But the families of victims, and the psychologists, social workers and activists who work with them, look to something decidedly more terrestrial than the tragic heroism of goddesses. They describe a complex, contemporary variation on an equally ancient theme of the rich exploiting the poor. Ruben and others committing suicide on the non-tourist side of Kilometro Cero are doing so, those interviewed say, for a number of reasons centered around the new nature of poverty in Mexico and in the world. 

Life on the Mayan Rivieria

“There are people who live and vacation on that side of paradise,” says Evelyn Parra, one of Mexico’s leading suicidologas and the director of psychological services for the city’s family development agency. “And then there are those who work on that side of paradise—and live on this side,” she adds, pointing outside her office to the small, sweltering room crowded with people waiting for appointments.  

Asked about popular explanations for the city’s high suicide rate, Parra looks up at the fast-growing lists of recent suicides and attempted suicides pinned on a wall next to her desk. She smiles and responds, “Oh yes, the Mayan goddess stories. Yes, we hear this story a lot. In history there may have been a goddess of suicide and Mayans did consider suicide an honor, but there is no cult now. The reasons for suicide are not just cultural but economic, personal and very complex. And it’s not the Mayans killing themselves. It’s migrants, poor people who came here for their dreams.”

Osorio is among hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who have pursued prosperity—and survival—among the faux pyramids, artificial white beaches and turquoise-blue waters of what tourism boosters have termed the “Mayan Riviera.” But their migrant dreams are haunted by the more black and white, rich and poor world of global economics, and by the effects of the environmental disaster world leaders have gathered here to debate.

Today’s Cancun was built in early 1970’s under the leadership of then Mexican President Luis Echeverria, with the idea of creating the country’s premiere tourist destination—a new model for tourism development. It succeeded as a high-end tourism hub, and it did provide a model for Mexico and other parts of the world. But Cancun also succeeded in establishing what urbanists and geologists like Peter Weise called the “self destruction model of tourism development.” 

The self-destructive model, according to Weise and others, begins when a remote, ecologically attractive area with low population density is identified as a potential hub for elite tourists—those willing to pay handsomely for privacy, isolation and unspoilt and beautiful environments. Rapid population growth and urbanization follows when, as in Cancun, large numbers of middle class tourists follow the more wealthy trend-setters. The need for more hotels, more entertainment venues, more development pushes the region into ecological imbalances that lead to the kind urban and environmental collapse found here today. 

At the heart of it all is an economy and way of life dependent on cheap labor (the average Cancun worker makes less than $200 per month). That labor most often takes the form of migrant workers from other, poorer Mexican states like Tabasco. Local experts say that climate change-induced floods in Tabasco last September are pushing new waves of migrants to Cancun. Like Ruben, many of these migrant workers will experience crushing loneliness and isolation shortly after arriving.

Behind the ready smiles and friendly broken-English voices of maids, busboys and prostitutes on both sides of Kilometro Cero is the siren’s song of alienation and loneliness. The climate change experts, leaders and protesters packing Cancun’s hotels over the next two weeks will likely not visit the other side of Kilometro Cero as they discuss and debate the fact that climate change is projected to force a billion of the world’s people to migrate out of their homelands and into cities like Cancun by 2050.