Commentary

Real Plaza Opens in Cuzco

Excitement pulses in Cuzco. “Have you been there yet?” “Have you seen it”.

Next to the St. Anthony School, on land belonging to the Church, arms and ribs of concrete and steel have risen next to a vast, new parking lot. Although the place is not finished, it has opened and crowds of people come from everywhere to see.

Most ooh and ahh. Amazed, they can’t wait to ask their friends if they have been there and tell them what they see. Others go, and then critique, while some still refuse to go. They resist being be driven by what everyone else is doing.

Traffic is atrocious nearby. The main street, Avenida de la Cultura, which goes from one end of the valley to the other, snarls here, and neighborhood streets become impassable.

Entrance to Modern Life (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Entrance to Modern Life (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

It is a mall, a temple of modernity. Other cities in Peru have them. Nearby Juliaca has one. Lima has many, and now, thanks to the Archbishop, Cuzco has one as well, even if only two main stores and a small set of smaller ones are opened.

The mall is an indoor space, like old malls in the US where generations of youth have come of age walking through them, hanging out, and shopping. The mall experience has defined suburban modernity for decades now.

Even if late to the table, the people of Cuzco, especially its youth, are thrilled to have their own space where they can look at brand names beyond their ability to buy and yet dream. After all, that dreaming, even more than buying, may be the central devotional act of this kind of capitalist modernity.

It is not the possession of things, so much as the wanting them, the laying awake at night trying to figure out how to get them. In this way, the mall is like a vast Cathedral filled with images of the saints.Though people themselves will never live the lives of sacrifice, martyrdom, and holiness they learn about in the Saints’ stories, they know they can confide in them their hopes, their dreams and in this way be connected with the holy, with the divine.

Some people have blogged about the hygiene, how clean and orderly everything is, as if it were something from a televised, sparkling commercial. They look forward to supplies of goods that otherwise had not been here in Cuzco, where salaries on the whole are far too low to be able to purchase many of them.

Dreaming in Oechsle (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Dreaming in Oechsle (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Mary Douglas long ago noted that hygiene in the public mind is far less about bacteria and dirt than it is about order, especially social order. With the sparkling aisles, gleaming floors, and row after row of plastic wrapped dreams, Cuzco now enters the word figured by commercials. It can claim modernity.

Dreaming, and acquisition (even if this is only a purchase that begins a whole new round of dreams) differentiates people into different types, just as access to the saints and their fellowships has historically separated the people of Cuzco into groups and classes.

For now, it is the ability to dream and acquire that makes one feel they belong, they have arrived, even if others dream and have more. Later people will feel the driving pain of inability to meet dreams, the loss of possible selves and status.

Others speak of how now they can hope for good, efficient service now that the mall has opened.

But the grim faced clerks at the checkout lines in Plaza Vea (The Wong Group’s department store and grocery) are set, closed and grim. Their commercial uniforms seem to give them hierarchy and the ability to respond harshly.

Check-out Line in Plaza Vea (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Check-out Line in Plaza Vea (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

You do not see the facile smiles and flirting of the caseras (vendors) in the markets, dressed as they are in traditional clothes.

The vegetable and fruit in Plaza Vea are of the industrial sort, far from the fresh ones you find in the neighborhood markets.

In the developed north, while many people this Christmas throng to malls like this one, or of the new and more stylish open-air sort, others eschew these palaces of commercial belonging. They look to buy local. They seek hand made items. They want the open air farmer’s markets with weird and different vegetables and fruits.

While those kinds of consumers in the north look for what Cuzco still has, a local system of food production and a strong local culture, most of the people of Cuzco are passionate about having now what the northerners want to leave behind, mass-market stores and brands.

Shopping in Plaza Vea (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Shopping in Plaza Vea (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Their world will change. Their culture, now safe in museums, books, and folkloric dances and music, will become simply an asterisk on the modernity that is like that everywhere else.

The world creates, different kinds of people, those who have delightedly thrown away their local culture, their authentic existence, for dreams and identities of the mall (or are rapidly doing so) while others try to recreate through social movement and internet pages what still exists here with no quotes or modern movement around it.

Cuzco has changed. Many stores and markets will close. Others will open. The thrill and ennui of the mall is now theirs. Soon the megaplex theatres will open and you will no longer have to only dream at home.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I live in Cusco, and it is difficult– despite all the excitement my neighbors have for the mall– not to feel sad about its arrival. I know what Cusco has that it stands to lose with the mall’s advent. Sure, the order and cleanliness are lovely, but it will be built on top of a very messy and amazing history. Oh vibrant, disorderly, filthy gorgeous Cusco. Don’t lose yourself in the sea of consumers! Now I’m off to Wanchac market while it still stands! Thanks again for the reflections.

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