Let's talk Latin America

The foreigner’s fantasy

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 In a recent BristoLatino article, Maeve Ryan expressed a hope that younger generations of Peruvians could be encouraged to wear traditional dress, preserving a rare and idyllic landscape known to the world for centuries. Is it just, however, to expect a society to curb its cultural development to the constraints of touristic value? Bristolatino’s joint editor-in-chief Sophie Wall delves into this culture-clash phenomenon further, looking at how the exoticised island of Cuba fits into the picture.

Cuba. The mention of this small, fantastical Latin-American island usually elicits the response, “I really want to go there soon, before it all changes”. A retort of this nature is not surprising, as a great deal of Cuba’s appeal to foreigners is its unique untouched state: a land trapped in a glorious by-gone era, yet bearing the scars of dilapidation and decay. What a mystical and exotic land it is, for those of us accustomed to the material excesses and modern development of capitalist society. This special state has also become a fragile one, with the gradual decline of the Castro brothers threatening monumental change for a country which has been tightly gripped by communism for the past 54 years. Thus ensues the panicked cries of tourists, desperate to catch a glimpse of this rare, and almost extinct, breed of society.

I would be lying if I said that this ‘I want to see it before it goes’ mentality was not a primary impetus of my own when I settled upon Cuba as a holiday destination. It is likely that I too would be eager for the island to remain in its current hauntingly beautiful state, if I was yet to experience it for myself. Having been fortunate enough to witness the delights, the horrors and the idiosyncrasies that make up the country however, I cannot help but feel that the western tourist’s desire to preserve Cuba’s picturesqueness borders on a dangerously Eurocentric mind-set. Remember that the country’s quaint charm is essentially linked to its widespread poverty.

The average Cuban does not have the salary (roughly 17-30 US dollars a month) to afford home renovation, thus old colonial buildings remain erect, despite their crumbling facades. Similarly, the stereotypical icon of Havana, the 1950’s classic American car, remains on the road, despite having a damaged interior and a failing engine. Although pleasing for the visitor, this aesthetic clearly signals strife and hardship for the Cuban citizen. The foreigner’s desire to freeze this current communist landscape for the sake of a three-week tropical jaunt, while innocent in intention, reveals narrow-mindedness. Rather than engaging with the social issues that plague the country’s population, many holiday-goers are more concerned with the idea that the exotic land might develop beyond recognition.

The negative implications of globalisation within traditional communities are clear to many, with Maeve’s article lamenting the decline in traditional Peruvian dress, which supposedly compromises the ‘authenticity’ of the tourist experience. Similar to the Cuban example previously cited, this concern could be seen as narrow-minded. While we might desire to reduce the spread of western influence, who are we to discourage young generations of Peruvians the freedom to dress as they choose? While the dominance of western culture stems from imperialism of the past, the ideal that foreign lands should stay as they are, while we develop, economically, socially, culturally, at our will, is equally patronizing. After being exposed to new fashions, commodities and ways of life -whether it proves detrimental to the preservation of traditional cultural identity or not- Cubans for example are expressing choice and acting on free will when they adopt influences that vary from those of their own lands. It is interesting to consider that just as traditional Peruvian dress is exotic and fascinating to the European traveller, a Barbie t-shirt can hold similar appeal to the Peruvian youth.

It is a ‘dreadful shame’ to see yet more change in a world that is already developing at breakneck speed due to a cut-throat and competitive economic system. However, as much as we may delight in the beauty, charm and contrast of many Latin American countries, it is not our country, nor the setting of our lives. Cuba, Peru and Bolivia, to name but a few impoverished Latin American countries, are home to people living in some of the worst conditions in the world, despite, and sometimes due, to their touristic charm. If preservation of tradition is to take a prominent role in the process of development, it should (and hopefully will) stem from the native communities’ desire to preserve their ancestry and identity, and not from a tourist’s desire to enhance a holiday destination.

Header photo: Yahoo News