Fighting The Cultural Destruction of Latin America
by Chastity Lillicreme
About twenty years ago, an American traveling through Latin America would feel a world away from home; no strip malls littering the roadside, no fast food chains offering deep-fried burgers, no toilet seats in any of the public restrooms, and nary a literate person within a two thousand mile radius. But almost a decade after NAFTA opened the doors of free trade and nearly two since Menudo first introduced Americans to their mocha-skinned neighbors to the south, the central American world has undergone immense political, cultural, and economic changes. Changes, many Americans fear, that could spell the end of the rich Latin American culture that was built on centuries of poverty and despair.
On a recent trip to Acupulco, my husband and I marveled at how different a place it was since our last trip there in the early 1980s. Many of the landmarks we had remembered from our previous visit were no more. The small wood-plank hut where a toothless, silver-haired woman sold beautiful hand-woven rugs to feed her young granddaughters was gone; a franchise coffee bar had been erected in its place. The coffee was delicious and far cheaper than you could ever expect to find it in the U.S., but my husband and I were saddened that neither the old woman nor her granddaughters--whose distended bellies, we remembered, made them look just like little Cabbage Patch Dolls--were anywhere to be seen.
Further down the road, toward the Central Plaza, there used to be a clay pottery shop where my husband and I remembered buying the most exquisite handmade vases and plates, as many as our arms could carry, for just pennies. The family who owned the shop was so grateful for American money that they even offered their son in exchange for the crystal earrings I was wearing. As tempting an offer as it was, those earrings had sentimental value for me, and little Alejo looked far too weak to be of any use on my pool or lawn staff, so I declined the offer. I gave the boy a stick of Carefree and the rest of my Tab, and we returned to the hotel, genuinely moved by the cultural exchange we had just shared. When I think back to it, I chuckle--what was I thinking even wearing those gaudy '80s earrings? I ended up just throwing them out a few years later.
I remember fondly the hotel my husband and I stayed at on the beach; it was the tallest building in sight, and all the little children waited below the balconies, begging for the American and European tourists to toss anything of value over their railings. Touched by the experience we had had at the pottery shop, my husband and I decided to throw one of his Adidas over the railing as a gesture of good will. Watching the children's dirty, desperate faces as they scrambled for that one worn-out tennis shoe was a moment you just couldn't put a price tag on. Totally precious. Today, however, that hotel we stayed at twenty years before was dwarfed in both size and luxury by countless other hotels and resorts that had sprung up in the area.
When we returned home from that first vacation, my husband and I had a million stories to tell and a photo album full of the most heart-wrenching, moving photographs any of our friends had ever seen. Visiting Latin America had been the single most cultural experience my husband and I had ever shared; and we had picked up some beautiful handmade wares that we used to decorate what became our Acapulco room.
This time when we returned home, however, we only had a few ceramic mugs with slogans like "travelargentina.com" and some T-shirts that looked like anything you could buy at Kohls. We had no interesting stories to tell, and the culture we had been so moved by on our last visit was only a distant dream, buried under prosperity and American corporate influence.
Many people I've talked to who have traveled to Latin America recently have experienced many of the same disappointments we did. A coworker of mine told me of how during her college Senior trip to Costa Rica, there was a brothel right next to hotel where her class had stayed. She said this was where at least fifty young teenage girls prostituted themselves to tourists for food, clothes and jewelry. But when she returned a few years ago, the brothel was gone, and all the girls were now working at The Gap and the Cinema Paradiso that had taken its place. She was heartbroken.
She and I both agreed that Latin America seems to have lost its culture, it's distinctive flavor that made it a such a memorable vacation destination decades ago. Time was you could walk down the street and see literally hundreds of decaying shanties that each told a different story, where now there only stand rows of faceless condominiums. You could buy Chicklets from the begging children on the streets; but they're now all indoors playing Dreamcast and watching cartoons.
I believe it's a travesty of globalization that diverse indigenous cultures are being trampled by the materialism of the industrialized world. We Americans can't even begin to grasp what it's like to have a culture of our own. We can't comprehend how rich and fulfilling it is to make a living selling intricate hand-woven tapestries and apparel to tourists. We can't imagine making pottery and singing folk songs and enjoying the slow, simple life poverty has to offer. And no one among us can say they understand how divinely excruciating it must be to have to sell your own children to strangers so that they may have a better life.
Latin America used to be a place where Americans could go to experience first-hand a culture, a color and a life without credit cards. Our first visit moved my husband and I to decorate an entire room of our house in a Hispanic theme, and it probably moved many others to perform similar acts of cultural awareness. I fear that now, thanks to the influence of McDonalds and Starbucks and other American innovations, the Hispanic culture is being destroyed, steamrolled by cars, malls and media. And I worry that my own children may now have to travel as far as Africa just to experience the same kind of cultural enlightenment I did twenty years ago in our once impoverished neighbor to the south.
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