Mall Guatemala

Oakland Mall, Ciudad de Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY: At the dinner table, as Lala, my family's "muchacha" is serving us, my daughter Ruby asks, "Where's the other chair?" She means for Lala. She does not know yet that the "help" does not sit at the big table.

This brings me back to earliest memories of family, to the regular trips to El Salvador throughout my childhood. It brings me back to my earliest sense of difference between North and South.

For example, watching The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits badly dubbed on a tiny black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. Something was lost in the translation but new meanings were also created.

Or blushing when being introduced to little girls and having them lean into me for the obligatory kiss on the cheek, a formal intimacy that seems so out of place in the States.

But the biggest difference was class.

Crude, sudden and sharp, gaping, unavoidable, so much a part of the everyday and impossible for me to become inured to it: class. (Surely this was also a measure of how much class is hidden in America.)

In Latin America, the schisms occur in private and public, between campesinos and the rich with their armed guards, with los limpiaparabrisas (windshield cleaners) hopping on to a gleaming Mercedes at a red light, with indigenous women carrying their wares balanced on their heads in huge baskets while ostentatious narcos cruise by.

And a world away (a few feet away): the Latin American mall. Not to be confused in any way with the American mall, which is for the middle class on down. The Latin American mall is for the upper-middle-class and up. (Same for McDonald's and the rest of the transplanted fast-food joints: these are beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population; the Big Mac is practically haute cuisine.)

And so it is at Oakland Mall, named for a nearby neighborhood that in turn was obviously named for California dreaming.

We are at the mall because there is hardly any other public space considered "seguro" (secure) in Guatemala City today. What about Chinatown? I ask my aunt. What about el Mapa de Relieve, a massive relief map of the country that covers an entire city block? These are the places I took visitors to when I lived here in 1989-90.

No, tía says. None of these places is seguro.

Seguro is the Club Español, a vintage 1960s-style country club of which my family is a member (we seek refuge there the day we get stuck in traffic and never make it to Antigua).

Seguro is the Oakland Mall.

We put the kids on the merry go-round and on a rubber-wheeled kiddie-train. We get ice cream. But even the twins sense something is amiss. Or they sense something in their parents is amiss...

Something Amiss

I think of buying something at L'Occitane, and we almost buy the twins a couple of Groovy Girls dolls at a tony toddler store.

All the while growing in me is that feeling I remember from earliest childhood: like standing at the edge of a precipice. The vast distance, the chasm between classes, which is not physical space but purely social. Physically, we are all jammed together in Latin America.

And presently there is no way out of Oakland Mall, because my tía had an important social call to make, and here we will wait until she picks us up. We cannot abandon the mall, our seguridad.

Outside the mall Roosevelt Ave. is in gridlock because of three nearly simultaneous bank robberies in broad daylight, organized crime imitating of Al Qaeda.

Inisde the mall a jazz guitar tune is playing on a loop--loud, an attempt to drown out any hint of sound from the outside world: a street vendor, a car horn, a gunshot

I try to capture the place on my cellIphone camera. But it's too big, the angles elusive, framing impossible.

Ruby asks for her mommy blanket. Angela and I exchange a look: we realize that it is in my tía's car. When Ruby figures out that it is not coming, she stages a tremendous tantrum. I sweep her up and move to a quiet corner to try and calm her which of course only make the tantrum worse.

She is screaming Mamá! Mamá! I look around. The omnipresent security guards, looking like Secret Service agents with their earpieces, give me looks. I realize that I could easily be considered a kidnapping suspect.

I take Ruby back to Mamá and she plunges into a thumb-sucking moroseness that will only be alleviated when my tía shows up and we give her the blanket.

Tomorrow, we'll try again to make it to Antigua, the "old" Guatemala.

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading