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  • In Santa Cruz Bolivia, the first question any cab driver asks me is,

    “Dónde eres?”

    Which, for you white people, means where are you from.

    This isn’t a question cab drivers ask everyone here but I am blonde blue-eyed California chick amidst a sea of tiny raven haired Bolivians, so they feel compelled to ask. I take no offense and respond almost automatically,

    “Estados Unidos.”

    Which, for you white people, means United States, or Old Glory as some of my kindred like to term it.

    The cab drivers’ eyes either light up at the thought of the US or they look at my through the rear view with a hint of suspect…but whatever the case, the mention of the US creates some kind of emotional response and it is never met with an apathetic ear.

    “Oh, Estados Unidos…wow! Qué parte?”

    “California cerca Los Angeles.”

    “Oh, California, wow!”

    The emotions always grow stronger at the mention of the Golden State. California, even in Bolivia, invokes images of Malibu Barbie sipping on strong vodka drinks and driving Corvettes.

    The next thing they ask is “Te gusta Santa Cruz?”

    “Si, si,” I always reply because I lack the language to really go any further in the conversation.

    However, what I would love to be able to tell them that California is actually the 3rd Mall from the Sun. It is a land where everything consumable is available 27 hours a day, 372 days a year. It is the land of the beautiful, the botoxed and the big ass TV.

    It is the land where cities such as Lakewood CA grew out of a consumer experiment. The experiment was this…with the economic boom after WWII, many found themselves leaving the farms and heading to cities to seek their fortune…gone were the towns that revolved around some kind of natural feature such as rich farm land, rich cultural ties such as shared religion and ethnicity or some rich waterway. The people left their family farms, went East or West to seek their American Dream in these new urban utopias.

    Lakewood CA was the one of the first. Previous to its boom, Lakewood was a small agricultural community; however, in the 1950’s, when companies such as Boeing made their headquarters in Long Beach CA….thousands of people stormed the Lakewood area in search for the first component in their achieving the Dream…to own a house. The demand for houses was so great that Lakewood began to reconstruct its identity. The farmland was replaced with one of the first suburbs in the US of A…houses, for the first time, being built in assembly line fashion…assembly line built homes for assembly line working people to live assembly line lives.

    The boom happened so fast that Lakewood found itself in a predicament…it had no inherent economy, no Boeing, no Hughes Aircraft…the tax dollars from these companies went to nearby Long Beach while the suburb where the company workers slept faced severe infrastructure issues. To remedy this issue, Lakewood’s pioneers crafted something called the Lakewood Plan, a plan that incorporated the area to form a city government but also tapped into existing county services by contracting for infrastructure services such as “street construction and repair, animal pound regulation, health laws, building inspections, tax collection, library and school services, and fire and police protection.” To generate income to pay for these contracted services, Lakewood City planners constructed the Lakewood Center Mall, the largest mall to be built in America at the time, a mall that, even today, remains in the top 20 largest malls in the States. It was a brilliant move and the Lakewood community flourished in the shadow of the Lakewood Center Mall.

    Lakewood would grab the nations’ attention again in 1993 when the Spur Posse was brought to court. The Spur Posse was a group of ten popular Lakewood reared boys who would rape women as young as 10 years of age in a type of Rape Dungeons and Dragons game where they got points and climbed higher on the totem pole with the more rapes they committed. The nation was not only stunned at the horrific details of these teen serial rapists but also stunned at the complete emotional disconnect these rapists and their families had…they could not understand what they had done wrong and in the end, 7 out of the 9 that were brought to court were found innocent and released. And I wager to say that the first place their families took them when they were released was not a priest but rather to get an Orange Julius and a Corndog on a Stick at the Lakewood Center Mall.

    Yes, this is the land I come from, the land of the dream and the disconnect, and this is the land I left in hopes of finding some kind of connection that my land didn’t seem to provide. Before I left, I made a road trip around America and what I drove the most by were the places that reared the Spur Posse and men in our youth, malls. Tons of them, acres of concrete boxes promising some sort of dream be it a new Nordie dress or a colored TV.

    However, as I drove past them in 2012, was these concrete boxes didn’t seem to be flourishing as they did in my youth. In fact, as I drove closer to these malls, I would see huge billboards covering empty storefronts, billboards promising something else was coming soon, something else to give us a dream, but underneath the promising text lie an empty was a Hot Topic gone awry. I grew fascinated with this phenomena that I actually bought a camera to document the empty concrete boxes that I had seen because for me, it was evidence that the mall failed to give America its dream.

    So, I moved to Bolivia in hopes of finding some alternative dream, some kind of hope; however, what I have found is Bolivia is in a coma. It is the coma that most 3rd world countries find themselves in…crippled with poverty, corruption and lack of hope, third world countries live a hand to mouth existence which leaves very little time in foresight but rather relies on reactive solutions to solve the incredible problems they face.

    Santa Cruz Bolivia is no different and even with its third world touch, Santa Cruz is much like the Lakewood of the past. Santa Cruz is the place where one can see the beginning of the Bolivian agricultural life being displaced; Bolivians come here from pueblos all over the country as their lives are changing as the consumerism of the North oozes its way South and they have come in droves…in fact, the population of Santa Cruz went from under a million to 2 million in less than 10 years.

    Some may call this a boom but anyone looking closely at the details would term it a bust as the city lacks the kind of infrastructure to handle this population. The streets are riddled with trash; the beautiful jungle trees are being cut down at rapid rates, the water often comes out of the tap along with the dirt from where it came and crime, well, crime is handled between individuals as nobody trusts the police. This is a not exactly a promising environment for a city that, if all goes according to statistics, will grow into a mega city of over 10 million by the year 2050.

    10 million people and no infrastructure? One would think the Santa Cruz city planners would be smart enough to address this; however, instead the Santa Cruz City planners did something else…they tore down acres and acres of some of the last unraped land in the town and built a monstrosity known as the Ventura Mall.

    When I moved here 2 years ago, I felt refreshed...Bolivia had no Jamba Juices, no Starbuck’s, no In and Out and no Kum and Go…there was charm in this as I was forced to buy things from small businesses that were family run. Jamba Juice was replaced with the local Zumo shacks, Starbuck’s replaced by family run Café Alexander’s, In and Out replaced by Fridosita carts and Kum and Gos replaced by ladies selling all I need along the streets. Walking along my street of San Martin, I would smile at the lack of corporate subliminal advertising attacking my brain.

    However, six months ago, I walked to the end of San Martin and looked right. What I saw was an immense concrete box. A concrete box built amongst one of the last tree groves along the edge of town; a concrete box that must displaced thousands of forms of flora and fauna; a concrete box with a sign that screamed “VENTURA MALL.”

    “Shit,” I said as I walked under its shadow, “What a fucking nightmare.”

    And of course, I had to go into its belly to find out more. It’s belly was full of American store knock off such as Salud, a Bolivian version of the Body Shop and Bits and Cream, a smartly crafted ice cream empire that uses the colors of Baskins Robbins (and I am not knocking this place as its ice cream is pretty damn epically good). And in those American knock offs were crowds of people…crowds…women wearing evening gowns, men in their Sunday best…all coming to this new thing in their city known as a mall and all of them totally lulled to sleep by the promise of purchasing something that would deliver them the Dream.

    I walked around dumbfounded. These people knew made substantially less than anyone in the States. In fact, the average Bolivian is considered middle class when they make $1,000 a month and yet, these stores didn’t seem to take this into account as the prices of the things also reflected the American entitled assumption that the average person makes far more than that. So, there I was watching as crowds of people bought things they couldn’t afford including the $17 burger at the Hard Rock Café: Santa Cruz.

    After a few minutes of watching these things, I had to leave. As I walked on the broken concrete that is considered a sidewalk in front of the Ventura Mall, I walked past people riding horse drawn buggies carrying watermelon from their fields, several cholittas with baskets of chicklets and things and several dirty babies sitting next to their mothers who were begging for anything a passerby would be willing to give. Few of the people coming out of the mall interact with this motley crew, but the crew is watching them and watching what they have and coveting it so as even they have been told that the dream lies in buying on credit a washing machine.

    After my time at this mall, I decided not to catch a cab home because I was in no mood to discuss where I come from, so I decided to walk home. And as I strolled down my street of San Martin, I pondered this journey from America’s Ventura Highway to Bolivia’s Ventura Mall.

    Just one more thought on life on the 3rd Mall from the Sun.
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