renting out tableware for functions. ``We have settings for 500 people now,'' says Mrs. V'azquez, proudly showing visitors the china plates and champagne glasses packed in plastic milk crates. The crates share the living room with a battered sofa, a television, and a small candle-lit shrine.
Despite a decade of general economic crisis in Mexico, Mayra's parents have broken out of the poverty cycle. The six V'azquez children (Mayra is the youngest) have a relatively comfortable lower-middle class standard of living here.
True, Mayra's gray cement-block home didn't have running water until 1982. Phone lines arrived two years later. The family owns no car. And Mayra shares a small, unpainted, dimly lit room with her three older sisters. But Mayra has nice clothes and jewelry. She doesn't go hungry.
Her parents have done more than provide a roof for the children. They have instilled each with a drive to attain higher education. Mayra aspires to a career in radio or television. Her family, noting Mayra's dynamism and dramatic flair, is betting she will be somewhere in front of the camera. Mayra says her career choice is based mainly on the fact that her oldest sister, Amparo, is a news director on Imevision, a major network in Mexico. ``I really like the people I've met in the business,'' Mayra says .
Her two other sisters, Silvia and Laura, plan to go to college and earn law degrees (tuition is about US$125 a year). One brother is working on a degree in electrical engineering. The other works as a part-time government researcher and is studying for a degree in public administration and political science.
Weekday mornings Mayra is up at 6. She catches a bus at 7 for the Collegio de Ciencias y Humanidades, a three-year public preparatory school. By 11:30 her classes are over. Her best grades are in chemistry, history, and physical education. Her worst are in math. Three days a week she takes Hawaiian dance classes. She's home by 2:30 each day.
In Mexico, the main meal, la comida, is at about 3 p.m. Afterward, Mayra relaxes in a traditional way: She watches a telenovela (soap opera) and cartoons. Homework is tackled between 8 p.m. and 10:30.
She has no boyfriend at the moment. ``I don't want to be married until I'm 27 - after university and after I've got my career,'' she explains.
Like 95 percent of all Mexicans, Mayra is a Roman Catholic. She seldom attends church, however, and disagrees with the Church's anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive positions. She is pro-abortion in cases of rape and child deformity. She could conceive of living with a man outside of marriage but adds, ``I would rather not.''
Mexicans on the whole tend to be family-centered, and most of Mayra's free time is spent reading or going out with her sisters. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Mayra, Silvia, and Laura rise at 5 a.m. and go downtown to Chapultepec Park, Mexico City's version of New York's Central Park. The early morning chill is quickly vanquished by two vigorous hours of ``Lima Lama'' classes. The martial-arts classes cost 10,000 pesos (slightly less than the daily minimum wage in Mexico) a week.
After Lima Lama, the sisters commute an hour or so across the world's second-most populous city (after Tokyo) to spend the rest of Saturday working in their aunt's store. Sunday afternoons are for shopping. Mayra loves to dance but seldom goes to discos, which are expensive. The time to dance is during fiestas (parties) which are often held on Sundays between 5 and 9 p.m.
Around the V'azquez household, you will only hear pure Mexican ranchera (country) music. The radio stations playing North American pop songs are shunned. Mayra isn't going to become a fresa - the derogatory term for the ``arrogant, vain, detestable'' Mexicans who wear modern clothes and listen to United States bands.
MAYRA says the strongest cultural influences in society are those of the descendants of Mayans, Aztecs, and others. But she worries about the growing obsession among her peers for US things. The key to preserving Mexican culture, says Mayra, is education at school and at home.
Despite such reservations, Mayra supports a free-trade pact between the US, Canada, and Mexico as ``good economically for Mexico.'' But her answer isn't particularly convincing. It sounds like something she's heard around the dinner table (her parents are supporters of the conservative National Action Party).
Looking to the day when she achieves her career goals, and perhaps has a family, Mayra wonders if Mexico City will still be habitable. It has the world's worst air pollution. ``La Contaminaci'on is fatal now. I'm afraid it's going to increase,'' she says.
The government programs, she says, have only scratched the surface of the problem. Her recipe for repairing the environment: ``Separate and recycle the garbage; reforestation, more parks and green areas, and two days without a car.'' Currently, residents cannot use their cars one day a week.
Mayra isn't optimistic: Too many people are too busy scratching out a living to worry about the air and water. She may join a growing middle-class exodus to smaller, nearby cities. ``If I could, I would live in Quer'etaro. It's a small city. Clean. Pretty, in the Spanish Colonial style.''